Jessica Prendergast

The shipping forecast

By Sally Raikes July 30, 2018

One of Lumen’s latest exhibitions is in a more unusual gallery space: a shipping container by the sea in Watchet, West Somerset. The venue is run by Contains Art, a not-for-profit social enterprise set up with the ambition of bringing art to an area that has – perhaps surprisingly, given its beautiful surroundings – been named the most deprived region in the UK for two years in a row. Watchet, a harbour town with a population of nearly 4,000, is its most deprived ward.


“It’s a long way away from any economic centre, the local authorities have no money, and behind its rural beauty is years of neglect,” says Jessica Prendergast, who co-ordinates Contains Art and is a director of Onion Collective, a consultancy behind several regeneration projects under way in West Somerset.


With the help of a voluntary group of mostly female artists, Contains Art has turned three worn-out shipping containers into studios and gallery space. For the local community, many of whom have little or no experience viewing art (there is no public gallery in Somerset at all), this non-traditional venue is more accessible than a ‘white box’ gallery – and the works on show are chosen for their interactive, rather than conceptual content.


“We’ve tried hard to have a programme that’s about engagement,” says Prendergast. Lumen was introduced to Contains Art by Tessa Jackson, a former Lumen Prize jury panel member, and happily, its digital art has proved a good match. The current exhibition, Adventures in Digital Art, which features ‘Hyperplanes of Simultaneity’, a VR work by the 2016 winner of the Lumen Gold Award, as well as two other works from Lumen Prize finalists, is a hit.


“It’s been another game-changer for us in that it has totally captured the imagination of young people in this town,” says Prendergast. “Kids have come here on school trips and then come back, bringing their families.”


Other notable recent successes have included a show documenting the last months of Watchet’s 250-year-old paper mill, which closed at the end of 2015; and an installation featuring sharks and deep-sea internet cables by the Bristol-based artist Richard Broomhall.


“The art we show feels fresh and interesting, and people haven’t seen stuff like that here, ever,” says Prendergast. “It’s hard to underestimate how isolated they are from the rest of the world.”


Art is a force for change – and now other opportunities are coming to Watchet. Planning permission has been given for a quayside development comprising a two-storey gallery, 15 studios/workshops, a print studio, geology lab and a paper mill, as well as a restaurant and holiday ‘pods’. It will boost tourism, create jobs and bring a much-needed uplift – and now the fundraising for it can begin in earnest.


“This is not just about culture in isolation, it’s about bringing people in and tangibly demonstrating that things can change,” says Prendergast.; the Lumen exhibition continues until August 12

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