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Space inspired project Orbit attracts new audiences to contemporary art on the Isle of Wight

  • Date: 19 November 2012
  • Artform: Visual arts
  • Area: South West
Interior of gallery with four artworks hung against white wall Orbit exhibition, Katayoun Dowlatshahi

A forgotten rocket testing site on the Isle of Wight became the inspiration for Orbit, a startling new exhibit and event made possible through Lottery funding.

Grants for the arts funded project case study

This project was supported using public funding through the Arts Council's Grants for the arts Lottery funding programme. For more information on the programme and details on how to apply visit our funding pages.


Unknown by many people on the Isle of Wight, the island used to be home to a secret rocket testing site during the Cold War and was at the forefront of the British Space Programme. For Iranian-born British artist Katayoun Dowlatshahi, the physical archaeology of the former site at West High Down and the aspirational aspect of the space programme became the inspiration for her latest work. 

Running from 22 October to 3 December 2011 at Quay Arts on the Isle of Wight, Orbit showcased a collection of large-format photographic works, drawings, video and architectural glass pieces. In line with the exhibition, Katayoun also co-ordinated a live offsite event, Orbit-Offsite, on 28 October 2011 at West High Down to mark 40 years since the launch of Prospero - the only British built satellite to be sent into Earth’s orbit atop a British built rocket, Black Arrow, that was made and tested at the site. The event saw the return of working pulse jet rocket engines to the site, the launch of a scale model of Black Arrow, a memory wall for those associated with the British Space Programme, interactive activities for all ages, and a lantern launch at dusk.

Orbit and Orbit-Offsite received in-kind support from the National Trust, Quay Arts, Astrium and Mullard Space Science Laboratory.


Katayoun's main challenge was, she admits, 'being hugely ambitious on a very small budget.' Organising the live event was particularly challenging, but Katayoun had a huge amount of support – from organisations and partners, but also from volunteers. 'The live event would not have been possible without the generous support of volunteers both on and off the Island,' she says.

Another significant difficulty for Katayoun as an artist has been getting her work noticed, and she says that Lottery funding through the Arts Council has played an essential part in addressing this. 'If you don’t have decent galleries behind you, that’s a challenge in itself – just getting noticed and getting your work out there. So having the support of the fund enabled me to do that, and do work to a very high standard.'

The funding also enabled Katayoun to produce a catalogue for the exhibition, her first ever, which has helped support her as a working artist. 'I have something now that I can present to people and it has a much longer lifespan than say an exhibition does. So it’s a legacy in its own right in terms of the project but also in terms of promoting my work.'


Orbit and Orbit-Offsite attracted nearly 9,000 visitors in total, and thousands more were reached through the dedicated website which Katayoun set up and associated social media (the National Trust Facebook page, the Space Boffins Facebook page and Orbit’s own Facebook page). Historian and author C Nicholas Hill said of Orbit-Offsite, 'I would never have imagined that I would have seen so many people on the test site as I did yesterday. And one of the more cheering aspects was that most of them were so young.'

The activities succeeded in engaging new and diverse audiences, bringing fresh attention to a fascinating piece of forgotten history. As Quay Arts Exhibitions Organiser 2011 Georgia Newman commented: 'The activities throughout the project provided an opportunity for a wide cross section of the Island’s community to engage with contemporary art within a historic, scientific and cultural context. There is a real sense of discovery, as a very important part of the Island’s heritage is re-examined and revived by one of Britain’s brightest contemporary artists.'

Find out more about National Lottery funded arts projects.