Ambition and Inspiration.

Since 2012 a group of 10 performing and visual arts centres in Lincolnshire has been working in partnership to deliver an arts engagement project with young people aged 12-25.  Generously funded by the Paul Hamlyn Foundation as well as with support from 5 of the venues in receipt of NPO funding from Arts Council the project has achieved a number of outcomes.

These include the development of groups of young arts entrepreneurs in venues, support of Arts Award programmes, the commissioning of new work/projects delivered across all the venues and the delivery of a programme of apprenticeships and internships among other things.  The Paul Hamlyn Foundation is keen on the learning from the project and how we share that on a wider regional and national basis (we hosted a conference to discuss this in autumn 2013) and the team managing the activity has worked closely with staff at the University of Lincoln to develop strong evaluation from participants.

I came into post at Lincoln Drill Hall a year into the project and I have found what is being achieved inspiring.  As an independent trust we’ve led the way by ensuring that we have young people embedded in our governance structure (we currently have two excellent young trustees).  We have an active group of young programmers who call themselves Fretless.  They’ve organised a number of events for their peers, mostly music based so far and taking place in all of our performance spaces from the café through to the main auditorium.  We’re working closely with them to extend their knowledge of a wide range of work.  We supported a number of participants to attend the Edinburgh Festival Fringe in 2014 and directly programmed some work in our spring season on the back of their feedback and recommendation.

The culmination of all this activity in 2014 took place last Friday when we took a group of 17 young people from across Lincolnshire to London for the day.  This was a chance for them to learn from other venues, both small and large.  We went to The Park Theatre in Finsbury Park to hear about how a new London venue was operating and to The Royal Albert Hall for a tour and discussion about how a 5000+ seat international institution approaches its programming.  And do you know, it’s no different from how we do at our 360 seat space.  Yes the scale may be different, but the considerations are pretty much the same.  You could see the excitement building in the young people as they drank in the atmosphere of this iconic building.

The true value of the trip though was crystallised by one moment at our last stop, The Southbank Centre.  It was perfect timing really.  We left the tube at Embankment and walked over the bridge.  It was 5pm so the views across London were amazing, taking in the London Eye, The Shard and St Pauls as well as the Southbank itself.  If that didn’t enthuse our group then walking through the front door did.  The venue was alive with activity.  A band playing  a free gig in the ballroom, choirs singing carols on another level, throughout the building people engaging with culture, individually and collectively.  It was absolutely jumping.  And then it happened.

We were being told about the range of work the venue undertakes for young people and we all saw a light bulb go on in the mind of one of our group particularly.  Her face lit up, her hand shot up and she asked simply if she could ask some questions afterwards. – Because she was more sure than anything that this is what she wanted to do.  This venue was where she wanted to work.  She wanted to be a part of this thriving hive of creativity. And she did.  She used the opportunity before her at that time to learn about what she might be able to do, how she might start along the path to achieving that ambition.  It was an amazing moment and for all of us working on the project a validation of the reasons we do what we do.  To see this young person set herself that target, to see her so inspired by the opportunity that might lie out there in the world was a joy.

I for one, certainly found my own inspiration in her new found determination.  This is the very start of a process.  We know that there is a lot of work to do with all of our participants to help them make the most that they can out of their involvement with their local arts venue. Whether that leads them no further than our front door or all the way to The Southbank, we’re striving to provide those chances for young people in our county.  The experience of last Friday made for a really contented coach ride back that evening.

That’s why I work in the arts, for moments like that.

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Commercial and Quality – Mutually exclusive?

A few months ago I was having a discussion about the arts and was asked whether ‘commercial’ meant compromising quality.  I suppose behind the question was a sense that the two words were mutually separate.  That anything that was commercial couldn’t be quality and vice versa.

In the intervening months I have found myself returning to that question.  In the subsidised arts sector there is sometimes this feeling that commercial is a dirty word.  That to make or programme work that makes money means producing something that is of poor quality.

Where I work, at Lincoln Drill Hall we have programmed some really high quality shows that would fall within a bracket of immediately being thought of as commercial.  Tribute bands for example are usually considered to be commercial, but there can be an incredibly high quality to the artistic content of such shows, strong vocals and performance and great musicianship for example.

However, I feel that sometimes we’re not sure what we mean when we say that something is commercial.  I often wonder if something that forms part of the commercial strand of our programme is really commercial.  And if so, is it commercial financially, artistically or both?  Or in fact, neither.  We operate in a field where sometimes the work perceived as most commercial isn’t financially so in a meaningful way, whether this is because of the deal struck to present, or whether it simply doesn’t fire the imagination of audiences.  Equally, although not financially commercial for the box office, some performances might be so for the café bar?  There is great work out there that is of a high artistic quality operating in a commercial sense, and heavily subsidised work that ends up being of very low quality.  It isn’t a definitive science. We could possibly find ourselves analysing events and finding that we retain less box office income from a comedy gig than we do from a literature talk and film.  Which is more commercial?  Depends on whether we’re talking money or content or both.  And how much the bar makes.

In a time when organisations across many sectors are still dealing with ongoing austerity and reduced public funds, one way that a community arts centre has to try and replace public subsidy is to shift their programming to a mix of performances considered to be commercial alongside subsidised work. But there is work to do when making this shift to really understand what we mean when we say something is part of our commercial strand.

Here at The Drill Hall we’ve been making this shift this for a number of years.  When we launched our brochure for Spring 2015 last week I was really excited by the amazing mix that we’d curated.  Professional and community work sitting alongside each other, a fantastic selection of different art forms, work that has attracted public subsidy to be made alongside that which in the simplest definition might be described as ‘commercial.’  We’re working hard to make the deals that are right for the venue to achieve our income targets.

The primary concern in reality should be simply about quality. Spring 2015 provides a programme for the venue that offers our audience a real breadth of things to see from cutting edge contemporary dance from companies such as 2 Faced Dance and Joli Vyann to fantastic entertainment from bands such as The Jive Aces and Fairport Convention.  Some of it is produced commercially, some of it with subsidy, but I’d argue that it’s all of high quality.

We’re lucky to have recently enrolled on a 2 year management development programme run by Cultivate and the De Vos Institute of Arts Management at the University of Maryland.  One of the first elements we’ll be looking at is long term artistic planning. Central to this planning  is that we focus the conversation on quality, regardless of the circumstances in which the work is made. After all, high quality performance is what we want to see.