Hosting ‘Dismaland’ – the five-week “bemusement park” art installation by Banksy – brought Weston-super-Mare worldwide publicity and attention beyond what we ever imagined.
- Project: Banksy’s Dismaland
- Objectives: Hosting a world-renowned controversial artist’s exhibition and generating associated benefit for Weston-super-Mare
- Timescale: Nine months
- Cost to authority: Approx £50,000 for work to make site watertight and safe
- Number of staff working on project: Three (in the ‘secret’ phase)
- Outcomes: World-wide publicity for the town; changing perceptions of the town and surrounding area, increased confidence
- Officer contact details: Mike Jackson
It gave us the opportunity to showcase Weston to visitors from across the globe. It has also proved the site, an old lido which closed in 2000, can be used for a range of events. We have a number of events lined up over the next few months, which wouldn’t be happening without Dismaland.
Source: North Somerset Council
The town already has a great reputation for hosting events including the annual air festival and major music events, and has a growing reputation as a great space for sporting events including beach volleyball and kite surfing.
We are keen to explore the role for the creative sector as part of our vision of the town as a centre for urban living, learning and lifestyle. Many artists, photographers, craftspeople and food producers are choosing to live in and around the town.
The exhibition created a very tangible buzz about the town and generated further confidence about this future vision. The overall impression with which our visitors left has been a positive one, and we have anecdotal evidence of continued large numbers of people enjoying our seafront as we moved from September into October, suggesting many are coming back to enjoy the rest of what we have to offer.
We were very conscious that some of the art would be controversial. We did not see that as a problem. The leader, Nigel Ashton (Con), has been very clear that this is the nature of contemporary art; it is intended to be challenging and politicians must engage with the issues raised. He has maintained this stance, despite the very direct attacks on the prime minister in the exhibition.
We were also aware of the risk of negative connotations in linking Weston with something presented as ‘dismal’. However, we knew Banksy was not having a dig at Weston. He has fond memories of visiting as a child and wrote to us explaining his desire to leave a positive legacy. Decay was a theme running through the exhibition, but this was decay generally in society.
We believed that the positive impacts would outweigh any negative associations, particularly as the exhibition was a great fit with our strategy to reposition perceptions of Weston as a key centre within the west of England city region. We had already shown our willingness to take bold decisions in driving this strategy, working with Weston College to turn the much-loved but underused Winter Gardens into a Law and Professional Services Academy and doing quirky things like selling our new beach huts on eBay. Dismaland took this quirkiness to a new level.
We invited a range of key stakeholders and potential investors to private events at the exhibition in order to profile our plans for the regeneration of Weston and future investment opportunities.
The exhibition was organised in secret - only Cllr Ashton, two other officers and I knew about it - and announced just days before it opened for visitors.
The cover story, that a film was being shot on the exhibition site, worked very well, so there was no need to hide most of the construction material and activity. The pieces that were more obviously artworks were kept hidden until the last few days, and only then did the rumours start about it being more than a filming location. The real pressure was on Darren Fairchild, our head of seafront and events, who had to deal with a constant stream of queries from colleagues across the council about the odd goings-on, as well as dealing with Banksy’s team.
Keeping the secret was hard in other ways, though. Cllr Ashton’s partner is the executive member for tourism; he claims the cost of the secret was quite a few pairs of new shoes.
The decisions required to make the event happen were all within delegated authority, given the leader and I were two of the people who knew what was happening. It could be argued that the potentially controversial nature of the event meant other members should have been informed and the site’s future has been the subject of much local debate and political argument but we knew complete secrecy was critical to Banksy; without it he would have walked away.
We began planning the event around January, so the council elections in May were a potential problem, but the Conservatives retained control and Cllr Ashton was returned as leader.
We judged that the benefits to Weston-super-Mare outweighed the risks and members and stakeholders would support the decision, which was correct.
Nearly 200,000 people visited, which, at more than 4,000 a day, is more than any other art exhibition in the UK this year - more than the Alexander McQueen show at the Victoria and Albert Museum, its biggest exhibition to date, or the Tate’s biggest show by Matisse last year.
Visitors came from all over the world, which brought Weston to the attention of a whole new market with world-wide publicity through traditional channels and across social media. The exhibition has generated global publicity of a kind the council could never hope to pay for.
There was also a locals’ day when 1,000 residents were given free entry and local schools were given special viewings by the artists.
Visit Somerset has estimated the local economic impact at £20m, including 50,000 extra bed spaces booked; the exhibition included evening sessions, meaning there were visitors around looking for places to eat and stay. Local businesses experienced significant economic benefit and we worked hard together to ensure visitors had a great experience while they’ve been here. Short-term activities included the launch of a street art trail and street theatre for the final weekend.
Dismaland also left a lasting legacy for the town. We are looking to attract events tied in to Weston College’s thriving arts faculty, and at relating these to the plans for a university centre, following on from the Law and Professional Services Academy.
The west of England area has a strong reputation for exciting contemporary arts with broad appeal; Arcadia and Glastonbury are on our doorstep. There is no reason why Weston can’t be part of that vibrant scene, with a building on our seafront that is ideal for large-scale art events that can accommodate 2,000 people - and which will now always have a bit of the Banksy lustre to it.
Mike Jackson, chief executive, North Somerset Council