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Ben Borthwick

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Ben Borthwick is Head of Creative Programme at KARST, an independent art gallery and artists’ studios in Millbay, Plymouth

KARST started life with relatively humble beginnings – growing from a pop-up project in 2011 to staple of Plymouth’s culture scene at the forefront of creative innovation, drawing international attention.

Ben joined the team in the midst of a global pandemic in 2020 after heading up Plymouth Art Centre alongside working on a host of national and international projects.

He arrived at a gallery that has changed at remarkable pace over the past decade.

Two of the original directors, Carl Slater and Donna Howard drove KARST to focus on bringing international work to Plymouth at a time when that wasn’t happening elsewhere in the city. 

“The development of the city has been incredible between 2015 and now,” said Ben. “The museum’s development into The Box is the headline, but other organisations have evolved and developed. KARST is more of an on-the-ground, artist-led organisation that has experienced a similar trajectory. 

“You’ve got something that began as a DIY, self-organized project that has become an Arts Council-funded National Portfolio Organization and has just completed a £400,000 refurbishment and investment into the space.

The renovations to the building include fitting a heating system – allowing the building to hold exhibitions and events year-round for the first time – and improved access to the gallery.

“We’re also improving the conditions for artists to work in. It’s a massive change, the arc from sweeping out a semi-derelict building to what we’re just completing now in preparation for being a host venue for British Art Show 9 in 2022.”

KARST, from its initiation as a pop-up inspired by the touring exhibition’s last presence in the city to its current position as a host venue for the coming iteration, is an example of how initiatives like the British Art Show can be a catalyst for cultural transformation. 

No Soap Radio, KARST’s exhibition for Plymouth Art Weekender 2021

“The whole city geared up to host British Art Show 7 in 2011 and there was a fantastic reception for it. And 10 years later, culture is coming out stronger than you would imagine,” Ben adds.

Alongside its international outlook, location is also important to KARST’s identity, and the organisation is changing along with the area around it. 

“KARST was there before the change that’s happening now in Stonehouse began, and we’ll be there while that change continues. There are very economically, socially and ethnically diverse communities living in Stonehouse, and KARST landed there before redevelopment really began. Over the 10 years of its existence, it’s become more anchored in the area and also more recognized nationally and internationally.”

“We’re thinking about how we continue to work with our international remit while at the same time, building deep and sustained relationships with the communities right on our doorstep.”

Ben was Artistic Director at Plymouth Art Centre between 2014-18. He’d previously worked as a contemporary art curator at Tate Modern before moving to Cardiff, where he was Director of the international art prize, Artes Mundi. While working at the Plymouth Art Centre and after finishing that role, he curated the talks programme for the Milan Art Fair.

During his time in Cardiff, Ben had begun to shed some of his ideas of what a curator should be. But it wasn’t until he immersed himself in Plymouth’s creative communities that this reimagining really took hold.

“I became incredibly interested in the local scene and how people have to organize to make things happen outside of a global city like London. That process began in Cardiff but in Plymouth, even further away from the centre, the need to make things happen – for yourselves and for each other – was really amplified.”

“The systems aren’t in place for some amazing work that’s being made in Plymouth to be recognized beyond the city or the region. There’s no market, no real infrastructure for criticism or press that gets out beyond the region. It’s very difficult for artists to find or create opportunities outside of the South West.”

Since his early days in Plymouth, Ben has been working on building the infrastructure to connect artists in the South West with similar scenes elsewhere.

“Through the movement of people and work, we can start to try and break out of this regional enclosure – putting people in circulation so that their work becomes more widely known and they get to meet other artists negotiating similar concerns in different places, in different conditions,” he explains.

“Plymouth could be seen as a model of how smaller regional cities can engage with culture to have a much wider effect on life for the residents.”

Embedding the local community and their needs within his projects has been at the heart of Ben’s recent work.

When he started working at KARST in 2020, COVID had knocked the extensive building works planned for September back to November. 

“That gave us a three month window to find some way to use the gallery that would work in a very local, adaptive way that could change to conditions.

“Over the last couple of years, I had started working with a group of skateboarders at Prime skate park. We’d devised a programme in partnership with Take A Part that we hope we’ll be doing later this year working with a community of young people.

“When the opportunity came up to dress the city centre as part of the Mayflower preparations, the idea was floated for a mural by a group of skaters around the civic centre, which is one of the UK’s most long established skate spots. We worked with that group and built relationships with the older skaters through the mural.”

It started out as a project with the Prime youth committee, but soon saw passersby, older skaters and even MP Luke Pollard getting involved. 

“We had probably close to 200 people picking up a paintbrush over the two weeks that we were doing it, and making their mark,” says Ben.

The city’s support was instrumental in getting the mural project off the ground, and the group secured some money through the Mayflower 400 commemoration fund. 

“Without the support of the group that pulled it together, Plymouth Culture, Take A Part, Urban Splash Mayflower 400, Plymouth City Council, the City Centre Company – and their willingness to take a risk by handing over a prominent city centre asset to a group of teenage skaters – then we would never have had the engagement we did.”

The mural led to KARST hosting an exhibition by a skate collective who create street photography, the No Soap Radio exhibition in late 2020.

This live event and exhibition demonstrated how community-focused projects could offer a platform for hidden talent.

“It should be the responsibility of cultural organisations to scratch away at the surface of creativity happening in the city. To find that talent and create opportunities to develop it, rather than only looking outside to things that have been endorsed in other places, by other channels. If we don’t do it, then who’s going to?”

Pictures by John Allen

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Ben points to the social interactions that take place in and around a building as being the element that brings these spaces to life.

“Without the people who bring purpose, function and value to space, you just end up with a kind of derelict, empty corpse.” He said. “For a long time there’s been a question around how to use city centres and the decline of the high street. Culture is there ready to fill that gap.”

With the success of the mural and new developments on the horizon, the future of the storied city centre spot looks like it’s on good footing. 

“Urban Splash are the perfect commercial developers for this project because they understand the value of culture. I think we’re going to end up with a solution to the civic plaza that maybe boosts the role of activities like skating as a feature of whatever the civic centre becomes.

“There’s a pipeline of creativity that cultural engagement supports as people go on to develop the things that they learn through their passion.

“Cultural organizations need to respond to the interests and needs of communities” he says, “in order to enhance and embed creativity that they are already expressing and to support and develop that.

“It’s really important to find ways that projects can continue to service and sustain engagement with communities.”

Beyond his own projects, Ben is hopeful that the mural and exhibition with the skaters have modeled opportunities that other groups could consider for themselves. 

“An incredibly powerful outcome would be if the project we did during lockdown in 2020 has a ripple effect that gives others confidence and models an example that they can take forward in ways that work for them. 

And if KARST can support that through sharing knowledge, through contacts, through opening up our relationships with others, then that would be a brilliant outcome and a wonderful legacy.” 

What is it about living and working in Plymouth that attracts/keeps you here?

Plymouth has got something amazing going on with this emergent scene of organizations, some long established, some quite new, some about to go into big change. And it just feels like there’s a kind of dynamism and energy that I just want to be part of. 

What’s the one thing you would recommend to an outsider visiting Plymouth?

There’s an amazing contemporary art offer at The Box, The Levinsky Gallery and Mirror. After that, walk through the town centre, check out Civic and some city skate spots, head up to the Hoe and then make your way down to KARST before rounding off with a coffee at Hutong. Get the ferry to the Barbican for some fish and chips at Harbourside and wash it down with a pint at the Dolphin or Bread and Roses!

Ben points to the social interactions that take place in and around a building as being the element that brings these spaces to life.

“Without the people who bring purpose, function and value to space, you just end up with a kind of derelict, empty corpse.” He said. “For a long time there’s been a question around how to use city centres and the decline of the high street. Culture is there ready to fill that gap.”

With the success of the mural and new developments on the horizon, the future of the storied city centre spot looks like it’s on good footing. 

“Urban Splash are the perfect commercial developers for this project because they understand the value of culture. I think we’re going to end up with a solution to the civic plaza that maybe boosts the role of activities like skating as a feature of whatever the civic centre becomes.

“There’s a pipeline of creativity that cultural engagement supports as people go on to develop the things that they learn through their passion.

“Cultural organizations need to respond to the interests and needs of communities” he says, “in order to enhance and embed creativity that they are already expressing and to support and develop that.

“It’s really important to find ways that projects can continue to service and sustain engagement with communities.”

Beyond his own projects, Ben is hopeful that the mural and exhibition with the skaters have modeled opportunities that other groups could consider for themselves. 

“An incredibly powerful outcome would be if the project we did during lockdown in 2020 has a ripple effect that gives others confidence and models an example that they can take forward in ways that work for them. 

And if KARST can support that through sharing knowledge, through contacts, through opening up our relationships with others, then that would be a brilliant outcome and a wonderful legacy.” 

What is it about living and working in Plymouth that attracts/keeps you here?

Plymouth has got something amazing going on with this emergent scene of organizations, some long established, some quite new, some about to go into big change. And it just feels like there’s a kind of dynamism and energy that I just want to be part of. 

What’s the one thing you would recommend to an outsider visiting Plymouth?

There’s an amazing contemporary art offer at The Box, The Levinsky Gallery and Mirror. After that, walk through the town centre, check out Civic and some city skate spots, head up to the Hoe and then make your way down to KARST before rounding off with a coffee at Hutong. Get the ferry to the Barbican for some fish and chips at Harbourside and wash it down with a pint at the Dolphin or Bread and Roses!

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