Big Ideas for a Bigger Picture

In the last week I’ve been fortunate to attend a couple of events that have got me thinking about the development of the arts locally in Lincoln and regionally as well.

Firstly I took part in a roundtable session as part of an arts leadership programme, Leadership For The Future at the Welbeck Estate. During this session the provocation was raised that many small and medium sized arts organisations are lagging behind advances in technology in their presentation of art and culture.  This isn’t the first time recently that this argument has been put forward. It was also a theme of last November’s Spektrix conference in Hammersmith. Within twenty years we simply won’t be producing or presenting the arts in the way audiences wish to consume it.

I think that there is something in this argument. Arts Council England has placed a huge emphasis on digital integration in the arts, both in terms of communications and more importantly content.  Companies such as Pilot Theatre have driven forward the digital presentation of the arts in recent years and live digital screening such as NTLive has had a massive impact on the way we can consume art. Plays now happen across Social Media networks, musicians are creating huge followings over the internet rather than traditional channels and you can see international exhibitions at the touch or swipe of a mobile phone keypad.

At Lincoln Drill Hall we recently hosted Instrumenta,  a project that live streamed a classical concert by City of London Sinfonia via YouTube whilst also playing to an auditorium full of school children.  A huge part of our developing Institutional Marketing drive centres around how we get the venue’s profile and product out of our front door and taken to places where audiences are engaging whether this be virtually, or via skate parks, or sports clubs or wherever it might be.  It’s difficult and requires a real shift in thinking, but we are aware of its importance.

Whether the traditional arts venue will be obsolete in twenty years or so is still very much in the balance. Ignore cultural shifts taking place at the rate they are and you risk becoming irrelevant to a large number of people’s lives.  Equally, art forms that usually attract older audiences worrying about where and how the next generation engages with their work isn’t itself new.  Having worked in rural touring for many years it was a constant worry that with an older average audience age demographic no-one would be around for rurally presented work soon, but new audiences gravitated to it as they moved to rural locations and as they aged and their tastes sometimes changed.  I recall a story of an Orchestra who carried out a survey of their audiences thirty years ago and were worried that the average age was 55 and what would they do once that audience had passed on.  Twenty-five years later and they carried out the same research again and the average age of their audience was still 55.

The possibility that this is the case, that audiences will naturally grow into our offer shouldn’t be ignored, but as venues we certainly have to ensure that we retain our relevance to all of our potential audiences and if that means doing things differently than they have been done before then that is what we shall do.

The theme of relevance was also integral to the other event this week – a conference organised by the Lincoln Cultural and Arts Partnership to discuss what next for the city culturally, what steps we can take to make Lincoln a truly Creative City.  With a fantastic keynote talk by Charles Landry and backed up with provocative case studies from Transported and Nottingham’s adoption as a UNESCO City of Literature plenty of discussions started to help us think about the possibilities – with how we remain relevant culturally to our communities central to the debate.  There were a couple of crucial areas where I took something tangible away from this day.

Firstly, if the city really is going to come together to create a place that in five years or more is looked upon as a truly creative place then everyone with a stake in that needs to think bigger picture.  There were around 70-80 people in the room and naturally I suppose for many they are involved with a small microcosm of that bigger picture.  But I feel we need to think beyond that – to how the overall aim of a truly creative city can benefit us all socially and professionally – It involves the need to give of your own skills, talent and knowledge.  Something that for many did seem to start happening.

The second factor that became apparent is the infrastructure needed to make this happen.  This will be a long game.  The infrastructure isn’t just physical, it is artistic as well, perhaps more crucially so.  One delegate spoke of his surprise that fashion degrees were offered in Lincoln when there was no big fashion brand aligned to the city. Did this naturally mean that graduates simply left the city upon completion of their degree. 

The same argument holds true with the performing arts.  Plenty of talented students with drive and desire to make Lincoln their working home, but a real lack of opportunity to develop their careers.  There needs to be a wealth of space available for artists to develop their craft and make their work.  The existing infrastructure, and I don’t just mean the theatres and galleries needs to be supported to offer this space to emerging artists.  At the Drill Hall we have a part to play in this. Artist development is one of the key ambitions of our organisation.  I want Lincoln to be known as a city that produces great art as well as presenting it.

In five or ten years if we are to be a truly creative city then we have to be known as a place where excellence is produced. I’d love Lincoln to be a place where venues and producers from across the country come to source top quality visual and performance art for their own spaces and places, where the Frequency Festival – one of our biggest citywide festivals – doesn’t have to seek work to fill the programme because artists internationally already know about it and are clamouring to be part of it. I want Lincoln to be a place that Charles Landry is using as an example of a truly Creative City when he is touring the world talking to other cities about Creativity.

And that is all about the bigger picture. No-one venue, artist, voluntary group, or public body can do it all on their own.  We have to think beyond our own work and agendas to all strive to achieve what could be possible.

As I say, two events, but real food for thought.