Whitstable, home to over 30,000 people and holiday destination for more, is a medium sized seaside town on the North Kent coast centred on the beachfront and working harbour. It’s well known for its independent shops, attractive buildings, good rail links to London and a burgeoning food scene. At the weekends and on sunny days, the town’s population grows with day trippers and second home owners, the small high street and alleyways bustling and full.
But it wasn’t always like this and Whitstable’s reputation as a desirable destination is a relatively recent phenomenon, brought about in part by the restoration of the oyster beds in the early 1990’s and by its community of artists, filmmakers, writers and creatives.
Canterbury, twenty minutes in-land, has three universities with Arts faculties, the starting point for the careers of a number of the town’s artists and where many work, the dual role of teacher and artist enabling them to sustain their practice. Some artists came to Whitstable escaping from London, for the north light, decent schools and proximity to employment. Others who had studied in Canterbury stayed on. You might once have been able to say people were drawn by the affordability of the houses, but that accolade would now go to Whitstable’s edgier neighbour Margate, the destination for many of today’s artist pioneers.
Additionally, whilst it can boast a vibrant community of professional artists, the town lacks significant production facilities or spaces in which to present work and aside from the Whitstable Biennale there are no regular commissioning opportunities. A number of private galleries and studios are tucked in amongst the design, clothing and vintage shops, but other than a gallery space within the town’s museum and at the Horse Bridge Centre there is no real exhibition space of scale.
The Biennale seeks to address this lack of formal ‘art’ space. It has become an integral part of the exhibition that ‘found’ spaces are used, from the empty Post office sorting office, shipping containers on the harbour side, warehouses, Scout halls and empty offices. Along with associated fringe “Whitstable Satellite” the Biennale has over the past 15 years provided a much needed focus, especially for artists wanting to make work outside the gallery.
Emma Wilcox, Creative Producer