What can Plymouth learn from Folkestone Triennial?

Folkestone Triennial is an arts festival held every three years in Folkestone, a seaside town on the Kent coast with a population of around 47,000. As part of the Triennial, site specific artworks are commissioned in public sites around the town, with many of the artworks in each Triennial becoming permanent fixtures as part of the Folkestone Artworks collection. The artworks are made by an invited selection of nationally and internationally known visual artists, alongside artists based in, or with a significant connection to, Folkestone (who may be less widely known before showing their work in the event).

Patrick Tuttofuoco – ‘FOLKESTONE’ – Image Credit: Rachel Dobbs

Folkestone Triennial has established itself as a significant fixture in the UK’s contemporary art calendar and has contributed to Folkestone’s regeneration since its inception in 2008. It is accompanied by the artist-led Folkestone Fringe, who, in their own words “curate art, architecture, sound and performance in Folkestone during the Triennial and inter-Triennial years”.

Folkestone Triennial is one of the flagship projects of The Creative Foundation – an arts charity established in 2002 by former Saga group owner Roger De Haan, dedicated to enabling the regeneration of Folkestone through creative activity, and sustained by the philanthropy of his family’s Charitable Trust. The Triennial cost around £2.2 million to operate in 2017, and income for the festival comes from a range of sources – through Arts Council England strategic funding, contributions from the De Haan Charitable Trust, district and local councils, and a range of trusts & foundations, and in-kind supporters (see: http://www.folkestonetriennial.org.uk/about-the-folkestone-triennial/supporters/).


Here’s a report from VAP Coordinator – Rachel Dobbs…

I visited Folkestone in October 2017 with the support of a Visual Arts Plymouth GoSee Bursary (funded through the Horizon – Ambition For Excellence project), and I’d like to use this blog post to report back on some of my learning from this trip and meetings with some of those involved in planning and delivering the Folkestone Triennial 2017. The artwork shown as part of FT17 is well documented and discussed elsewhere, so my focus revolves around aspects of the visitor experience and strategic underpinnings of the festival that caught my attention, including:

  • Gotta Catch ‘Em All – how Folkestone Triennial uses artworks to guide audiences through the public realm and into unexpected spaces
  • More Than Just Trimming – how the Folkestone Fringe & Folkestone Triennial programmes cross-over and feed each other
  • Is Folkestone An Art School? – how Bob & Roberta Smith’s work draws attention to existing grass-roots creative activity in the town
  • Artists Aren’t Just Disposable Agents Of Change – the Creative Foundation’s approach to encouraging regeneration by renovating and safeguarding spaces for the creative community

Gotta Catch ‘Em All

Public artworks are to Folkestone what Pokemon are to Pokemon Go – an alternate-reality layer placed over reality. However, in Folkestone, these aren’t computer generated, they’re physical and are visible to everyone – right there in front of you. You can’t move for public art!

Richard Woods – ‘Holiday Home’ – Image Credit: Rachel Dobbs

Alongside the 20 new commissioned works for FT17, there are 27 remaining works from previous Triennials (in the Folkestone Artworks “collection”). These are all listed on the main FT17 map, and available outside of the Triennial via a separate Folkestone Artworks map.

On arrival at Folkestone Central train station, even before you leave the platform, you are greeted by the statement “FOLKESTONE IS AN ART SCHOOL” (part of Bob & Roberta’s commissioned project of the same name). The FT branding continues throughout the station, on your way down the ramp, and a pile of maps for you to take just after the ticket barrier.

From here, you are only a street away from the first Triennial artworks in the programme, and steps away from finding the first of the listed Folkestone Artworks (by Tracey Emin, and Strange Cargo), so, GO GO GO… gotta catch em all!!!

Locations of the permanent public artworks in the Folkestone Artworks collection – see: http://www.folkestoneartworks.co.uk

On my visit, I got really interested in observing myself getting caught up in the experience of following the FT map and signage, spotting and stopping at works along the advised route, pointing my phone at large (or small) physical things and ticking them off my mental list as “done”. So much of the work (both the previously commissioned works, and the newly commissioned ones) is photogenic and positioned in ways that make taking good photographs of the artwork easy.

It feels as though this (photographic) dissemination of the work is an important part of the way the commissioning decisions are made, including their form (look, shape, materials etc) and the chosen sites – drawing you from the train station, through the Creative Quarter, down to the town’s harbour and along its coastline. I would suggest that one of the aims of the festival is to actively change the perception of Folkestone for people outside the town and who haven’t been there before (or might never actually visit). Interestingly, the break in this pattern is Emily Peasgood’s temporary interactive sound piece “Halfway to Heaven” where your physical presence in a forgotten Baptist cemetery triggers a series of evocative choral voices in this unusual site – an experience that is difficult to record or reproduce photographically.

Emily Peasgood – Halfway to Heaven – Image Credit: Rachel Dobbs

This photogenic quality sometimes extends to the work almost refusing further engagement or examination, like Jonathan Wright’s 3D printed gilded replicas of the 10 fishing boats currently registered in, or operating out of, Folkestone harbour – sited along a series of lamposts on Tontine Street (you can’t really stop and look – they occupy an already busy, contested space in the middle of the footpath). At times, your close engagement with the artworks is actively denied, as in the case of Hoy Cheong Wong’s “Minaret”, a large scaffolding facade installed onto the entrance to the Islamic Cultural Centre (the building is gated off on a small side street, and feels uneasy with the extra potential attention).

HoyCheong Wong – ‘Minaret’ – Image Credits: Rachel Dobbs (day), Thierry Bal (night)

The FT17 programme means you are guided skillfully to the beauty spots, the finest views, the rapidly regenerating harbour and the most picturesque areas of coastline – a whistlestop MOVE-TO-FOLKESTONE-type tour. You even get to see a shell shop, ice-cream kiosks and fresh fish sellers for added local flavour. It’s a graceful seaside town, where you’re not left wondering why so many people flocked here 100 years ago in the height of Folkestone’s pull as a resort and health retreat.

The route created by the artworks does a good job of directing your eye and creating a frame… doing what site-specific art festivals do best – guiding you into places you wouldn’t otherwise have access to our reason to visit. It also intentionally showcases Folkestone itself, creating the air of a place with “a lot going on”, the potential of a rich cultural life, which may be less likely outside of the Triennial season. Similarly, the programme invites you “in” to where cultural activity might normally centre (eg. Studio Ben Allen’s “The Clearing” / festival hub in the Folkestone Quarterhouse, the town’s regular arts centre), reconsidering and signposting spaces of existing cultural practice (eg Rigo 23’s Earth’s Oldest Satellite on the side of the town’s 6th Form College).

Many visitors to Folkestone Triennial are likely to take it in as part of a day trip from London. If you are trying to see all of the commissions in one day, this really adds to the “Gotta Catch Em All” feeling – following the white rabbit (who is always in a rush, always late). However, by following the designated route, you skirt around the edges of the town centre without ever really entering it. The experience of walking through the Creative Quarter stands in for your potential experience of Folkestone itself. You could be forgiven for thinking that the town is wholly made up of galleries, well presented coffee shops and places to buy artisan bread or beer.

Things that we could think about in Plymouth:

  • How can we design experiences for visitors and locals that lead them through unexpected places in Plymouth?
  • How can we create a sense of excitement around visual arts activity to encourage people to visit (or even move to) Plymouth?
  • What are the parts of Plymouth that are otherwise over-looked or under-appreciated and how can we draw attention to these via arts activities?

More Than Just Trimming

Folkestone Triennial is accompanied each 3 years by Folkestone Fringe – an artist-led programme of exhibitions, installations and events. Folkestone Fringe was initiated in 2007 (in response to the inaugural Folkestone Triennial in 2008) by a group of six visual artists, curators and producers. The original intention was to take advantage of an international focus provided by the Triennial’s 14 week programme to raise the profile of artists living locally, and those who may want to show work in the town, to a wider regional and national audience. Since then, the group continues to change shape and membership, with a focus on supporting the growth of the skills base in the town, so that local makers, curators, producers and art practitioners can become more embedded, enabling them to deliver the next ten years of meaningful and well-considered cultural activity.

Richard Cramp – ‘Folkestone: That’s A Good Idea’ – Image Credit: Rachel Dobbs

Interestingly, the Fringe here feels a lot more than just ‘trimming’, and there is also some ‘official’ crossover between the main Triennial and Fringe programmes. For example, Diane Dever is co-director and co-founder of the Folkestone Fringe, and also an artist in the main programme, showing “Urban Room Folkestone” at the old Customs House on the Harbour Arm. Throughout the Triennial, the new Urban Room becomes home to a series of talks and community discussion events. Traces of the activities that take place are displayed in an ever-changing archive in the building. “Urban Room Folkestone” is part living-history visitor centre, part live-research project and part community venue – it’s an opportunity to engage far more deeply with the geography and history that has shaped town, the social context that is visited every 3 years by the Triennial and the views and opinions of the local community.

This artwork is part of the wider, national Urban Rooms network – https://urbanroomsnetwork.wordpress.com – who define themselves like this:

Every town and city should have a physical space where people can go to understand, debate and get involved in the past, present and future of where they live, work and play. The purpose of these Urban Rooms is to foster meaningful connections between people and place, using creative methods of engagement to encourage active participation in the future of our buildings, streets and neighbourhoods.

It seems that there is a two-way benefit between artists involved in the fringe and Folkestone Triennial – many of the artists in the Fringe are also employed in the production and maintenance of the Triennial artworks; the Creative Foundation (home organisation of the Triennial) offers assistance to Fringe artists and organisers in securing permissions and production support on a project-by-project basis; the Fringe capitalises on the media and visitor attention generated by the main Triennial programme, and because of this Folkestone Fringe can act as a recognisable brand to bring artworks to a wider national audience (both during Triennial and inter-Triennial years).

Diane Dever and The Decorators – ‘Customs House: Urban Room Folkestone’ (details) – Image Credit: Rachel Dobbs

However, for me, the most exciting part of this two-way benefit is through the approach of the Triennial curators to commissioning artists, like Dever, who are embedded in the town, within the main Triennial programme. This demonstrates an important recognition and commitment to supporting practitioners who live and work locally to produce really high quality projects that can easily stand their ground alongside the invited international artists in the programme.

Things that we could think about in Plymouth:

  • How to “fringe” activities and programmed visual arts activities compliment each other in Plymouth?
  • How can there be more crossover in commissioning embedded local arts talent in national and international facing visual arts projects in Plymouth?
  • What are the different qualities that “fringe” activities bring to the cultural ecology of Plymouth and how can we make a case for them to be better supported?

Is Folkestone An Art School?

Bob & Roberta Smith’s Folkestone Triennial commission FOLKESTONE IS AN ART SCHOOL was like a rallying cry, echoing out from numerous banners around the Triennial trail, from the artwork’s dedicated “hub” on Tontine Street, and from the artist’s video series published on youtube in the run up to the Triennial.

Bob & Roberta Smith (2017) FOLKESTONE IS AN ART SCHOOL (detail)

FOLKESTONE IS AN ART SCHOOL was developed in part as a response to the lack of a dedicated art school in the town, and the suggestion that the town itself – with its large collection of public artworks, and variety of existing ad hoc arts & crafts provision – may be able to operate as a space for learning without that type of formal structure. As part of FIAAS, a new ‘Faculty’ (made up of locally based artists and teachers), ‘Directory’ (listing local art teaching facilities and talents), and a ‘Cohort’ (of young people nominated via schools and other groups including the town’s refugee network) were collected together.

Bob & Roberta Smith (2017) FOLKESTONE IS AN ART SCHOOL (detail)

As a vocal campaigner for art school education, it seems a logical step for Bob & Roberta Smith to inaugurate a new art school in this way, and it poses an interesting question – what type of impact does this type of place-making slogan have on the way that residents and visitors view the town itself?

Personally, I am quite excited by potential of statements like this, and by artists using them to question the status quo – whether the statement is true or false, simply raising the ideas that Folkestone (itself) could be viewed as an art school (a place to learn to think critically about the world; to see things differently; to study form, function and aesthetics) is at least an interesting thought experiment. During and after my trip, I have also become very interested in thinking about what other towns can learn from Folkestone – and in how this whole complex mix of high visibility arts activity, regeneration, socio economic change and cultural pride might translate to where I live.

Bob and Roberta Smith – ‘FOLKESTONE IS AN ART SCHOOL’ (detail) – Image Credit: Rachel Dobbs

In conversation with Jo Cowdry from Creative Foundation, I ask about the potential legacy of the FIAAS project and she highlights the difference that it has made to simply map out existing provision and activity, and get the ‘Faculty’ together through regular meetups (held in the pub) – now that people have met each other, there is a desire to continue to those connections outside of the Triennial and the FIAAS project, which offers an interesting parallel to the way in which some of the Triennial artworks become permanent fixtures in the town.

She also notes that the process of mapping out and highlighting existing (indigenous) arts provision and activity in the town, which was initially sparked by a hunch that “there is lots going on”, would previously not have “got done” as there isn’t a market-driven reason to spend time or fund this type of information gathering. I find this in equal measure quite exciting and a bit depressing – thinking about the whole range of different things that “go on” in places without ever really being documented, collected together or highlighted because they don’t necessarily have a market value. Maybe FOLKESTONE IS AN ART SCHOOL can give us a few ways to think about doing things differently, and making a case for gathering and sharing information, and making connections between people more regularly…

Things that we could think about in Plymouth:

  • What types of arts and education activity are currently going unmapped in Plymouth?
  • How can Plymouth think of itself as an expanded arts school? Who would the ‘Faculty’ and the ‘Cohort’ be? What activities would feature in the ‘Directory’?
  • How can we find the resources needed to support mapping activities that don’t have a market-driven focus? What case do we need to make here?

Artists Aren’t Just Disposable Agents Of Change

By far, the most exciting thing I learned through my trip to Folkestone, was about the Creative Foundation’s approach to encouraging regeneration by renovating and safeguarding spaces for the creative community in the town.

Nick Eubank’s publication “Adventures In Regeneration: Folkestone’s New Tide”

You can read all about this in Nick Eubank’s publication “Adventures In Regeneration: Folkestone’s New Tide” which details the story of regeneration in Folkestone and the establishment of the Creative Foundation, Triennal and the Quarter House. It’s availble to read for free as a PDF online – http://nickewbank.co.uk/projects/adventures-in-regeneration/

Here’s the TL:DR version…

Eubank charts the history of Saga – a family run company, set up by husband and wife team Sidney & Margery De Haan who ran a small hotel on the Leas in post-war Folkestone and needed to find a way to extend the summer holiday season so that they could break-even during the winter. They started to organise cheap off-season package holidays for retired people, developed a strong customer base, invented an effective form of direct mail marketing and by the time Sidney retired in 1984 had become an established national brand. Their son Roger DeHaan inherited the business in the 1980s and pushed it to expand into world cruises, financial services, magazine publishing and advocating for the needs and aspirations of older people.

Roger DeHaan amassed a huge personal fortune from Saga and from 2001 onwards, chose to invest more than £50 million & a large proportion of his time into charitable creative projects to benefit Folkestone.

Strange Cargo – ‘Tour de France’ event in Canterbury, 2007 – Image Credit: Strange Cargo – http://www.strangecargo.org.uk

In parallel, throughout the 1990s Folkestone-based “Celebratory Arts Company” Strange Cargo set up community-focussed carnivals; the local council’s Arts Development Officer Krystyna Matyjaszkiewicz started a district-wide Arts Forum and worked with Kent County Council and the local regeneration team on a series of innovative projects; and a study was commissioned to look into whether the Metropole Arts Centre had the potential to become a “regional centre for contemporary visual arts”. In 2001, 750 local people attended a meeting titled “Is Folkestone Dying?” and from this “Go Folkestone Action Group” was formed to push for change in Folkestone.

In this context, De Haan and a group of his associates were keen to push regeneration by involving artists and creative activity. He was impressed with the way in which artists and designers thought differently about finding creative solutions to problems and a strong believer in the power of the arts and education to change lives and transform communities. To avoid the “Hoxton Effect” (where the artists and creatives who kick-start the regeneration process are often forced out as more commercial businesses are attracted to the area and rents increase) the group set up The Creative Foundation, a charity which would buy up empty shops in the run-down Old Town area, offer affordable rents to artists and creative businesses, and control these over the longer-term.

Folkestone Quarterhouse – Image Credit: http://www.quarterhouse.co.uk

They secured grants from the Arts Council and the regional development agency to buy 3 properties, and rent 3 more on favourable terms. De Haan also bought Payers Park – site of the current Quarter House arts centre – and agreed a deal where the Roger De Haan Charitable Trust would buy a portfolio of buildings in the Old Town, rent these to The Creative Foundation at zero cost, who would renovate them and lease them to arts and educational projects. The resulting rent would fund The Creative Foundation staff & running costs, and any surpluses would be invested into running arts events, festivals and educational programmes in the Old Town and beyond.

This led to the establishment of Folkestone’s Creative Quarter (where the Creative Foundation now own the majority of properties), a Creative Industry Business Advisory Service (to help train artists and craftspeople in business skills and practices), the new University Centre Folkestone (in 2008) and the Folkestone Triennial (which received an initial £4.5 million from De Haan to fund the 2008, 2011 & 2014 editions), and resulting newly commissioned contemporary art in the public spaces of the town.

Folkestone’s Creative Quarter map in 2017, showing properties owned by the Creative Foundation (in yellow)

The recent regeneration of Folkestone, as laid out in Eubank’s publication, presents an interesting story of the local authority, charitable, voluntary and arts sectors working together to right the situation that market-forces could not correct – it wasn’t profitable for landlords to renovate and convert the buildings, so it wasn’t happening. I am also interested by the focus on redevelopment on 3 identified fronts – hardware (the buildings, and the place that they make up); software (the people, their lives, work, play and families); and branding (the town’s image and sense of identity – both internal and external).

Things that we could think about in Plymouth:

  • What is the role of encouraging locally-focussed philanthropy in Plymouth? How can high-value or wealthy residents be encouraged to invest in the city’s culture and development?
  • How can we ensure that artists and creatives who help to drive regeneration in Plymouth are safeguarded and nurtured rather than treated as disposable agents of change?
  • How can we use business practices in responsible and innovative ways to foster a more sustainable future for arts and culture organisations in Plymouth?

Rachel Dobbs is the coordinator for Visual Arts Plymouth (2017-2018) and is an artist & educator. You can find out more about her work on her website – http://rachel.we-are-low-profile.com

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.