The Future Is Bright – Future Arts Centres

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.

Stronger Together

As I write this I am feeling slightly exhausted.  I have just returned from the lovely town of Aarhus in Denmark, hosts of the Danish+ Festival of Performing Arts for Children and Young People.

Myself along with over 60 delegates from across the world were treated to a wonderful range of work by Danish theatre companies, performed in English, curated and led by the fantastic Teatret Gruppe 38, themselves one of the performers.  All of the work presented is capable of and interested in international touring.   Danish+ was a full on three days, 17 shows across a number of venues in the city that covered work for the very young to older children and families.  Some of the performances were pure theatre, others rooted in traditional storytelling.  There was dance, puppetry, even a clown and live music ran through many of the shows we saw.  We saw an angry duck and a dancing moose.  The festival had everything.

One thing that made Danish+ a unique experience for me was that I travelled over with a group of other Programmers and Directors from venues across the East Midlands.  Thanks to strategic touring funds from Arts Council England and led by Lakeside Arts Centre Nottingham we have set up a network across our region of venues all committed to seeking out the best work for families and children and collaborating and sharing our resources to make that happen.

Our network had delegates representing 10 venues in our region.  Lakeside Arts Centre, Deda, South Holland Centre Spalding, The Castle Wellingborough, Spark Children’s Arts Festival in Leicester, The Core at Corby Cube, Derby Theatre, The Royal and Derngate Northampton, Thoresby Courtyard as well as my own venue Lincoln Drill Hall. There was a real interest in our approach to presenting and programming work from other attendees and our profile was high, perhaps unsurprisingly considering we provided approximately 20% of the delegates.

Travelling with like-minded colleagues from the region had other benefits too.  It provided a real platform for debate and analysis of the work that was shown.  Of course, we didn’t all like all the same things, apart from one production by Cantabile 2 and Carte Blanche entitled Life Live a wonderfully immersive piece that guided you through a personally created city, inviting you to honestly self-reflect on your personality and place in the world with complete strangers.  However, regardless of our personal opinion we all felt that we had a fantastic forum within which to express opinions on what we had seen.  Debates went on from breakfast at the hotel to the bar after the last performance.

The inevitable differences of opinion on what we saw simply provides further proof that the collaborative approach to delivery works as there is no requirement in the network that everybody has to take everything.  I felt a really personal connection to certain shows that opened up an eye on the place of the family unit, leaving me particularly aware that I was a long way from home and my own family.  These performances left colleagues lukewarm, but this was fine.   On a personal level it was good to discuss with delegates from places as far afield as the USA, Australia, Sweden, Russia and Germany the cultural similarities and differences in both our sensibilities and our approach.  Particular themes that were ripe for discussion included racism, sexism, spirituality and whether it’s ok to give the finger during a children’s theatre piece.

I learnt more about myself from working together with these colleagues.  I felt less isolated and enjoyed the chance to spend a lot of time talking about theatre and performance, weirdly a luxury that we don’t always have as we deal with broken ovens in a café or whether we have enough front of house staff at the weekend.

We’ve  got lots to talk about following the festival.  It’s probably left us with more questions than answers.  We need to discuss in detail whether we want to pursue any of the work purely because of the quality within itself, or whether we want to focus on shows that we perceive are different from what is being made in the UK.  This will help us to decide which if any of the performances we saw we want to really work to bring over. This is the crux of our network.  If it was just me there’d be very little chance of sharing any of this fantastic work with our audiences in Lincoln.  But with the power of collaboration it becomes not just a possibility, but a probability.

So thank you to Shona, Tom, Chris 2 and Chris 3 (Yes I know I’ve promoted myself), Jo, Adel, Sarah, Darren, Helen and James who made Danish+ such an experience, and to the other venues in the network who couldn’t send delegates this time around .  I have returned uplifted and inspired by the work and by my colleagues.  But I am exhausted. So now I stop.