In a climate of uncertainty, where resources are stretched and when the whole arts sector is fighting harder than ever to demonstrate their value, whether socially or financially what is the future for Arts Centres up and down the land?
For a year now the National Partnership of Arts Centres, which I sit on as CEO of Lincoln Drill Hall has been exploring ways to raise the profile of and articulate the unique offer that multi-disciplinary arts centres across the country can deliver.
Against a perceived history that sometimes Arts Centres are seen as the poor relation of bigger theatre or concert venues, overlooked in the wider arts ecology conversation we are determined to bang the drum for the breadth of what we offer, both in terms of artistic, community and social engagement to our audiences. We have secured significant editorial coverage in recent months. It feels as if there is more recognition from Arts Council of Arts Centres as distinct and unique hubs of development and delivery. And as I write I am on the train home from Future Arts Centres, a day long event organised by NPAC, bringing together leaders of over 50 arts centres from across the UK to have an open conversation about where the movement (If we can call it that) is heading.
Preparation for this type of event is always fraught with uncertainty. Will people turn up? Does anyone care in the way that we think they do? Will delegates engage positively, or try and use it for a different agenda. For these, plus other reasons we framed the day not as a conference, but as an open conversation. We developed three simple but what we felt were key central questions.
Are Arts Centres important to the cultural, artistic and social life of our cities and towns?
What are the issues currently facing Arts Centre Leaders?
What are the opportunities for Arts Centres in the future?
Each question was prefaced by two provocations to stimulate discussion, with each table facilitated by a member of NPAC and with a separate note taker, which meant the focus of the leaders there was actually on conversation. A key element of the day was that the pressure wasn’t on to feedback each table’s discussion after each question. The attendees were from arts centres large and small, from diverse organisational structures and from the length and breadth of the country.
I was so energised by the conversations that I wanted to put together some personal reflection here. Out of the three questions posed, I certainly found the first the most interesting. It would be all too easy for a group of Arts Centre leaders to immediately say yes, of course we’re important, but in an open conversation we were challenged to interrogate this. The provocations helped as one started by stating that arts centres aren’t inherently important to towns and cities, or certainly no more so than any other public amenity, but when doing the right things can have a unique function which otherwise would not exist.
Evidence we’ve gathered in Lincoln would point to an importance placed upon us for our audiences. Recent research we’ve undertaken shows that 93% of audiences feel we are welcoming to the whole community and that we make a positive contribution to Lincoln’s image. Over 80% agree that we enhance the sense of community in Lincoln and that we encourage greater participation in community life. That’s fantastic. But to some extent it is only part of the picture. These results come from a survey of people that I would largely categorise as supporters, either those approached as they come into the venue or who responded through our e-newsletter database. I wonder what the response would have been if we’d surveyed people living on one of the estates just outside the city centre, or randomly chosen people on the high street on a Saturday lunchtime.
I asked what I felt was a really important sub-question as part of our discussion, which I feel is perhaps better. If Arts Centres disappeared, would anyone care? What would be the impact? There was a different reaction to this question. For some a categorical yes, there would be uproar and the community would rally round. In some cases this had already happened. I like to think that the people of Lincoln would if it came to it, but I hope that I never have to test the theory. There was though a sense from my conversation that for some the answer isn’t as equivocal yet.
We play an important social role at the Drill Hall as well as an artistic one. Events such as Lincoln Beer Festival, Vintage Fairs, International Women’s Friendship groups that meet with us bring in thousands of people each year, but don’t automatically bring attendees to the arts programme. The offer is there, but it is not imperative. These are people engaging in a different way. A key question is, would these events still take place if The Drill Hall weren’t there. Whisper it quietly, but maybe they would. However, the wider, combined social, cultural and artistic offer that the venue provides would fall by the wayside.
The uniqueness of Lincoln Drill Hall in our city is that these wider social and cultural events can take place in one venue that has the arts at its core. We do serve a wider purpose, starting by saying to everyone, come in, there’s something for you here whether it be a sandwich or an accessible toilet, or a music concert, theatre show, stand up comedy or a space to meet with your reading group or to take part in a dance class. We strive to be a place where artists can feel supported in the development of their work. For many we are a place of memory, of history, whether that be the young person whose Great Grandfather used to carry out army drills here, or the couple who met roller skating in the 80’s and are now happily married. We are each of these things to different people within our community. Our place as a social hub, a haven where people can safely walk through the doors for any number of possibilities provides the main reason why I believe we are an important asset to our city.
So as I travel home reflecting on this and the other questions of the day, I am thankful for the opportunity to self-reflect, to challenge myself to respond honestly and robustly to the provocation and questions asked of me. I am glad that I got to do it in a room of dynamic colleagues who responded so positively to the opportunity to discuss these issues and I am sure that today was just the start of the conversation. The Future Arts Centres website and blog will be a public place for this and many other conversations to continue as will Twitter. #FutureArtsCentres.
Special thanks must go to all my colleagues in NPAC, especially though the staff of Stratford Circus who hosted the day and Gavin from The Albany, Clare from Stratford Circus and Annabel from The Arc Stockton who undertook the huge bulk of planning and preparation for the event. I think it achieved its purpose and then some. I am heading home tired, but invigorated, with questions bouncing around my head, but ones that I am pleased are there. I believe the future is bright for arts centres. P.S. – If you’re ever in Lincoln do pop in. I’m sure you’ll like what you find.