Matt Rowe: on living outside of London

Artist Matt Rowe reflects on life in Folkestone and its relationship with London

On moving back to Folkestone, and not living in London

Before moving back to Folkestone in 2005 I was living and working in Cardiff. During that time I met a lot of people who had carved a niche and found stable employment in the creative industries, off the back of the cultural regeneration in the city.

When I heard about Folkestone’s Creative Regeneration strategy I was keen to get involved early on in the process. I was aware that regional funding was available to artists living and working in east Kent region and would be relatively easy to access.

However the main issues attraction of living in Folkestone was affordable studio space. My practice requires a workshop with specialist equipment that is costly to relocate.

Folkestone’s Creative Quarter was able to offer this, thanks to the support and investment of the The Roger De Haan Charitable Trust.

Folkestone isn’t as far away from the capital as many people think. It’s possible to access London on a pay as you go basis. When I need to visit London for work or to view exhibitions it’s only a 57 minute train ride from Folkestone to St Pancras International station.

The biggest hindrance living out side of the capital is the lack of regular, well-paid work. Folkestone simply can’t offer the energy, networks or diversity of employment that London can.

However, the limited professional opportunities in Folkestone are counterbalanced by a quality of life that is unobtainable in London when living on a low income.

Essentially, Folkestone is a good place to live and produce artwork, but has a limited audience.

On Folkestone during, and outside, the Triennial

Events such as the Folkestone Triennial benefit greatly from the town’s proximity to London. The event has certainly put the town on the map. Every three years the international art world visits the town bringing with it a large, mainly London-centric audience.

During this period Folkestone is transformed in to a dynamic and exiting cultural destination. The event generates employment opportunities for local arts professionals. The momentum of the Triennial also provides a captive audience for independent projects to run alongside it.

As a local artist I have been lucky enough to work on every Triennial in various capacities, both as an artist producing my own work and as a project manager producing exhibits for other artists.

A contemporary art project of this scale in a small town like Folkestone is a challenging endeavour. The small pockets of artists permanently based in Folkestone often juggle multiple rolls on the main event whilst making their own work and organising their own exhibitions. The opportunities to develop professional skills and expand networks are intrinsically linked to the festival.

For the two and a half years either side of the Triennial, there is a huge drop off in audience engagement and artistic activity in Folkestone. There is certainly a loss of momentum; the art scene becomes almost dormant. This is accentuated by the absence of a permanent contemporary art gallery or high quality curated program of exhibitions in the town.

On the advantages and disadvantages of being just outside of London

The new HS1 high-speed train network has drastically changed how East Kent accesses London and art. The service regularly attracts a London-centric arts audience looking to escape the city for a day trip to the seaside. Psychologically London feels closer.  For artists living in Kent, accessing exhibitions has become a lot easier.

Progressive artist-led organisations from London such as Transition Gallery and the South London Arts Map are leading the way by actively working with artists and spaces in Folkestone. This has helped promote independent activity in the town and create exhibition opportunities for local artists outside of the region.

As with most towns on the periphery of London, Folkestone has limited job and exhibition opportunities. The capital often attracts aspiring creative talent, and these people tend to leave the town and establish careers in the city. The energy and critical mass associated with recent graduates is missing from Folkestone.

The art scene in Folkestone hasn’t quite established a consistent presence. It’s often difficult for audiences and practitioners in Folkestone to navigate and promote events that are happening.

Independent arts activity usually peaks around the Folkestone Triennial and is often in temporary spaces.

Folkestone’s fascination with off-site projects has resulted in the decision to abandon having a traditional permanent gallery space. The lack of a permanent gallery team and regular casual work associated with a gallery space has restricted how the art scene can establish its self.

The postgraduate faculty from the University for the Creative Arts have recently established an exhibition / project space in Folkestone called the Brewery Tap. This is helping build an interface for critical discourse and helps graduates build links between their university and projects happening in the town.

There are benefits of living and working in Folkestone, especially if you have a studio based practice. Simple tasks like buying wood and fixtures are just a quick walk away. Most things you need are within easy reach and this makes producing work a lot less stressful.

On local opportunities

Throughout the 10 years I have been working as an artist in Folkestone the benefits and problems facing artists have changed as the regeneration strategy has progressed. The types of opportunities have also altered.  I have continuously adapted my skill sets to suit the work and funding available.

The majority of local artists in Folkestone want to sell work in order to make an income.  Most are adapting what they produce to suit the tastes of the local art market.

The Folkestone Creative Quarter is a project managed by the Creative Foundation and provides the ideal platform for this. The Creative Quarter’s refurbished properties support a mixture of creative business including food and drink, retail, wellbeing and education, along with studios for artists and makers.

The Creative Foundation team provide PR, marketing and engagement opportunities and sustainable rents for their tenants. In return, the rental income is intended to fund the running costs of the organisation and finance maintenance of their properties.

Artists who mainly under take commissioned projects or residencies tend to work as producers for other arts companies as well. This allows them to generate a supplementary income that supports their practice.

Margate, Folkestone and Whitstable are all contributing high quality internationally recognised events and galleries. These flagship projects are delivered by regionally based organisations and provide freelance employment opportunities for an artist in the region.

One of the major disadvantages of working locally has been the huge impact of the recent budget cuts to arts funding. There has been a huge decrease in funded opportunities with some smaller spaces and organisations downsizing or closing altogether.

The economy of East Kent has traditionally been reliant on wealth attracted from London. Cultural activity in Folkestone directly benefits from its links with London audiences and money they spend in the area.

The criteria for the funding of artistic activity in East Kent is often influenced by the broader benefits it might offer to the regional development.

In part, the role of the arts in Kent is a mechanism to widen the cultural tourism offer, help instigate place making and boost the local economy.

The culture of Strategic Development in the region has at times suffocated independent artistic endeavour that cannot easily be placed with in a framework of regeneration.

Over the last decade, most small artist-led spaces and organisations have struggled to attract enough core funding to sustain themselves. Despite the allocated regional arts funding work is often carried out ‘gratis’ in order to deliver a broad and progressive program of visual arts in the region. Often the concept of place making has overshadowed the requirements of the people that make the place.

Other useful local projects and venues include Turner Contemporary, the Folkestone Triennial and the Whitstable Biennale.

On creating projects

I chose to move back to Folkestone in 2005 around the beginning of the regeneration. At this time the Creative Quarter was relatively fluid and it was relatively simple to set up the B&B Project Space.

The Creative Foundation was managing a small portfolio of properties with the intention of refurbishing them to become units for creative business.

I was offered a small, Edwardian former shop unit and B&B. The space was ideal; it was run down, cheap and full of character.

Rather than set up a commercial gallery I wanted to develop a project space that focussed on how contemporary art could respond reflect and respond to the social and cultural changes occurring in the town.

I set up the B&B Project space in 2005 to compliment the exhibitions program at the Metropole galleries. I wanted to establish a Project Space that acted as a platform to help local artists maintain a dialogue with the London art scene. The space also offered artists from outside the town a space to develop work outside of London.

In 2008 when the Folkestone Triennial superseded the Metropole galleries, I adapted the program at the B&B project space events to suit the Triennial.

To help raise funds for independent projects I started a small, not-for-profit club society called Club Shepway.  The club was intended to operate in a similar fashion to other local civic societies in the town.

Based at the B&B Project Space, Club Shepway also hosted off-site events, curatorial projects, and developed a number of publications. In 2008, Club Shepway raised funds to establish the Folkestone Fringe.

Folkestone’s proximity to both London and the continent has offered some interesting opportunities for me as an artist.

I have been fortunate enough to undertake various cross-border residencies and collaborative projects with fellow artists from Nord-Pas-de-Calais euro region.

Interregional funding has supported a number of large-scale arts projects with organisations from Kent and East Sussex with the aim of promoting and developing Cross-Border Regionalism.

One such project was ‘Landscapes Cities People’ (LCP), a three-year collaborative project of exhibitions, conferences, audience development, and education activities.

On building a profile

It takes time to build profile and reputation anywhere, however being in the right place at the right time certainly helps.  During the last 10 years my artistic practice and reputation working for professional organisations has grown.

Working regionally throughout a period of intense regeneration has helped me establish a profile though alternative means. For example the cross-border initiatives are specifically intended for artists working in Kent and East Sussex. Proportionally London has more opportunities but it is a lot more competitive.

It’s easier to get noticed as an artist in a town like Folkestone. You have to be self-sufficient and often create your own opportunities and exhibitions. Helping other artists to show their work has helped me expand my networks and opportunities.

Working on projects such as the Triennial is one of the biggest profile boosts for artists in Folkestone.  There are opportunities to meet established curators, critics and artists in a relatively informal context.

I have found the Triennial curatorial team to be genuinely supportive of artists wishing to host independent events.

However, without opportunities from London there is a glass ceiling restricting the level of profile you can build in Folkestone and East Kent.  There are no commercial galleries that sell work to serious collectors so it’s a relatively DIY affair in the sunny south east.

As the London art world begins to investigate what the south east has to offer, I think Kent will eventually become more integrated in to the London scene.

On where an artist can more easily make a living

From what I see in London, artists are constantly being pushed and priced out of the capital as gentrification takes effect.

I personally quantify successfully making a living by how much money you have left after all your outgoings.

In my experience it has been possible to make a living as an artist outside of London. Artists wishing to make a living regionally may be forced to compromise how they work in order to achieve this.

With the right balance of affordable studio space, funding, and regional arts institutions, artists can establish regional networks that access the London art scene.

That said, the cities still offer the broadest platform to make a living. Towns like Folkestone have unique attributes but are restricted by their limited opportunities.

Ultimately it’s very difficult for small town to develop a healthy balance of sustainable, independent, artist-led spaces and the larger organisations.

If I was forced to relocate to another area in order to produce work Bristol has always seemed like a good option.

It’s far enough away from London to have established its own identity with a healthy art scene but can still access the capital easily.

East Kent is a really interesting region at the moment.  It is developing its own cultural identity and exploring its heritage and function in close proximity to London.

It’s easy to find affordable space to set up temporary shows on a small budget.  There just isn’t the critical mass of artists or audience yet, but we have a lot to offer when they come.

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