Artists Make a Better World: Bobby Niven

There are many ways that artists contribute to the world around us. SCAN’s summer 2023 campaign Artists Make a Better World aims to highlight the importance of artists to the everyday lives of people in Scotland through projects like Palm House, a piece of social sculpture by artist Bobby Niven created for the Edinburgh Art Festival. 

Situated in Johnston Terrace Wildlife Garden, the project came to fruition in 2017 as ‘a space for production and exchange, inviting exploration, delight and wonder.’ It is a permanent urban shelter, used as a meeting place by local people and community groups all year round.

Bobby spoke to SCAN about the benefits of making work in a public context, and the changes he would like to see for working artists in Scotland.

Claire: What motivates you to create sculptural works in a public context, rather than for a gallery?

Bobby: Working in a public context provides an opportunity to carve out spaces for social interaction and engagement. It’s motivating as an artist that the work is well used and enjoyed, with people and community groups finding different ways to make use of the space. It leads to more conversation and interactions in the production process and with the finished work. This dialogue is really valuable from a personal perspective as an artist because so often you don’t get a chance to share your work with the general public.

You created Palm House for Edinburgh Art Festival. What was the idea behind the work?

I was invited to create a shelter that responded to the work of Patrick Geddes and his manifesto The Making of the Future. Geddes was a visionary town planner, environmentalist and social activist who wanted to create change in Edinburgh’s Old Town by converting derelict plots into community gardens. The Palm House is sited in one of these gardens which is now managed by the Scottish Wildlife Trust as Scotland’s smallest wildlife reserve. The idea was to create a sculptural shelter that responded to the work of Geddes and provided a space for social gatherings and creativity. The work is made from green oak with carved figurative forms providing sculptural solutions to the mechanics of the structure. I was excited to experiment with ways to animate the building, to give it life and energy, and to create an inspiring space for people to think and make.

How does it feel to have something you created be a permanent part of public space?

I was invited by EAF to realise the Palm House on the back of the Walled Garden, a project space in Glasgow that I was involved with as part of the Stalled Spaces initiative. This was a temporary sculpture garden project on a stalled building site which came to an end after a couple of years. The chance to create a permanent work in a public space makes more sense in many ways as the work gets used and benefits more people over time.

What material changes do you think could improve the working lives of artists in Scotland?

There isn’t really a commercial art market for contemporary art in Scotland in which artists can sell their work to support their practice. Most artists that are exhibiting or taking on public commissions will have another job such as a teacher or carpenter that helps them pay the bills during periods between art projects. If there was an income stream coming from the sale of work it would help make artists careers more sustainable, supporting emerging artists in the transition from making work for an audience which is predominantly peer-based to making work in public galleries to be enjoyed by a wider audience. Investment to support curators to set up contemporary commercial art galleries could help drive this market. Perhaps an initiative that brings in expertise and funding from Creative Scotland and Scottish Enterprise?


See the project page for more information and resources related to Artists Make a Better World.

Main photograph by Alexander Hoyles, Palm House photographs by Johnny Barrington.