Medway has been reinventing itself since the closure of Chatham Dockyard in 1984, and one of the primary engines for 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 England 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 in Chatham, with studios, galleries, community spaces and a music studio. It has 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, which sits on the river and has fantastic views and light through the windows of its studios and large gallery space. The venue hosts monthly exhibitions in the tea room and main gallery, showing a good mix of community art as well as national and international contemporary art. It is also responsible for the Medway Open Studios project, which this year takes place 15-23 July.
Intra is a community hub in Rochester that focuses on printmaking, offering one of the best collections in Kent of specialist arts equipment accessible to the public. It is a not-for-profit organisation hosting creative events, classes, activities and studios. The focus here is fundamentally one of community and Intra is a key element in the fabric of Medway’s collaborative identity.
Now in its second year, the annual Medway Print Festival – of which I am co-founder – 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.
Medway’s premier gallery space is Rochester Art Gallery, with a programme that includes local and international artists curated by Allison Young. Rochester is also home to a University for the Creative Arts campus, with courses including fashion, photography, and jewellery design.
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 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 closing the school such a blow 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 art movements and continues to thrive thanks to the cooperation and collaboration between its many artistic souls.
Rochester Art Gallery
New works by Medway-based artists Lily Dudley, Laura Dunnage, Heather Haythornthwaite, Xtina Lamb and Adam Newton, who are showing their work as part of the Medway Print Festival and the Battle of Medway commemorations. 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
The Historic Dockyard
The Historic Dockyard Chatham, in partnership with Turner Contemporary, has co-commissioned an installation by the artist Jyll Bradley as part of the Battle of Medway 350th anniversary commemorations. Using old timber repurposed from one of the former naval buildings and combined with ‘edge-lit’ Plexiglas – orange to symbolise The Netherlands and green for Kent – Dutch/Light (for Agneta Block) is a perfect marriage of art and history that reflects upon the cultural exchange between the UK and Holland.
Taking place in the gorgeous converted gallery space, there is also a temporary exhibition that tells the story of the Battle of Medway through Dutch and British contemporary art, literature, historic manuscripts and extraordinary objects. ‘Breaking the Chain’ 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.
Jyll Bradley, until 6 August 2017; ‘Breaking the Chain’, until 3 September 2017, Chatham, Kent ME4 4TE. thedockyard.co.uk
Sun Pier House
During July this award-winning venue is showing ‘Little Pieces of Me’, a celebration of two years work by community arts group Move & Make, run by artist and creative practitioner Wendy Daws. The following month is ‘Sick!‘, a project I co-founded with Zara Carpenter. This group show features 13 international artists exploring their experiences living with invisible illness and encompasses painting, sculpture, photography, installation, performance and film. The exhibition includes an associated publication and film, and is preceded by a series of workshops at Intra.
Until 27 August 2017, Medway Street, Chatham ME4 4HF. www.sunpierhouse.co.uk
1. Luiza Jordan, installation, 2017, Chatham Dockyard. Photo: Matt Bray
2. Adam Newton, Ebb, 2017, Rochester Art Gallery, Photo: Adam Newton
3. BA Fine Art Degree Show, ‘Reverberate’, 2017, University of Kent. Photo: Matt Bray
4. Jyll Bradley, Dutch/Light (for Agneta Block), Chatham Dockyard. Photo: Jyll Bradley
5. Rikard Österlund, Sick! @ Sun Pier House, 2017. Photo: Rikard Österlund