Bob and Roberta Smith Triennial project proclaims “Folkestone is an art school”

Visitors to the Kentish seaside town of Folkestone this autumn won’t fail to notice the assertion that the town itself “is an art school,” thanks to a socially aware, colourful and bold project by artist Bob and Roberta Smith.

Bob and Roberta Smith, FOLKESTONE IS AN ART SCHOOL. Commissioned by the Creative Foundation for Folkestone Triennial 2017. Image by Thierry Bal.

Smith’s distinctive hand-drawn lettering is emblazoned across roundabouts, billboards, buildings and the harbour itself as part of the  Folkestone Triennial 2017, which officially opens on 2 September. The project, simply entitled FOLKESTONE IS AN ART SCHOOL, comprises four strands: the typographic declarations, a series of 12 short pedagogical videos (available for all to view on the triennial site), a printed directory of art teaching facilities and talents in the town, and finally a teaching programme and exhibition at the FIAAS open space on Tontine Street. The programme is to be taught to a group of local students aged 16 – 23 selected by their tutors, and delivered by a “faculty” of artists and teachers based in the area. The students’ work will later be exhibited at the teaching space, which currently shows the work of the teachers and Smith’s video series.

According to the Folkestone Triennial organisers, “This artwork is not an art school, it points to the art school.”

Bob and Roberta Smith, FOLKESTONE IS AN ART SCHOOL. Commissioned by the Creative Foundation for Folkestone Triennial 2017. Image by Thierry Bal.

Smith came up with the idea for the project having been told that there were currently no art schools in Folkestone (though there had been one previously). On closer inspection of what the town had to offer, he discovered that everything needed for an art school is already in Folkestone, whether at formal settings like schools or sixth form colleges, or in the people who were working creatively in the town in other ways. It was just a case of reframing the resources that already existed, and recognising them differently. “It’s about capitalising on those,” he says. “We’re enacting the triennial almost.”

According to Smith, these efforts seem to be part of a positive drive for art to be more prominent locally – one college is set to start teaching a BTec in art and design that wasn’t in place before. “We’re trying to up the ante for art education,” says Smith. “People were saying that the town really needed an art school, but the teachers and courses they already have are actually brilliant.

“I think a lot of bigger institutions see art as an industry-based activity [courses such as film or graphic design] but whatever the subject is they’re teaching the children art. The practical skills they impart are very important, but they may never be used later on in life. That’s why we’re calling the town itself an art school.”

The artist himself will be the “13th student”. Isn’t that unlucky? “I’ll be the one who ends up dropping out!” he says.

“I suppose a lot of artists consider themselves autodidacts. I still always think of myself as a student.”

The Folkestone Triennial 2017 runs from 2 September until 5 November at various venues across the town. 

Bob and Roberta Smith, FOLKESTONE IS AN ART SCHOOL. Commissioned by the Creative Foundation for Folkestone Triennial 2017. Image by Thierry Bal.

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