A Call to Arms for Creatives!

And just like that, Medway’s cultural heart beats a little slower & ever quieter as it is announced that the Rochester Campus for the University of the Creative Arts (UCA) is to close in 2023.


Words and photography: Holly Gilder


The news was shared via Kent Online to a local Facebook group & the general consensus appears to be one of grief & despondency. Locals of all ages have been sharing their happy memories of the institution or acquaintances made by association with it. It has drawn people to the area for decades, that would otherwise likely never have stepped foot in Medway & created some much-needed diversity in the locality. It’s brought fresh ideas & innovative thoughts that even when the students have left (although some have gone on to make the towns their home) the positive impact has remained. When in my late teens/early twenties it was obvious every time a new cohort of students began at the University, the new life they breathed into the area was so noticeable & so welcome.


Dating back to 1886 in its original incarnation as the Rochester School of Art & with an alumnus that boasts Zandra Rhodes, Stephen Webster & Karen Millen to name a few, it has been a steadfast symbol of success in the creative arts for decades, something the area needs now more than ever. Rhodes has commented on the news, remarking “because I come from the Medway Towns it’s sad knowing the effect…It’s sad to think of that whole thing closing down & poor old Medway being the one that suffers”. This news is of course very distressing for students already in the middle of their studies there. Fortunately there are other branches in Epsom, Canterbury & Farnham, & due to Epsom’s expansion they have been able to confirm they will be taking on fashion students to enable them to finish their qualifications. This is obviously good news for some, although the cost of travel & accommodation amongst other factors may cause issues for some.


Medway might be based in South East England, an area often considered wealthy but it has large & significant pockets of deprivation; the local paper recently reported that unemployment numbers are up 91% on last year’s figures. Generations of children now face potentially limited opportunities on leaving school & why should this division be entrenched further by taking away this creative institution. The Arts encourage & improve cognitive skills, create freedom of expression, give an outlet to those who may have been failed by “academic” education & ignite a lifelong passion & way of life for some. They have been targeted & underfunded horrifically for years by Conservative Government’s & the damage is evident & brutal, never more so in working-class communities. An article published only this week in the Guardian proclaimed of “plans for 50% funding cut to arts subjects at Universities” being labelled as “catastrophic”. In 2017 it was believed that the creative industries worth to the UK economy was £84.1 billion, so why when it comes to nurturing & educating in this field is it still considered so expendable? We already know there is an enormous void of working-class representation in the arts, a study by the Barbican in 2018 unveiled that only 12.4% of people working in tv, film & radio was of working-class origins. Alongside this, 87% of the respondents asked reported to having worked for free, irrespective of their creative occupation or demographics. Students from working-class areas are already at a disadvantage should they want to pursue this field, they aren’t likely to have the broad occupational networks of their middle-class peers, they can’t rely on the bank of mum & dad to support them through unpaid internships, & who can afford the cost of living in London!


My own Grandmother worked in the kitchen in the late 1980’s back when it was Kent Institute of Art and Design. A local woman, born into a large family, with little economic privilege but a talented painter & creative by nature. Although her status & perhaps to an extent, choices, choices would not allow her to pursue this as a career, her job at KIAD bridged the gap. Herself & my aunt used to take full advantage of the evening classes on offer & were welcomed as a part of the community. These classes included pottery & dressmaking, & gave them the opportunity to exercise their skills & interests in a group of likeminded people, as well as relief from the daily grind. No measure, financially or otherwise can show the importance its existence had in her life.


The closure of Chatham Docks in 1984 was (to put it lightly) the biggest kick in the teeth the area had seen in some time, economic devastation is never just that, it tore the heart & soul out of the place & the impact is still ricocheting through the community to this day. In recent years we’ve lost 19 of our Sure Start centres, our Primary Schools have their own on-site food banks & our high streets get more & more desolate by the day. This feels like an extension of putting the boot in further to a place & community already long forgotten, unless for comedy value & the sneer of middle classes (a quick google of “Medway”, “Luton Road” or Chatham’s now infamous “chav” is evidence of this). Putting class discrimination aside for a moment, the Arts are a fundamental necessity in society & should be available & accessible to be consumed by all who want them, Kurt Vonnegut echoed this belief that “the arts are not a way to make a living, they are a very human way of making life more bearable. Practicing an art, no matter how badly is a way to make your soul sing for heaven’s sake!”


This looks as though it’ll be the final nail in the bid for the city of culture coffin. Although, with the council & community seeming largely opposed to the plan, the fight for our creative epicentre is just beginning.


Power to the people, always!


Follow Holly Here...

Instagram: @holly_gilder


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