From grassroots to successful Biennale – reporting back from Whitstable

Whitstable Biennale is a festival of new visual art, performance, film & sound, taking place every two years on the Kent coast. Founded in 2002, and the festival has grown out of grassroots activity in the town and Whitstable’s artistic community. Whitstable Biennale commission artists to create ambitious and experimental new works, which are shown as part of a larger programme of live performances, film screenings, talks, digital works, events and workshops.

Whitstable Biennale report for Visual Arts Plymouth
One Man Eight Cameras (2014) by Naren Wilks projected on the Old Neptune Pub for 51Zero/voyager 2018 presents: DECREATION touring programme. Image credit: Vickie Fear

Whitstable is a seaside town on the north coast of Kent in south-east England, which is home to around 32,000 people. One in five residents of the town are retired (which is significantly higher than the national average) and the town’s situation and character has led to a strong tourist industry, which is promoted each year by the annual Whitstable Oyster Festival. Alongside tourism, retail and education are significant focusses for the town’s employment (Canterbury, which has three higher education establishments, is just 5 miles away). Whitstable Biennale is a high profile event for the town and the festival attracts press attention from a range of media outlets (with features and reviews in the national and international press).

Here’s a report from VAP Activator – Vickie Fear…

The Whitstable Biennale directs visitors all around the town, showing off its popular seaside features and inviting you over for dinner, lunch or a cuppa at a nice place they know around the corner.

This year, the venues for exhibitions and performances have included the library, a comic shop, the Labour club, the Sea Cadet’s hall, the fish market and a church tower. The biennale really does make the most of what little there is in the town and it seems well supported by local people and some of the London art crowd (who caught a specially organised bus from outside Tate Britain).

One Man Eight Cameras (2014) by Naren Wilks & Queueing outside Whitstable Sea Cadets’ Hall. Image credits: Vickie Fear

Other than this festival happening every two years there isn’t much cultural infrastructure in Whitstable other than the biennale’s hub, the community run Horsebridge Arts Centre. Visitors come to this town to enjoy the beach and eat shellfish; the water’s warm and the oysters are fresh and the Biennale are pretty keen that you sample both whilst you’re in town. In an interview with Frieze, Director Sue Jones said “the local authorities calculate that we bring in over £1 million per edition to Whitstable”.

As well as devising an interesting programme of work by exciting early career artists; this year themed with the title “Swimming Home” (taken from a Deborah Levy novel), the staff team seem to really care about and know the town. The quantity of stuff across the main and separate ‘Satellite’ programme is slightly overwhelming and there could be an argument for combining the two so that it’s easier for visitors to identify timing clashes. However, local artists seem to really value the benefit of a main programme with a national profile that draws in new audiences to Whitstable and they like having their own brochure.

Introduction to the Biennale, Coffee Morning at the Revival Cafe, hosted by Sophie Chapman, Whitstable Biennale Learning Curator (left) & Salt Town, a guided walk by Liz Lake & Dan Thompson (right). Image Credits: Vickie Fear

Connections with art schools in the county are strong; this year’s brochure has included a film premiere by UCA Canterbury professor Andrew Kötting; a collaborative ‘Muster Station’ event between artist and University of Kent lecturer Adam Chodzko and his ex students; student documentaries are included in the short film programme; Open School East students’ work was shown in a shipping container on the harbour and a visible presence of students and recent graduates are invigilators at all of the venues.

WB state on their website that

“new works commissioned by Whitstable Biennale often go on to tour after the festival, in the UK and internationally. Recent venues include Whitechapel Gallery, London; Serpentine Cinema, London; Tanya Bonakdar Gallery, New York; Imperial War Museum North; PKM and Artsonje Centre, in Seoul, South Korea; Manifesta 9, Genk, Belgium; Modern Art Oxford; South London Gallery; British Film Institute, London; Bucharest Biennial, Romania; Art Unlimited, Basel; New Art Gallery, Walsall; Heidelberg Kunstverein, Germany; BAWAG Contemporary, Vienna, Austria; CCA Derry.”

These are notable legacies for a small town arts festival and the online archive of previous commissions is an impressive list of artists with growing profiles nationally and internationally.

Horsebridge Arts Centre window & Whitstable’s famous Squeeze Gut Alley. Image Credits: Vickie Fear

Whitstable Biennale facts and figures:

  • The total population of Whitstable is around 32,000; 98% of residents describe themselves as white and there’s a higher percentage of people aged 65+ living there than the national average.
  • Trains from London take an hour and a half out of St Pancras and Victoria.
  • Whitstable Biennale has been running since 2002 and in 2018 has more than 50 artists and 179 events, performances, walks, screenings etc.
  • For this year’s event Whitstable Biennale, a charity, received a lottery grant from Arts Council England of £99,950 and for 2018-2022 joins the National Portfolio, receiving an annual grant of £240,000.

What can Plymouth learn from Whitstable Biennale:

  • The ‘first stop’ hub is really important. Visitors need to know where they can go to pick up a printed map and programme when they arrive.
  • Ask for more money! As well as significant public funding WB has a 0.8 FTE Programme Assistant staff post funded by Weston Jerwood Creative Bursaries, a Friends scheme and a donate button on their website.
  • Differentiating each year’s programme with a title seems to be useful for artists and audiences.
  • Consider working biennially so that artists have longer to develop work.

On my last day in Whitstable I went along to the Introduction to the Biennale, run by Learning Curator Sophie Chapman, in an independent cafe. The tea & cake event was a really effective way of picking out recommendations for visitors, getting informal feedback about what people had already seen and answering questions about where and when things were in the following days.

For the Plymouth Art Weekender and inspired by Whitstable’s event I am initiating Plymouth Art Weekender drop in Coffee Mornings at the Plymouth Athenaeum, 10am-12 noon on Friday 28th , Saturday 29th & Sunday 30th September. Hosted by Visual Arts Plymouth Activators, Coffee Mornings are open to anyone to come along and get top tips for what to see each day.

Vickie Fear has been a Visual Arts Plymouth Activator since 2015. She is an independent curator and producer of exhibitions, commissions and events. Information about Vickie’s work can be found on her website:

The PlymouthGoSee Bursary programme is part of Horizon – a collaborative two year programme of visual contemporary arts with an aim of providing a major ‘step-change’ in Plymouth’s visual arts ecology. It is funded through Arts Council England’s Ambition for Excellence fund and delivered by a partnership between KARST, Plymouth Arts Centre, Plymouth College of Art, Plymouth Culture, Plymouth City Council, Plymouth University and Visual Arts Plymouth.