Sarah has her eye on the prize for city
PLYMOUTH University towers dominate the city centre but the days when the buildings were made of ivory are long gone.
Academics are now as engaged with the people who walk the city streets as they are in their own research.
Probably the most visible sign that the university faces the city rather than looking in on itself is Peninsula Arts.
The rich and varied university programme of events runs from music to painting, taking in dance, film, talks and sculpture.
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Home for Peninsula Arts is one of the newest and certainly the most striking of the towers. This is named after Roland Levinsky, the late, visionary vice chancellor who founded the programme in 2004.
Five years after his death, Peninsula Arts continues to flourish. A new chapter opens today with the first Plymouth International Book Festival – the university organisation is a driving force as one of the lead partners.
The inaugural celebration of books offers an impressive line-up of truly internationally known names covering children's writing, poetry, graphic novels, science fiction and 'literary' fiction, plus illustration.
But there is more and greater to come, promises Peninsula Arts director Sarah Chapman.
"We are going to grow it," she says. "We are already programming next year's which will move to November because there is so much going on in September."
Never mind next year, her eye is on a more distant horizon.
"Legacy is very important. We are getting schools and young people involved in workshops and academic activities.
"In ten years' time we hope that they will be the new writers, the next generation. It is an investment."
And there's more: Peninsula Arts wants to bring the most famous modern art prize in the world to Plymouth.
Attracting the Turner Prize to the city would ensure an enormous amount of media attention and a substantial boost in tourism. The award ceremony and exhibition are usually staged at Tate Britain – the London gallery is the most successful and among the most famous modern art galleries in the world.
On the two occasions that the prize ceremony has been held outside the capital, UK galleries with international reputations have been involved: the Tate Liverpool (2007) and the Baltic Centre for Contemporary Art, Gateshead (last year). Nearly 150,000 people visited the exhibition in Gateshead, making it the most visited Turner Prize exhibition ever.
Ms Chapman says: "We are finalising a bid to bring the Turner Prize to Plymouth in 2015.
"We don't know who we will be up against. The competition (to host the prize) will be enormous so we have no idea if we will be successful – that would be a huge thing.
"But it is absolutely important that we have the passion and the self-belief in our city to try for it."
Peninsula Arts is the lead organisation in a partnership making the bid, including Plymouth Visual Arts Consortium. PVAC includes the council-owned City Museum and Art Gallery, Plymouth University, Plymouth College of Art and Plymouth Arts Centre. Those organisations were all involved in staging the successful British Art Show (BAS) 7 exhibition in the city last year, attracting 75,000 visitors to the five host venues.
"This (the bid) is building on the potential that was shown with the British Art Show. We are ready to step up to the next mark. We have to grow the audience for contemporary art, not just in the city but across the region."
BAS 7's exhibitors included a previous Turner Prize winner, photographer Wolfgang Tillmans (2000) and several finalists.
The city has connections to two other Turner winners. Plymouth-born George Passmore is half of the collaborative duo Gilbert & George. The "living sculptures" won the Turner in 1986. Richard Deacon, who went to Plymouth College, was awarded the prize in 1987; one of his monumental sculptures, Moor, is in Victoria Park. The bid envisages the four Turner Prize finalists showing their work in the Peninsula Arts Gallery in the Levinsky building, the largest contemporary arts exhibition space in the region.
Ms Chapman says the bid fits with Plymouth Culture Board's drive to promote and expand the arts and creative activity in the city in the run-up to Mayflower 2020, the 400th anniversary of the Pilgrim Fathers' journey from Plymouth to America.
The board has members from the private sector, the city council, the culture industries and the big hitters in education such as the university and the college of art. The board is working on a bid for Plymouth to become UK City of Culture in 2017.
Ms Chapman sees the Turner bid as a key element in boosting the city's profile and if successful the show and award ceremony would be a part of a programme of annual festivals and two-year exhibitions leading up to 2020.
That process is already under way with new events this year including the Marine City Festival and the book celebration. Peninsula Arts has been closely involved with the Marine Festival, which finishes this weekend as the International Book Festival starts.
One event embraces both festivals: The Moby-Dick Big Read tomorrow in the Plymouth University graduation marquee on the Hoe. The audio-visual project involves actors reading chapters from the book, accompanied by images from contemporary artists.
Simon Callow starts the project tomorrow. Other chapters will be launched online daily.
The authors taking part in the book festival – which continues until Sunday next week – include Orange Prize winner Helen Dunmore, US author and academic Audrey Niffenegger (The Time Traveler's Wife), Norwegian crime writer and serving police detective Jorn Lier Horst (Dregs), Cornwall-resident writer Patrick Gale (A Perfectly Good Man) and space opera man Peter Hamilton (Great North Road).
It adds up to an impressive launch year for the festival, especially considering the size of the Peninsula Arts budget.
Ms Chapman won't say what the figure is other than it is not large.
More important than the pot of cash is the reservoir of talent and energy on the campus into which the organisation can tap.
Events reflect that, in a programme that includes painting, dance, film and music and "practical" arts that are taught on campus including architecture.
"It includes the humanities, such as history, and the sciences, such as in the programme of lectures, and creative writing," she says. "For example (geologist) Professor Iain Stewart gave a talk about the context of the British Art Show exhibition.
"We have an (annual) audience of 40,000 for our events and the university recognises the impact the programme has on the public. We engaged with 80 schools last year."
Collaborations and partnerships increase Peninsula Arts' reach and clout, too. The organisation teams up with others to present large events – such as the British Art Show – and supports projects and ventures beyond the campus, including the Karst gallery in Stonehouse and the Tamar Project, which is exploring ways of regenerating the river valley.
Support for the arts programme comes from across the university and begins at the top with the vice chancellor. "Wendy Purcell is very much behind the ethos of Peninsula Arts and the partnership work we do."
Ms Chapman is as enthusiastic about Plymouth itself as she is about the city's cultural life.
That reflects her interests and background.
Although originally from London she grew up in Wembury – the family moved because of her father's career in the Royal Navy.
She did a design arts degree through Plymouth University and then a master's in sequential design at Brighton. The second degree meant working and collaborating across different disciplines, among them architecture and dance.
She returned to Plymouth in 2006 to teach, became Peninsula Arts co-ordinator in 2007 and director in December 2011.
Her husband works in the arts on campus. They have four children aged 21, four, three and one and a half.
Plymouth drew her back "because I am very excited by the city.
"It is such a beautiful city and the pull back was certainly strong."
The arts job suited her tastes and CV. "I enjoy communicating difficult ideas," she says adding that she is proud to lead a dedicated, energetic team "that does not work 9 to 5".
He interests match her earlier work in publishing and editorial design. She continues to work with new publications and her latest venture is a survey of Romanian artists Dan and Lia Perjovschi, The Art Of Marginalia. The book accompanies an exhibition of their work to be held in the Peninsula Arts Gallery in November.
Her taste is for art "that challenges and questions my assumptions". A favourite piece is that Deacon sculpture in Victoria Park.
Not all of the ideas she works to communicate are as difficult as the outer limits explored in some Turner Prize exhibits, though.
The current Making Great Illustration exhibition (in the Levinsky Building gallery until October 20) will engage anybody who has ever picked up a children's book, admired a newspaper cartoon or enjoyed an illustrators' work on a jar of pickles or a colourful scarf.
The show is another example of Peninsula Arts' ability to punch above the modest weight of its budget: Roald Dahl book illustrator Quentin Blake and cartoonist Ralph Steadman are two of the artists with an international reputation who are taking part.
Another artist whose work is known around the world, Dartmoor-based sculptor Peter Randall-Page, has chosen the gallery to present next year his first South West exhibition for two decades.
Meanwhile the arts continue to flourish on campus – and the buildings continue to rise. The new performing arts centre is due to open next spring.
The centre will offer a space for student work and outside performers and help retain graduates with opportunities for experimental work.
It all adds up to something rather more than a good day or night out.
Putting a value on the degree to which lives are enriched through the arts is difficult.
But there are hard economic benefits which can be measured, Ms Chapman says. Many artists are self-starters who support themselves and set up their own businesses, adding to employment. "Creative people are enterprising. They are problem solvers who come up with solutions for problems." Culturally rich cities are successful communities which attract investment and pull visitors in.
So Peninsula Arts' goal matters even to those who rarely step inside a gallery or a concert. "We are working towards Plymouth becoming a genuine cultural centre, internationally recognised," she says. A towering ambition – but within reach thanks to Peninsula Arts and its city partners.