In Discussion with Vestalia Chilton: Founder & Director of Kensington + Chelsea Art Week
Vestalia Chilton is on a mission. Together with the Kensington + Chelsea Art Week committee, this West London enthusiast aims to create a festival which does not divide the borough. Instead, she seeks to connect its various neighbourhoods through art and culture. “One of the biggest objectives of Kensington + Chelsea Art Week is to merge the different areas and create a cohesive festival which does not divide the borough, but connects it through art and culture, and gives everybody a level playing field. That is our underlining mission” stated Vestalia, in her discussion of Kensington’s diverse neighbourhoods.
If anybody knows their way around these neighbourhoods, it is Vestalia Chilton. Alongside directing Kensington + Chelsea Art Week for the third year running, Chilton works as the resident curator at the local Exhibitionist Hotel. She is also the brains behind Attollo-Art, a company which is committed to making art accessible to the masses, which is an aim projected throughout the Kensington + Chelsea Art Week.
However, even with her professional life, aside, Chilton is no stranger to these streets, as the director shared her adoration for the neighbourhoods in which she calls home. “I really care about the area, so I hope that through the art week, we can show off more of what makes it so special” began Chilton, in particular reference to Notting Hill. “Chelsea is also a wonderful place” she continued: “I am often asked why I am involved, and I tell people it is because I love what’s not particularly obvious, what’s goes on behind the scenes”.
“ 99% of the best bits of what goes on in these places is rarely spoken about. It’s the extraordinary people and clubs which make up the essence of Chelsea. There is such a mix of different people, but you don’t necessarily hear about it very often”
The conversation then turns to address the most important objective behind the Kensington + Chelsea Art Week: the aim to connect the borough through the use of art which is accessible for every individual to enjoy. “A lot of it is positive, but some of it is very difficult too” began Chilton:
“The shock of the Grenfell Tower fire put a spotlight on that area and exposed all of the issues that were bubbling underneath the surface”.
“As a result of the fire, there has been some incredible changes and U-Turns in the way things are done. The North and South Kensington of the borough are differently. One of the biggest challenges and the biggest objective of Kensington and Chelsea Art Week is to support a creative dialogue between the two areas, and create a cohesive festival which does not divide the borough but actually connects it through art and culture”.
With the festival kicking off in a matter of days, Vestalia Chilton is working around the clock to ensure the week is a success; however, preparation began for the director as soon as she concluded the 2019 Art Week, as Chilton revealed: “Planning for the next festival starts as soon as we finish the current festival, so we have been working on it for a whole year. Now all of the festival planning has been put in place, so we are now producing. Right now, we are turning the plans which we have made throughout the year into a reality”.
There is one overriding theme that all of Vestalia’s projects have in common, and that is the aim to make art accessible to the general public. While this is the primary goal of both Attollo-Art and the Kensington + Chelsea Art Week, it is also an essential focus of Vestalia Chilton’s work for The Exhibitionist Hotel.
“The point of the Exhibitionist is to basically become an evolving art gallery”
“We are all about provisional space, and we surprise visitors with the fact that art doesn’t have to be in a gallery. Many visitors tell us that they wouldn’t have ever visited a gallery if they had not gone to the hotel and that it is the first time they see art as something separate to this ivory tower metaphor”. Much of her curator role involves working with artists to find pieces which mirror the grandeur of the hotel, along with what is taking place in the broader city. “The filtering process is quite rigorous, and I try and plan a year ahead” revealed Chilton.
“We generally hold a two-month exhibition for each show, and I always link it through what is going on in London, or globally, so if there is a fashion week in London, I coincide that by exhibiting artists like SYRETT, who loves fashion and suits the theme perfectly. I have also been working with Hundred Heroines, who are part of the Royal Photographic Society. It was important for us to include female photography, so they are among the next work exhibited in the hotel. The calendar is reflective of what is going on in the wider city, and globally”.
Alongside SYRETT, Vestalia has also worked with other artists at Runway Gallery, including Pandemonia and French Cowboy. “I have known Pandemonia for around ten years, and I have exhibited the Connor Brothers, and French Cowboy” shared the curator. “I also really like Gary McQueen”.
It was while working at The Exhibitionist that Chilton first noticed the true potential of the local artists and businesses around South Kensington, who could excel in the shadow of internationally renowned museums and galleries who were drawing visitors to the neighbourhood.
“I realised that the South Kensington area was quite strange, but that, it is almost like a business card to the world”
“We have these great institutions, such as the V&A, meaning tourists come from around the world to visit this space. However, nobody really knows about all of the smaller local organisations. I was looking for a way to unite everybody; to sit on the shoulders of giants, who are actually very welcoming to the local organisations being more included. It just seemed like an obvious idea to come together and create an art week”.
This idea of Chilton’s first came alive in 2017, when she first launched the concept of the art festival. Three years later, Kensington + Chelsea Art Week has moved away from the initial ‘art weekend’ idea, and, as Vestalia shared, is now “a week-long celebration of culture throughout the whole of the borough. That also includes White City, which is just on the border of Kensington and Chelsea. We have expanded to be a celebration of art and culture across West London”. Despite the evolution of the event, the value of art has remained the same for Vestalia Chilton.
“I think it is becoming increasingly clear now that the value of art is culture; it is not just a picture on a wall”.
“This idea is where art week came from. I wanted to step away from the valuation of art in financial means and start working in the public realm. I wanted to ask, what does culture represent?”
What has made the preparation for this year’s festival so much harder than previous years is the uncertainty of the COVID-19 pandemic, which continues its grip in the final days before the launch. Most significantly, the week was postponed from July to early October, and although the unprecedented nature of the virus continues to threaten the festival, the director affirms that it was the right choice.
“It was difficult to know if this was the right decision to make, but I believe we did make the right choice. It meant we did not let our community down, as we needed to be there for our creative’s at a time when everything else was cancelled”.
Instead of cancelling, Vestalia and her team replanned the events, including the public art trail, which the director is most looking forward to in this year’s show.
“The public art trail is our biggest one yet”.
“I am excited about finally revealing what the public art trail is going to look like, as we have adapted the trail to reflect everything that happened and it’s going to be exciting”.
The work does not stop for Vestalia Chilton at the conclusion of Kensington + Chelsea Art Week on the 11th October, as the director emphasised that as soon as the festival finishes, the preparation begins for the next one. “We will continue to work on bringing art to a wider audience” concluded Chilton who finally revealed, “and we hope to bring the structure of Kensington + Chelsea Art Week to other locations”.
By Megan Slack– Contributing Editor at Magazine by Runway Gallery