For the latest in our Scene Report series, artist and curator Matt Bray reports from Medway in south east England on a scene with a close-knit and independently-minded community spirit.
Medway has been reinventing itself since the closure of Chatham Dockyard in 1984, and one of the primary engines of that change has been its vibrant community of artists. The cultural landscape is ad-hoc and independent; most projects are artist-led, although frequently supported by Medway Council and Arts Council funding.
There is a strong history of music and literature in Medway which bleeds into the visual arts network, with many of its key practitioners coming from a multidisciplinary background. That sense of cross-pollination and playfulness is what makes this close-knit community feel so genuine and honest. One of the key venues for such interactions is Nucleus Arts, with studios, galleries, community spaces, and music studios – they have been supporting artists of all stripes for 15 years, fuelling the current surge in creative confidence in the area.
Another great venue is the award winning Sun Pier House, it sits on the river so has fantastic views and light through the windows of its studios and large gallery space. They host monthly exhibitions in the tea room and main gallery, showing a good mix of community art as well as national and international contemporary art, they are also responsible for the Medway Open Studios project, which this year runs from 15 – 23 July.
INTRA is a community hub that focuses on printmaking, offering one of the best collections in Kent of specialist arts equipment accessible to the general public. They are a not for profit hosting creative events, classes, activities and studios – the vibe here is fundamentally one of community and they are a key element in the fabric of Medway’s collaborative identity.
Now in its second year, the annual Medway Print Festival has quickly become a staple of the arts calendar. The festival celebrates Medway’s strong tradition of printmaking and brings together exhibitions and workshops across 12 of the most prominent arts venues in the area, helping to forge new ties between the various arts organisations here.
Medway’s premier gallery space is Rochester Art Gallery, with a program that includes local and international artists curated by Allison Young. The gallery is supported by Medway Council and due to the high quality of its exhibitions and perfect position opposite Rochester Cathedral, always draws a crowd.
In 2009 the University of Kent made Chatham Dockyard the new home for its School of Music and Fine Art, transforming several of the historic buildings there into studios and teaching spaces. The 2017 degree show was the best yet in my opinion, and the flow of art graduates into the area has been a great boon. All of which makes the recent news that the University will be discontinuing their arts program and closing the school such a sucker punch to so many.
Medway is a small collection of towns that somehow manages to punch well above its weight in terms of art production; it has a great tradition of grassroots, home-baked art movements and continues to thrive thanks to the cooperation and collaboration between its many artistic souls. Long may the Medway spirit continue to shine!
Sun Pier House
During July this award winning venue is showing ‘Little Pieces of Me’; a celebration of 2 years work by community arts group Move & Make run by artist and creative practitioner Wendy Daws. The following month is Sick! 13 international artists exploring their experiences living with invisible illness, encompassing painting, sculpture, photography, installation, performance and film. The Sick! project was co-founded by Zara Carpenter and Matt Bray, and is supported by Arts Council England. The exhibition includes an associated publication and film, and is preceded by a series of workshops at INTRA
Until 27 August 2017, Medway St, Chatham ME4 4HF. www.sunpierhouse.co.uk
Rochester Art Gallery
New works by Lily Dudley, Laura Dunnage, Heather Haythornthwaite, Xtina Lamb and Adam Newton. Winners of the Medway Printmakers Bursary 2017, Showing at Rochester Art Gallery & Rochester Cathedral. Five Medway based artists, all pushing the boundaries of contemporary printmaking are showing their work as part of the 350 year commemorations of the Battle of Medway and Medway Print Festival 2017. Working in partnership with the Guildhall Museum, the artists used the collection of Dutch prints (currently on display at the museum for the first time), as inspiration for work that explores the location, history and stories of the Dutch raid.
Until 28 August 2017, 95 High Street, Rochester, Kent ME1 1LX. www.medway.gov.uk/…rochesterartgallery
The Historic Dockyard
The Historic Dockyard Chatham, in partnership with Turner Contemporary, Margate, has co-commissioned an installation by the artist Jyll Bradley as part of the Battle of Medway commemorations. Using old timber repurposed from one of the former naval buildings with ‘edge-lit’ Plexiglas; orange to symbolise The Netherlands and green for Kent, the ‘Garden of England’, Dutch/Light (for Agneta Block) is a perfect marriage of art and history to reflect upon the cultural exchange between the UK and The Netherlands amongst the commemoration of the Battle of Medway.
From June to September, they are also showing a temporary exhibition in their gorgeous converted gallery space, telling the story of the Battle of Medway through Dutch and British contemporary art, literature, historic manuscripts and extraordinary objects. The Breaking the Chain Exhibition vividly brings the Battle of Medway story to life through art drawn from collections at The Royal Museum Greenwich, Rijksmuseum in Amsterdam, the Dutch National Maritime Museum, the Michiel de Ruyter Foundation and the British Library.
Until 6 August / 3 September 2017, Chatham, Kent ME4 4TE. thedockyard.co.uk
Luiza Jordan, Installation 2017, Chatham Dockyard. Photo: Matt Bray
Adam Newton, Ebb. 2017, Rochester Art Gallery, Photo: Adam Newton
Degree Show, Reverberate. 2017, University of Kent. Photo: Matt Bray
Rikard Österlund. 2017, Sick! @ Sun Pier House, Photo: Rikard Österlund
Jyll Bradley, Dutch/Light (for Agneta Block), Chatham Dockyard. Photo: Jyll Bradley