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A sunny day out in Folkestone

Evan Davis | 11:46 UK time, Friday, 13 June 2008

It's good for presenters to get out of the office. We don't always have the time or inclination to do so but when offered the chance to spend a sunny day in Folkestone I jumped at it.

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Like so many of our fading seaside towns, Folkestone wants to re-invent itself. And like so many of them, it has decided to use art as a tool for regeneration.

So, it's holding a triennial arts festival. The event starts this weekend. You can find details here.

Evan with a gigantic seagullI had an early taste - you can see bits of that in the accompanying photos.

But I was as much interested in the question of whether art can generate economic results for a town, as in the art itself.

Can you really make people materially richer by building a sculpture or holding a festival? Enough towns seem to think so -- several of them in east Kent - Whitstable and Margate are trying it too. Can they all succeed?

I doubt it. Art can help a town by attracting a certain Bohemian population that adds life to the bars, character to the streets and a buzz to the name. Employers may then follow.

But art can't do much if every town does it. There aren't enough Bohemians. And there can never be an off-the-shelf formula for making a place distinctive.

Evan wanders in a disused train stationHowever, Folkestone itself will probably succeed better than other places. It has a secret weapon. It is not the art, it's the man Roger de Haan who is making it happen.

He is perhaps the first British oligarch that I have met (and I mean oligarch in the best possible sense of the word). He made lots of money with Saga, based in the town. And he's now trying to restore Folkestone's glory. He's investing tens of millions in not just the art, but into the new city academy school and soon the harbour and parts of the town centre that he has bought.

In his business career, De Haan saw a value in the old and made a mint with Saga. And now, he's seen the value in what looks like an old and decaying town - and has invested in that.

I know of no other examples of this kind of private sector municipal redevelopment. The best contribution the council can make is not to stand in the way of the man doing a job that might otherwise be theirs.

Evan interviews Roger de HaanWhich brings me back to the art. To make itself look hip, a town needs to be associated with the avant-garde. Folkestone has succeeded in that. It has top names, producing works relevant to Folkestone itself.

But the average age in Folkestone is high. Will an injection of cash, business clout and Turner prize winners really change the image?

If you do go to Folkestone by the way, you'll find a Tracy Emin bronze piece on the railway station. Look carefully for it as you get off the train, it's a tiny sculpture of a baby's teddy bear. (Part of a series scattered all over the place, of small childrens' items. A statement about the high rate of teen pregancies I believe).

I guess it will be a measure of the town's success in regenerating itself, if it hasn't been carried off by someone before the Triennial closes.


  • Comment number 1.

    "But the average age in Folkestone is high", therefore has a boring image. I'm 63, sorry to be such a blot on the landscape. Where would you like me to crawl off to? Clearly not the university where I'm doing an archaeology degree or anything else I enjoy that takes me out of the demographic profile chosen for me. I wouldn't want to lower the "avant-garde" tone.

  • Comment number 2.

    I enjoyed Evan Davis's article about Folkstone regenerating itself. New artworks and galleries can be a divisive "improvement" and Folkstone is lucky to have a local impresario to inject the energy and the cash.
    So many of us view cultural innovations as being "not for us" or not likely to benefit us and where they are seen to replace more "useful" amenities there is likely to be serious opposition. The trick is to involve the entire local population and to persuade them they will benefit... but as far as coastal towns are concerned, particularly channel ports, maybe the seaside and coastal traffic is the most important cultural aspect and small bronze teddy bears on railway stations are perhaps completely irrelevant.

  • Comment number 3.

    I hope you enjoy your time out of the office....


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