Folkestone, down on the Kent coast, was the second public art collection on my schedule of summer research visits. This was my second trip to Folkestone – having been down last November to catch the end of the Folkestone Triennial. As a legacy of the Triennial (now running to three editions), Folkestone now advertises itself as a ‘gallery without walls’: home to a collection of contemporary artworks originally commissioned for the Triennial but now retained as permanent public art installations. This collection now runs to 27 works scattered (or inserted) across the town and along its seafront. Like the Triennial itself the collection is managed by the Creative Foundation, the local charitable organization that is the driving force behind the town’s programme of creativity led regeneration.
During my research visit, and in what has become part of the methodology for this element of my fieldwork, I took myself on a mapped out public art walk around the town. My guide for this was the Folkestone Artworks’ printed pocket map produced by the Creative Foundation. In my experience local, on the ground, information on public art is often hard to find but in Folkestone I found the map was widely available – I was able to pick up a copy from a stack in the reception of my hotel.
As this was a follow up visit after coming down to the Triennial last year I was intrigued to see which artworks had been kept for the permanent collection. I was particularly pleased that one of the major works I didn’t have time to go and see in November is still here – ‘Beach Hut in the Style of Nicholas Hawksmoor’ – very grand alongside the other beach huts along this stretch of the lower promenade. As does Richard Wilson’s set of quirky crazy golf huts a little further along the beach – these ‘collected’ from the 2008 Triennial.
2014 additions to the permanent collection that I caught up with again on this visit also included: Yoko Ono’s ‘Earth Peace’, still flashing out its silent Morse Code message across the Channel (Artwork No. 7 on the map); Sarah Staton’s quayside pavilion ‘Steve’ (Artwork No 11, a work that provided me with much needed shelter from the pouring rain on my previous visit); and Strange Cargo’s ‘The Luckiest Place on Earth’. A set of four bright luck-givers tucked up under a railway bridge this was the first and last work in the Folkestone Artworks collection encountered on my visit (Artwork No 2 on the map). Also interesting to see that two very different public art projects are also labeled as part of the collection: ‘Payers Park’, the playful public infrastructure designed by muf Architecture; and the participatory-conceptual (?) work, ‘Folkestone Digs’, created by German artist Michael Sailstorfer. This generated the Folkestone gold rush that captured much media attention at last year’s Triennial. The site of this work is now marked on the map of the collection and by an on-site plaque, suggesting that there may still be gold to be found….
Overall there’s clearly a strong visual branding dimension to the collection. Unlike the public art collection I visited in Milton Keynes (where, as in Newcastle-Gateshead, the history of contemporary public art commissioning goes back some fifty and more years) Folkestone Artworks is a ‘young’ collection. The earliest works sited here only go back seven years, to 2008, the year of the first Triennial. As a result, the interpretive material (both print and online) and the onsite labeling of the art collection is all very consistent, quite unlike the jumble of historic formats of public art signage and interpretation that I’ve encountered elsewhere.
Alongside the Folkestone Artworks map the Creative Foundation has also produced audio guides to ten of the artworks in the collection. (Although I wanted to listen to a selection of these as I toured the artworks the memory capacity of my mobile phone and the limitations of my data allowance let me down here – a good lesson to remember re lived user experience of mobile digital interpretation.) The Foundation also runs an active and varied programme of engagement activities around the public art collection. Designed to take full advantage of the Folkestone landscape these events have included guided public artwork cycle and kayaking tours and even cultural dog walks. For the 2015 launch of the new edition of the Folkestone Artworks collection the Foundation also invited artists and thinkers to submit proposals for a programme of ‘Takeover Tours’ that could offer new perspectives on the artworks or new approaches to the concept of what a public art tour might be. For me these engagement events, the interpretative materials and on-site labelling and mapping are essential elements within the visual architectural envelope of – and the virtual entrances to – this ‘gallery without walls’.