"Medway people are your rebels. They are your force for good and that scares people"
What Steven asked David Stokes, Chief Executive at Nucleus Arts
David Stokes has a PhD in genetics and is the CEO of Medway’s leading arts charity, Nucleus Arts. Steven met with David at their flagship site in Chatham to discuss what brought him to Medway, if science and art can mix, and what the Medway Towns should be celebrated for.
Where were you born?
I was born in Plymouth.
How did you end up in the Medway Towns?
I came here to work for KCC (Kent County Council) actually.
What jobs did your parents do growing up?
My dad was a buyer for various small companies, and my Mum worked at Tesco.
How did you find school and university?
Mixed. I was a bit lazy at school because I found it easy. I didn't do as well as I should have done, because I was too lazy. Then I went to university and then went to university again. The first time I went to UWE (University of the West of England) in Bristol to study Applied Biological Sciences, and the second time was UEA (University of East Anglia) in Norwich to study Genetics, which I got my PhD in.
What was your first full-time job?
Research scientist at the John Innes Centre. It was a world-leading research institute in agricultural sciences. I was researching heterosis, which is the process where you cross two different breeds of plants and you get better offspring. No one really knows why. I was doing a genetics programme on trying to understand why it is that if you cross two, they are better. From that, we developed a programme for predicting the outcomes of crosses, which we patented, which was quite exciting but didn’t make much money.
What additional roles, paid or unpaid do you do?
I am on a ton of committees. I am a director of Medway Pride Radio. I am part of Medway Sculpture Group. I'm on loads and loads of committees and groups, everything from the Social Prescribing Network, I’m the vice chair of the town centre forum, and the vice chair for community engagement for the Medway Arts, Creative Medway. I'm on NHS groups, I'm on regeneration groups, and mental health groups. About 12 different committees and groups.
What does the average day entail?
There isn't an average day. I have the weirdest and most exciting job in the world in so many ways. I could be in a meeting with researchers in the morning, talking about evaluation methodologies for arts for health, and then I could go and have a meeting with poets about the literary festival, and then I could be, as I was this morning, showing a filmmaker around to talk about scenes, then talking to artists about props and then helping put together an exhibition and then writing grant applications, and then being interviewed (laughs).
How does a geneticist with a PhD end up running an arts charity in Medway?
It's a long story. Nucleus Arts is an incredible place. I started off as a volunteer, back in 2013/14. Some friends and I wanted to set up a STEAM project in Medway, Science Technology Engineering Arts and Mathematics. My wife and I both worked for universities we realised that we're very privileged. We could take our kids to the Science Museum. We know lots of kids in Medway don't get this opportunity because there's a big cost barrier for doing these things. We wanted to make it available for young people in Medway and we were trying to build interest and one of the things we did was engage in a European project, which had a pop-up gallery in Intra. We were given that for a month to show this idea, and as part of it we did a science and art festival for a weekend with partners from universities, all of our friends, and engineering colleges. It just so happened that Nucleus Arts, Genevieve (Tullberg, Gallery Manager) in particular, was looking to engage in Fun Palace, a National Science and Art festival and it was their very first one that year. They asked me if I would be interested in helping them run the science bit of it. We've done that every year since. This is our 10th year, so in the meantime, I left working in research. I used to run public health research institutes, and I ran a smart cities and tech institute, and then I worked for a health charity as a Chief Executive for a few years, and then the job came up at Nucleus. It was a no-brainer.
How is Medway Art Box different to Nucleus Arts different to Café Nucleus different to Halpern Charitable Foundation?
Oh my goodness, it is a big old, complicated mess. There is the Halpern Charitable Foundation, which is the umbrella charity, set up by the incredible Halpern Family to support the arts and creative industries and to support tackling loneliness and social isolation health issues. That’s the overarching body.
Nucleus Arts is the main delivery body. We've got six sites currently in Medway. We have got the Nucleus Arts Centre, we have got the Heart space in the Pentagon, we've got the creative hub, we've got the Rochester Conservancy building and we've got a little phone box there, which is the Art Box, which is amazing fun, and we've got our new site opening up in Rainham. The Halpern Foundation also has a house full of flats, which we work with a partner to provide support and housing for people with mental health issues coming out of the NHS and other crisis care. They deal with all that, we provide the building and offer services to do activities.
Then within Nucleus Arts, we've got things like the Lightbox, which is our makerspace. It's got 3D printers and iPads and all sorts of cool stuff, which is quite unique in Medway. We've got the Halpern Gallery, we've got the Halpern Pop Gallery, and we've got lots of community rooms that are made available.
Café Nucleus are our partners. They're all separate businesses. We don't run them, we rent them space, but we work closely with them because they're amazing, so why wouldn't we? They help us raise money and they help us look after the sites, and they are a big reason why we've got such beautiful sites because they put so much effort into it.
I should mention we also run a whole bunch of community groups. We provide, each year, about 10-12,000 free and low-cost mental health creative spaces, across, I think, 13 regular groups for everything from 0-4 all the way up, of all different types. We also run events like the Chatham Carnival, the Fun Palace. We get involved in things like the Light Nights. We are desperately hoping to bring back the Chinese New Year parade, working with the incredible Kato Society and the Chatham Town Centre Forum. It used to be the largest Chinese parade outside of London, and I think with covid and China having restrictions for a lot longer than we did, a lot of the momentum has gone out of that. I think the society were funding it all themselves. I think there was a little bit of support from Medway Council, but it was mostly them. We have put in for some funding from the Shared Prosperity Fund grant scheme that Medway is running, which is a brilliant scheme if it works. We are hoping that we can get some funding from that so that we can help the Chinese society to bring this event back to Medway because that would be amazing.
We also have the dream of putting on a big comic and screen festival in Medway as well, a free one. It’s a huge thing. Lots of people love scifi and film, and Medway's got a massive film industry. We film a Hollywood movie a month, it feels like and we want to show that off, and we want to make it successful for everybody. We want to have a big free comic and screen festival, like a Comic Con, in Chatham High Street and the Pentagon Centre and everywhere, so that people who cannot normally afford to go to these things can come down and enjoy it.
What is a Fun Palace?
Fun Palace has the tagline ‘Everyone an artist, everyone a scientist.’ It comes from this crazy idea to just give people the opportunity to try things that they do not usually do. In theory, Fun Palace is supposed to be an opportunity for you to share skills with people. It's kind of evolved in Medway as a way to come down and see things that you might not normally see. The dockyard come down and do their dockyard show, and you get to play with their theremins and air cannons and all this cool tech. Last year they had a big bass speaker, cling film with cornflour and water on it, and the fluid dances to the music. It's an amazing opportunity to show off things. Our teen art group, are full of talented clever people, but a lot of them are really shy. They don't always have the best time at school, they don't always fit in even though they're incredible. They wanted to create a green screen exhibition as part of Fun Palace. Our non-digital group made all these amazing cosplay costumes, our digital team made all these beautiful digital backgrounds and not only did they make this stuff, but they also ran the stall. They were probably quite socially withdrawn in many situations and yet here with their art, they were dragging strangers in to have their photo taken, dressing them up, and they did that for six hours non-stop. We had to tell them to take breaks. We think we are the largest Fun Palace in the UK, which means we're probably the largest one in the world.
Where was that reported? Where is it being advertised? It's the 10th year, there will be people that didn't even know that we've had the first year.
Getting stuff out is probably the bane of my life because we try all the channels that we can. We put it all out through social media, we're linked into all the Medway Facebook groups, and so on and we can get stuff out through there. We're in Medway Matters, we get on radio shows to talk about Fun Palace, I was on BBC Radio Kent this week, and talking about the Ofsted report, but also putting in a plug for Fun Palace. We try. We put posters up and I think that part of our problem is that there's no one place people go to for information anymore.
What can Medway do to be more relevant in the sciences?
Medway is a brilliant place. We tend to focus too much on the easy things and by the easy things I mean Dickens. Let's do everything around Dickens, and why wouldn't we? Every other city would love to have Dickens, and a few others have claims to it. We have got so many other incredible people that we should be showing off. We've got the dockyard where they invented so many incredible things that changed the world.
We've got one of my favourite artists and scientists, which is a lady called Anne Pratt, who was a botanist and in the Victorian period everyone had copies of her books. She's such an amazing character. She is arts and science, she was self-taught, she's not rich, she's lower middle class, and Queen Victoria gave her a royal pension. That's how successful she was. She didn't get married until she was 60 and she catalogued the UK's plants or Medway's plants and birds and created these beautiful books and we've forgotten about her. If I had one thing that I could control in Medway's curriculum, it would be to put her front and centre, because she ticks so many boxes. She didn't invade other countries, she didn't drive her wife mad like certain famous writers did. She’s such an amazing character, so I would love to promote her as a kind of vision for science here, because you know we should all be learning about her. There are all these incredible amazing people that come from Medway, but we always focus on Dickens. We need to broaden our pantheon of heroes a little bit more.
Why do you think that we haven’t?
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