Bob and Roberta Smith, Draw Hope, Estuary 2021. Photo: Rob Harris

The role of an international arts festival in placemaking

To investigate the role that publicly funded culture can play in our national recovery, the Local Government Association created a new independent Commission on Culture and Local Government.

Recently this commission has published a number of case studies to demonstrate the part funded culture can play in place, social mobility, inclusive economic recovery and health inequalities.

Estuary 2021 was one of these case studies…


The Thames Estuary has a strong creative and cultural cluster, but has experienced underinvestment in these industries and under-provision of cultural facilities. As part of Creative Estuary, funded by the Department for Culture, Media and Sport’s (DCMS) Cultural Development Fund, Estuary succeeded in attracting local and national visitors, generating significant economic activity and helping to improve perceptions and pride in the Estuary. It showed the potential for the sector to attract high-quality artists and a range of audiences, and many of the benefits are being sustained into the future.

The challenge

Creative Estuary, as part of the Thames Estuary Production Corridor is designed to address a number of challenges and opportunities. These include:

  • coordination failure between the various creative and cultural assets along the Thames Estuary
  • need to improve the cultural identity and connections between communities along the Estuary and the limited collaboration between creatives within the region
  • information failures where the creative offer of the Thames Estuary has a low profile and therefore unable to achieve its full potential
  • new planned developments with opportunities to create exciting places to live and work

As a result of these challenges, the region has experienced a pattern of underinvestment in creative and cultural assets and under-provision of creative and cultural facilities. Creative Estuary has a mission to unlock creative and cultural potential through greater collaboration. Estuary is a high impact and highly visible arts festival which operates within the Creative Estuary programme and plays a key role in responding to this mission.

The Creative Estuary Programme recognises that wider awareness of the growing creative cluster in the Thames Estuary would better attract businesses, investment and skilled workers into the cluster. It also seeks to engage and inspire local people within the arts to support the future skills pipeline.

In highlighting the local creative cluster, Estuary 2021 also responds to the opportunity to improve perceptions of the Thames Estuary region and demonstrate its strengths as a place to live, work, invest and do business. This in turn enhances the local community’s pride of place, sense of belonging, attracts high quality artists and generates economic impact in the form of visitors spending, enhanced local skills and an increase in local artistic talent. This is in addition to the economic benefits generated by the spending of artists, organisations and visitors throughout the course of the festival itself.

The solution

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Celebrate the region’s emerging creative and cultural sector

Estuary 2021 celebrated the Thames Estuary region’s emerging creative and cultural sector, building on the achievements of the 2016 Estuary festival.

Estuary 2021 was delivered as part of the wider Creative Estuary initiative. Creative Estuary seeks to transform the Thames Estuary region into a globally competitive creative industry hub.

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Monetary investment and in-kind support

Investment of £1,455,400 and in-kind support enabled Estuary 2021 to be delivered.

This included a £30,000 contribution from Kent County Council and £30,000 from Medway Council, as well as £863,000 from the DCMS’ Cultural Development Fund, £171,600 from Arts Council England and £25,000 from the Thames Estuary Growth Board. The total value of in-kind support generated by Estuary 2021 was calculated at £834,100. This includes provision of partner venues and sites across South Essex and North Kent that hosted artworks, events and activities during the festival period.

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Include many strands of activity

Estuary 2021 had many strands of activity, offering a mix of performance, installation, immersive storytelling, GPS-located audio, murals, walks and tours which presented new perspectives on well-known Estuary landmarks, inviting audiences to explore some of the lesser-known Estuary environments. The festival generated a large volume of work across 63 commissions, 11 publications, 27 films, six podcasts, and 86 creative projects through the associated programme. The full programme can be viewed here.

The impact

Estuary 2021 generated significant economic and social benefits for the Thames Estuary creative cluster:

208,800 visitors

The festival attracted 208,800 in person visitors, 89,800 of whom were non-local and 54,000 visited specifically for the festival. 87 per cent of visitors were new to the festival. An online presence enabled a more diverse range of people to engage, who otherwise faced barriers to attending due to Covid-19 restrictions.

30 full time jobs

The event generated a total of 30 full time equivalent direct jobs, 22 of which were for local people. The festival management sought to recruit locally where possible.

£84,400 economic value

Sixty-eight volunteers worked on the project, contributing £84,400 in economic value, a valuable step on the career path of volunteers due to the exposure of gaining new skills and acquiring experience in the creative economy.

£16.8m economic activity

Delivery organisations spent a total of £1.5 million, of which £620,000 was spent locally. Spend by attendees and participants was £15.3 million, of which it is estimated £4.5 million was spent by attendees who would not otherwise have been in the area. In total the festival generated £16.8 million of economic activity.

£6.5m economic impact

The event had a total economic impact of £6.5 million, of which £5.2 million was direct and the remainder indirect impact through multiplier effects.

Co-commi ssions

Estuary 2021 included a number of co-commissioned works delivered through the Creative Estuary Co-commissioning workstream.

Through this, Estuary 2021 provided an opportunity for people involved in the creative cluster and residents of Thames Estuary to recognise the strengths of the sector and develop a shared identity and sense of belonging. The project helped to improve perceptions of Thames Estuary as a creative and cultural place, with 97 per cent of survey respondents agreeing that Estuary 2021 has been good for the local image and 90 per cent of the audience stated that their visit to Estuary 2021 improved their perception of the Thames Estuary as a creative and cultural place.

How is the new approach being sustained?

Several Estuary 2021 activities contribute to its impact being sustained. A selection of artworks, including Katrina Palmer’s work Hello Retreat which was co-commissioned with England’s Creative Coast remain in situ. The festival also developed a strong local reputation and a number of successful long-term partnerships.

An evaluation of the festival found a strong appetite for continued programming amongst local residents, businesses and visitors. The festival’s engagement and reach also demonstrated the widespread opportunity within the Estuary region by showcasing its arts and creative activity and assets.

Estuary 2021 played an important role within the wider Creative Estuary programme. It acted as a spark to draw attention to showcasing the wealth of talent and opportunity, bring together sector contributors and pilot the Thames Estuary as one coherent geography.

Examples of further Estuary 2021 activities with a long-term impact include:

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Estuary 2021 is working with the Association of South Essex Local Authorities (ASELA) to develop the cultural vision for South Essex Estuary Park. The vision is for a parkland setting in South Essex that provides leisure activities and will drive inclusive green growth for residents and tourists, while increasing the attractiveness of the area. It has grown from the South Essex Green and Blue Infrastructure Study.

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The festival made use of vacant spaces, repurposing them as venues for artworks and events. This included a barn converted into display space which is being retained to enable future arts programming. This brought new visitors to previously underused areas and demonstrated the potential for development of further vacant or underused buildings. This demonstrates to partners, in particular to local government, how these spaces can be given a new lease of life.

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One of seven Estuary 2021 objectives was to build awareness in relation to environmental sustainability. Audiences responded positively, with 66 per cent of the audience surveyed citing climate as the festival theme which interested them most.

Lessons learned

Estuary 2021 displayed many examples of best practice in place development including:

  • the promotion of high quality content and professionalism with a strong brand to attract quality participants and diverse audiences and securing strong partnerships
  • adapting quickly to external challenges such as Covid-19 and implementing online audience access quickly and to a high quality
  • use of an overarching narrative of an ‘epic walk’ to present the event as a cohesive programme of activity in the landscape while enabling its reach across a wide geography
  • taking a place-based and responsive approach to the programme, which audiences welcomed and helped build pride in place
  • clustering activity such as Watt Tyler Park built a more visible and accessible programme.

The placemaking projects and future iterations of the festival could also consider the following lessons:

  • making full use of the associated programme of events to deliver a wider impact than can be delivered purely through the festival’s core activities.
  • capturing data such as the make-up and feedback of digital as well as physical engagement
  • finding ways to retain audience interest and opportunities for artists to make new work between events, with significant gaps in time such as Estuary 2016 and 2021
  • wider delivery of inclusive projects to ensure engagement from a variety of audiences
  • clarifying the offer, for example by promoting different locations of activity so audiences can choose how they engage
  • providing resources which advise visitors on how to make the most of the large scale activities within limited time availability.