Why Save The Arts? Is Bath Council about to kill the goose that lays its golden eggs?

I wrote this as a very ranty blog post last night – which isn’t necessarily useful for you but it certainly helped me to put things in perspective. Below is the new version which I hope will be much more useful and productive.

Bath and North East Somerset Council have proposed to cut all arts grants as part of their bid to save £49 million over the next few years. The arts and the library were  at the top of the chopping block, whilst foolhardy schemes to decimate a local meadow and build a Park and Ride (against all the evidence to the contrary) to the cost of £11 million pounds remain a priority. And this is just the first year of cuts – much worse is yet to come.

Currently the arts budget funds a wide range of programmes. Their focus shifted to the outlying areas in Bath and those that perhaps don’t experience as much culture as people living in the central area.  Those areas that have just had brilliant programmes of arts will end up with next to nothing. At least there may still be some life left in the city centre but the affects for the outlying areas could be devastating. Other organisations that receive funding include Bath Festivals who run (or perhaps I should say “ran”) the International Music Festival, Literature Festival and Children’s Literature festival. Recently it was announced that two of those festivals would combine to create The Bath Festival. How will the cuts affect them? In honesty they, like many larger organisations have chosen not to speak out against the cuts so far – so we don’t know how this effects them.

The trouble is if your Local Authority doesn’t show any faith in the arts then why should anybody else? It sends out a very negative and damaging message to our audiences and to people living in the locality of arts organisations. We don’t want to become a city that says “We used to have that and it was great. But now all you can do to entertain yourself is get into debt at the shiny new white elephant, I mean casino! And why not park on a field first whilst you’re at it?”

As “artists” (I hate that as a buzzword!) we understand the importance of funding the arts. What we don’t understand effectively is how to convey that message to everyone else.

Today I was sent a brilliant documentary about arts cuts entitled “Making the Cut” which was created shortly after the Brewhouse Theatre in Taunton closed its doors. It focuses a lot on Somerset where they had 100% arts cuts, but it makes the case for the arts in a brilliant way looking at all the different effects to local areas. If you haven’t seen it I really suggest you give it a watch.

I could quite happily sit here and reel-off statistics to you about the economic benefit of the arts. But you will probably stop reading and fall asleep. So let’s tackle this in a different way.

I’m going to tell you a story…

Meet Emily!

(Come on now say hello, don’t be shy!).

Now Emily runs a small arts organisation in Bath. She is currently working on a theatre production using local arts professionals and members of the community. On her team are a director, actors, set designer, lighting designer, stage manager, writer and musicians. Emily has to pay all of them. Out of their fees they all pay tax and national insurance which goes back into the treasury.

Now because Emily is local she needs a place to rehearse so Emily sources a rehearsal space. This happens to be at a small community hall. She pays rent on that rehearsal space which helps those running it to get income. They rehearse for two weeks.

Some of the professionals don’t live locally so they need somewhere to stay. So they book accommodation with local B&Bs. Some of them drive to rehearsals so they pay for parking locally.

During that rehearsal period Emily and her team have regular refreshment breaks. They use the local cafe for teas, coffees and snacks. During lunchtime they use a local pub and eat food. After rehearsals they all pop into a pub for a few drinks.

The show itself requires a set and props to be made. They book and pay for a workshop to build the set and props. So Emily’s set designer Bob and Stage Manager Laura get on the phone and buy timber from a local timber merchant. Laura also needs to find props and what’s the best place to find props? Charity shops. So off she pops to visit all the local charity shops and buy some props.

The lighting designer is the next one, off on a mission. They design the lighting for the show and realise that the theatre doesn’t have all the lights needed for the production. So they phone up a local hire company and book some lanterns for hire.

Now the show needs advertising. So they get a local designer to create posters and flyers which are then printed by the local printing company and sponsored by local businesses with their logos and support shown on them.

Finally it’s show week. Emily pays for the hire of the theatre or does a box office split with them. The theatre employs front of house staff, box office staff, technical staff etc.

The show opens and members of the public come along and see the show. They travel to the theatre either by public transport or by car (again they pay for parking). They spend money on tickets (again the VAT on these goes back to the treasury) and money on refreshments at the theatre bar (which just so happens to use a local brewery to source it’s beverages from). Maybe they purchase a programme. Maybe they make an evening of it and arrive early to have a meal at a local restaurant. After the show they pop to a local pub for a final drink before getting a taxi home.

The show week ends and another company moves in and the process begins again.

 

This is just one slightly exaggerated example from one theatre company. Removing funding from arts organisations cause large ripples throughout the wider economy. If you stop funding a large number of them at once these ripples become much more obvious and the waves reach further. It’s damaging to everyone – not just “artists”.

Bath could become a culture vacuum. Where art isn’t for everyone but only for those who can afford it. If you cut out all the smaller companies and venues you are left with something that is not accessible to everybody.

A cultural event draws people to it. For example the Bath Carnival. People will come out just to watch the beautiful colours and spectacular dancing. It’s visual and it attracts attention. But by attracting that attention, by engaging with the community and tourists alike it creates opportunities for businesses around the event to benefit from it. Draw people in with the arts and culture and the whole city benefits.

For every £1 invested in the arts it brings back between £2 and £6 into the local economy.

That is huge!

 

Empty Shops

We currently have a lot of empty shops in Bath that quite frankly make the place look run down and like it’s dying. Which it will if the rates on the shops imposed by the Council keep forcing small businesses out. Why not allow local arts organisations to take over the spaces temporarily and generate at least some income from these disused spaces?

 

Arts Council Grants

A lot of smaller organisations use the arts grants to enable them to match fund larger funding bids to organisations like the Arts Council England (generally you must have match funding of 10% from somewhere else). If there is no investment from the Local Authority there is less chance of getting investment from the Arts Council for projects. Although the Arts Council try to remain positive in their response to the current situation it doesn’t take a rocket scientist to figure out that they will be more inclined to support areas where their Local Authorities engage with them and support local artists.

 

Wellbeing

The arts benefit people’s wellbeing. They bring communities together. They promote diversity. They can help tackle social issues. They can rehabilitate people. They teach empathy – the term emphatic arts is being banded around a lot at the moment.

 

Creating Good Art

Even taking it back to the basics – we just want to create good art that everyone can experience and that this enriches the city culturally.

 

Students

We are also home to Bath Spa University which is an artistic university. Will students want to come and study in a city where there is no support for the arts? It won’t matter how good the courses may be (and they are very good, by the way). If you have a choice of going somewhere that you will be supported through your development by a wide range of external cultural experiences or go to a city where the arts are dying and it’s becoming a living museum – which would you choose? Not to mention what happens when these students graduate? If there is no infrastructure there to support them they will take their creativity elsewhere. We should be supporting these artists. They want the opportunity to perform and give back to a city that they have become familiar with. Now they are moving to Bristol or other places because as an “artist” there is very little chance of working here.

 

When the funding is gone we stand very little chance of every getting it back. Looking at some of our neighbouring counties the effects of this are far-reaching and devastating. I’ve used the term before but Bath could become a graveyard for the arts.

 

This all sounds a bit doom and gloom doesn’t it?

 

Well let me assure you we’re not out yet – not by a long shot. There is an ever-increasing number of us that see the bigger picture and will carry on fighting and battling for an industry that we believe in. The support is growing hourly at the moment. And you can all help too!

 

Please sign and share the petition:

https://www.change.org/p/cllr-tim-warren-scrap-bath-and-north-east-somerset-100-arts-cuts

 

ThunderClap

We’ve set up a ThunderClap to go out on the day of the decision. A ThunderClap is basically a scheduled post that goes out on a set date and time. It is the same post from multiple accounts which helps create a lot of noise and draw attention to a particular subject. Please sign up and share our ThunderClap as well:

https://www.thunderclap.it/projects/52323-scrap-bath-arts-cuts

 

Your Stories

We need your stories of how the arts have benefitted you personally. We need to show all of the benefits of the arts to everyone in the community and from every angle. You can either leave that story as a comment on the petition or email it over to us: info@theatrebath.co.uk

 

We need to stand together on this and fight as one and we need to make our voices heard. If we don’t then the future of arts in Bath is looking bleak and the knock-on effects will eventually filter through to all organisations – even those who think they are sitting comfortably at the moment. It will eventually affect you as well. It’s not about one organisation, or one group, it’s about Bath as a community of culture and creativity.

 

Don’t let B&NES kill the goose that lays its golden eggs.

 
All thoughts are Luke’s own and do not represent the views of any organisation he may be associated with.

Bridging The Gaps – A few thoughts and provocations on us and the arts

In 2011 I set up a twitter account to retweet information on shows in Bath, little did I know that four years later it would become a central hub of information with a large following and lots of support from all over the region and the country.

I am incredibly proud of what we’ve achieved so far and humbled by the support that we’ve had from a whole range of different people and organisations. In the same way that we try to keep our door open to everyone, many organisations and people have been willing to the same to us. That is why we exist. That is why I am so passionate about what I do and why I truly love doing it.

Over the last four years we have done the best we can with limited resources and bags of enthusiasm to try our very best to help support not just the theatre community but also the wider arts community in Bath. It’s not always been easy. We’ve come up against many obstacles, many closed doors and a fight with some negative mindsets – but yet we carry on, we learn and we grow stronger with each new connection we make, each new person we reach out to or who reaches out to us.

Theatre Bath is not just about the four of us on the team who run things. Our team extend much further than that. In fact the only reason that Theatre Bath works in the way it does is because of the involvement of the wider community surrounding us. That community is part of Theatre Bath. Without them there would be little point in us existing. Everyone who likes a post, shares a post, retweets us, comments on something, writes us an email or chats to us is a massive part of the Theatre Bath family.

We have already seen positive changes coming from the work that we do. Perhaps nothing that is measurable by local authority or Arts Council logic, but that doesn’t mean that it’s any less worthwhile – in fact I would argue that because we’re falling outside those tick boxes we’re actually doing exactly what we should be doing. How do you measure success? What scales do you use? Why do we have to always neatly fit in little tick boxes and bend what we do just to keep the ones in power happy? The answer is – we don’t. And we are the proof of that. There is life outside the sterile world of ridiculous application forms and faceless grant makers. Why should a small select few have the right or the power to tell us whether what we do is good enough to be funded or not? How can they truly know? Why do we place such high esteem on their opinions? Why can’t we just create great art and let that be good enough to speak for itself? We shouldn’t need their justification… But yet we’re stuck in limbo because without money we can’t create the work. Or rather we can, but we can’t get paid for it. Therein lies the catch 22.

Certainly it puts us in a bit of a predicament. The organisation is growing. The workload is growing. The want and need for information is growing. So much so that it’s incredibly hard to keep up with demand. We are wanting to expand on what we have been doing. To run more skill based workshops at an accessible price. To support all theatre within the Bath area and further afield. And we can do it, the team are amazing and I think we can cope with anything. But we’re all trying to work other jobs (some of us working a number of different jobs) on top of trying to expand and help out everyone we can. We are all totally committed to the ideas and ethos behind Theatre Bath – but can we survive on love alone?

I’m not sure. That’s the honest truth. 

We’re currently balancing delicately on the edge of the cliff top. The lightest of breezes could potentially topple us over the edge. Whether we fall or fly is the choice that we have to make. Personally to fall backwards at this point would be a massive blow to me personally and I’m not prepared to let that happen. So therefore, how do we move forwards?

At the No Boundaries conference in Bristol recently there was an underlying tone from the Arts Council which should worry us all. The message, bigger is better. My worry is that over the coming years many smaller organisations are going to be led to the sacrificial alter of funding and sliced straight down the middle. Which will not only be damaging for them but also for the cultural and creative ecology of the areas that they serve. Personally I would prefer a handful of smaller, more worthwhile organisations who show real benefit to the people they serve rather than an elitist few who guzzle up more of the money for less return and investment.

So how can we prepare? What can we do?

That’s where Bridging The Gaps comes in.

We have to look at new ways of working. We have to look at new ways we can support each other. We have to open our doors to each other, share our knowledge, our resources, our people and our commitment to the arts. We have to see each other as friends and not as competition. If we truly understand and embrace the benefits of working together there is nothing we cannot achieve.

If the Arts Council want to fund larger projects and organisations then let’s join forces and create ways of working together that can bring large sums of investment in to our different localities. By pooling our resources we may be able to join up some of the work we’re all dong separately and get help from similar organisations or individuals to make these ideas happen. Of course we have to have our own ideas and ways of working – that’s what makes us unique. But by creating a large scale support network we may be able to benefit each other in ways that we may not realise.

I’m not advocating for amalgamations – just more open doors, more support and more sharing. Sure it may not be the easiest thing to achieve – we’re all artists, we’re all unique and we all have our own individuality and strong opinions. But it’s not impossible and it can be done. Other areas are already proving this and the benefits are very obvious throughout the counties.

Our tagline for this conference is “Together We Can” and we strongly believe this.

Our door will always remain open, it’s your choice whether to enter through it or not…

       
For more info on the conference and to book tickets visit:

www.conference.theatrebath.co.uk

   

Why not view our promo video…

No Boundaries 2015 – Inspirations and Revelations – #NB2015

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NB2015 1Thank you No Boundaries for an inspirational, thought-provoking and connected couple of days. There have been so many great thoughts and ideas it will take a while to process them all and for them all to sink in but below are a few of the things that have inspired me about the conference and a few of the ideas that I now have because of it. I will probably expand on these a few more over the next few weeks but here is an over-view of some key points.

Possibly one of the most emotional pieces came from Kully Thiarai, Director of Cast in Doncaster. It was emotional for a few reasons. Having heard Kully speak before it felt like we were personally part of the journey that they had been on over the last year. It was amazing to see how far they had come and all of the wonderful things that they had achieved.

“It’s all about people and place – not buildings.”

Kully Thiarai, Director – Cast in Doncaster

“I was sitting downstairs having a coffee and some little 10 year old kids with skateboards came and pressed their noses up against the window and said ‘Mister, what’s this?’ and I said “It’s your theatre!” And they didn’t really know what a theatre was, so I told them. It’s out of those little moments that you know. Because that’s what I remember as a kid, someone taking the trouble to say: ‘Come and have a look at this’!”

Kevin Spence, Board Member, Cast

I was totally inspired and felt very emotional and close to tears watching the film from Cast in Doncaster, it actually made me well up and gave me a huge sense of belief in all of the ideas that I personally stand for. Arts and culture really can transform a city and the joined-up thinking by Doncaster and true inclusion of the community was incredible to watch. What an amazing journey they have come on in a year – my wish is that other Local Authorities and businesses would take their example and roll it our across the country. What an inspiring model and it proves that when we work together we truly can transform communities with the power of the arts and culture.
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Censorship in the arts

This section was very alarming. With a number of shows hitting the headlines this year and being cancelled due to censorship issues it really is an area that we should all be concerned about.

“In my country artists fear for their lives. In the UK artists fear for their funding”

Natalia Kaliada, Belarus Free Theatre

“Pre-emptive censorship by the police is a clear infringement of civil liberties.”

Julia Farrington – Index on Censorship

So what can be done? What power do the police really have to stop a production from happening? I think that we need to find a better way of opening up communication with the police and unite as organisations to talk to them about any fears they may have. What we cannot do is stand by and allow our work to get censored because it “might upset someone”. I also worry that we are living in a culture where we have a tendency to self-censor as well. Some of this comes from having to twist and bend ourselves to fit certain tick-box criteria on funding applications. It’s a totally bonkers and backwards way of working that is completely soul destroying. Why can we not simply just produce good art? Why do we have to constantly fight and justify our existence in order to survive. Why do we bow down to the restriction imposed on us by funding bodies? Why do they presume that what they want is actually what is the best thing for our audiences – the people we are creating the work for? Maybe it’s time for a shake-up and to find new, more forward thinking ways of working. Perhaps a change in thinking is needed – but this has to come from the top and a big part of that is helping the Government to realise the true benefit of arts and culture. Not in financial terms. But in terms of good quality art. The benefits of arts and culture to towns and cities should be obvious for all to see without having to set criteria against them to measure them. Some of them are simply not measurable and again take away from the work itself. We are being forced to spend too much time ticking boxes and not enough time focussing on what is really important – making good art.

“Diversity is inviting someone to a party, inclusion is asking them to dance”

John Dyer

Possibly my favourite quote of the whole conference and John Dyer clearly highlighted that more needs to be done to promote diversity within our arts organisations. We think we are diverse but are we actually? How can we change this? How can we change years of ingrained thinking and ways of working. Of a culture where we instinctively recruit and work with other people who are similar to ourselves because of unconscious bias. It’s a big challenge to undertake but it needs to be done.

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“We shouldn’t be frightened of a big idea just because it threatens our patch”

Maria Balshaw, Whitworth Art Gallery

A running theme of this conference was collaboration. It seems like an obvious thing but why don’t we all work together more? How much more could we achieve if all arts organisations across a city came together and opened their doors to each other? We seem to live in a culture that is very over-protective of our own ideas. We don’t want to share what we’re doing for the fear of someone stealing our ideas and doing it themselves. This culture needs to change. In Bath we have started breaking down these boundaries in a number of ways, and we’re by no means perfect but a few of our ideas are working and having a real benefit to the whole cultural sector in the city. Our organisation, Theatre Bath (not to be confused with the Theatre Royal) is a grass-roots organisation. We run very much from the bottom upwards. The ideas for the work that we do comes from the community around us and their suggestions. We are social media driven and it’s through that engagement with the people in Bath that most of our best ideas come. Through our conferences and open meetings and networking events we have helped organisations within Bath to open their doors to each other. Sure there is still much more that can be done but simple things like shows in different venues advertising in each others programmes, companies sharing props and sets, actors auditioning for each others shows have all helped to create a shared ecology which is of benefit to everyone. There can be some adversity to working together but it is worth battling through it and continually trying to push boundaries and make things better for everyone.

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Does Size Matter?

According to Darren Henley of the Arts Council – yes it does. He commented that we should be focusing on bigger audiences. I disagree with this statement. In my opinion having large audiences is not as important as engaging with the right audiences. That’s the largest part of the battle. How many of us are making work with our target audience in mind when we work? Like it or not theatre in this country has a certain audience and until we find a way of changing that you could argue it would make sense to make work for the audience that is there. Certainly financial sense and let’s face it that’s what a lot of our friends in the commercial sector are doing. But what more can be done to connect with new audiences. When our stereotyped audience is no more then who will watch our work then?

I went to London a few weeks back to watch American Idiot – the Green Day Musical. It was loud and proud, the book was poor (as you unfortunately tend to expect with a jukebox musical) but the execution of the songs was brilliant. What struck me most about the audience for this show was that they were predominantly young people. A lot of them who looked like fans of the music. But the show had successfully broken down the normal boundaries of musical theatre and was engaging with a whole new audience and it was an amazing and inspiring thing to see. So perhaps alternative audiences are there… We just need to learn to talk to them and ask them what they want occasionally rather than telling them what they should see because we think that it is “worthy art”.

David Lockwood

David Lockwood

What Does Success Look Like?

“The message, whatever happens we go on, we adapt, we come back stronger… Is it possible to learn how to stop interfering? When is the right time to leave an organisation, especially one you’ve founded?”

David Lockwood,  The Bike Shed Theatre

My favourite speech of the two days came from David Lockwood of the Bike Shed Theatre who have recently become a part of the Arts Council’s National Portfolio. His speech rang true in so many ways. “Is joining the club such a good thing?” The struggles of fitting in the time to complete the monstrous funding application forms of the Arts Council, perhaps to the detriment of the organisation in the short-term as your attention is distracted, to adapting to jump through some of the ridiculous hoops and red tape that they can set you. Perhaps the most poignant moment was his own personal reflections on his journey and where he goes from now. Thought was all have at some point or other – when is the right time to walk away and move on. David showed a self-awareness which other “cultural leaders” would be wise to learn from. Sometimes the best thing is to leave an organisation and move on – for yourself and the organisation’s future. It takes a very brave and honest person to be able to admit this and I applaud David for his openness.

“Are we living in a monastery or a public square?”

Vasif Kortun – Salt Gallery, Instanbul

A really interesting discussion about buildings and spaces. Are the spaces we work in actually a barrier to the work we create and the audiences were are trying to reach? Should more be done to break down the boundaries of these institutions and bring the work out to the public? One comment we have heard locally is that a child was part of a youth theatre here in Bath and her mum would always wait outside to pick her up. When the child was asked why she did this the reply was that the mum didn’t think she would fit-it in the theatre. She had no idea what was expected of her. How she should dress or look. The building in itself became a massive boundary to her personally. This is a real shame and we need to do more to open up our doors to the public and to people who feel uncomfortable with our elitist, grandiose organisations. I would like to see more open days, more events which these members of the public would feel comfortable attending. We need to make an effort to engage with people who are scared of crossing our thresholds.

Rebooting Museums – Cooper Hewitt Museum

WOW! That’s all I can say! When a cultural organisation just gets things soooo right. The inspiration behind the very simple idea of the Cooper Hewitt pen is something to behold. The way that the interactive pen has changed the way that people engage with the museum and exhibits is an incredible thing. It totally inspired me. I began thinking about things on a larger scale. What if ALL cultural organisations in a city signed up to a scheme like this. Using pens across venues and organisations to create a really unique visitor experience with content they can download and share at home. Everything about this museum was incredible. It was boundary breaking and it’s great to see a large cultural organisation not being afraid of innovation and forward-thinking. The BEST part – everything to do with the project, down to the font they use has been made Open-Source (available to everyone). What a gift to the cultural world they have offered – I only hope that people engage with it and understand its full potential. I, for one would LOVE to play with one of those pens. Having a technical theatre background the potential uses I can see for it are pretty limitless. They should be used to transform visitor experience in all organisations, Theatres, Museums, Galleries. Let’s embrace the new technology and allow it to enhance our futures rather than remaining stuck in the past.

I encourage you to read more about it here: http://mw2015.museumsandtheweb.com/paper/strategies-against-architecture-interactive-media-and-transformative-technology-at-cooper-hewitt/

NB2015 7Arcadia

I can’t leave this blog-post without mentioning the incredible guys behind Arcardia. They were so inspirational. Proof that if you dream big you can make anything happen – you just have to be brave enough and trust in your vision. What they have created out of scrap is nothing short of amazing. I wish more organisations would be brave enough to take the sort of risks they do. Imagine how many amazing things we could create if we just said “yes” occasionally rather than being afraid to take risks. It’s one of my pet hates. I’m a massive believer that you can achieve anything if you go into it with a positive mind-set. Sure the plan will evolve and change along the way but to not risk creating something out of fear of failure is criminal. It’s an attitude I wish we could change in many of our cultural leaders. Many of them are sitting far too comfortably. A quote that comes back to me from last year’s No Boundaries conference is: “Let’s get comfortable with our uncomfortableness”. Let’s take some risks. Let’s try new things and lets open our doors and say yes to each other, to our audiences, and to ourselves. Give yourself permission to fail. It’s really okay not to succeed every time because actually you learn so much more because of it. Theatre Bath wouldn’t exist at all without this mentality. We don’t say no we say how can we. I would issue this challenge to all artists – “Be the change”. Together we can do it. We can change the future direction of the industry. We can be more open. We can be more diverse and we can help each other out and work together.

Our door is firmly wedged open (okay we don’t have a physical door but go with us on this), and at any time we welcome you to step through it. We would love to work with you whoever you are and wherever you’re from. So what do you say? Let’s be the change together… We can’t rely on our “cultural leaders” to do it for us. The change starts with us. Together we can. Feel free to email us (info @ theatrebath.co.uk), tweet us or contact us via Facebook.

For more info on the No Boundaries conference and to watch the brilliant speeches visit:

www.nb2015.org

Or search the hashtag on Twitter #NB2015

My first post can be found here: No Boundaries Initial Thoughts

Is Bath To Become A Graveyard For The Arts?

On Tuesday 1 September I attended a meeting at Burdall’s Yard in Bath which was billed as a round-table discussion with Ben Howlett MP on the Cultural and Creative Economy in Bath & North East Somerset (B&NES).

The meeting was attended by over 50 people from different Cultural and Creative organisations in Bath.

Full notes from meeting can be found here: Meeting Notes

  

I have to say I left the meeting feeling very despondent and with very little faith in our Council.

  
Ben Howlett himself was brilliant. Full of energy, drive, ambition and future vision. I wish I could say the same for his fellow councillors.

  
We are going to have a real problem in B&NES in the near future and I think certain parts of our Council need a massive shake-up if the arts are to flourish here in Bath.

I was totally uninspired by our Council’s lack of understanding, passion and drive about culture and arts in Bath. It felt like everything was too much hard work for them. There was no vision further than the end of their noses. No inspiration. And not a lot of help either. I can begin to understand why the relationship between the Arts Council and B&NES has become so fraught. It was very clear that they weren’t just on a different page to the majority of people in the room, I think they may have been in an entirely different book altogether.

  
The question was raised about the need of space in Bath to create artistic work and the potential release of vacant shops as temporary arts spaces. The meeting was told in no uncertain terms that this was difficult and probably not possible because of the amount of paperwork it would generate for the property team. You could feel a ripple of disbelief shimmer across the room. Bristol Council manage it very successfully, in fact they openly encourage the use of vacant shops – so why can’t Bath do the same? 

The Councillors also made it very clear that profit and businesses come before arts and culture in Bath. Yes we understand that the Council have to get the best price out of property rents – that’s a given but if you walk around Bath at the moment there is a high amount of empty units just sitting there doing nothing when they could be generating at least some income for the council. As Andy Burden pointed out, if they gave us these disused spaces they would be looked after and income would be generated for Council.

  
The Cultural & Creative industries generate more income in the South West than normal businesses so therefore if the arts are generating so much money how can it make sense to cut their budgets? No-one seemed to have an answer to this.

  
Cllr Tim Warren (leader of B&NES) made it very clear that he wasn’t interested in funding small organisations any longer but wanted to focus more on larger scale organisations and work at the farther regions of B&NES. He also said that we would have to rely a lot more heavily on volunteers in the future.

I’m sorry but that really is bollocks and made me quite angry. There are barely enough arts jobs that pay a living wage as it is at the moment without saying that if you want, for example, libraries to stay open then you’ll have to run them yourselves and not get paid for it. It’s a very dangerous and unhealthy culture to get into and really shows how much value the Council puts in us and our skills. Also and more importantly it is actually a lot of the smaller organisations who are carrying out the most vital work, going into communities and running projects that wouldn’t otherwise happen. Without them there will be a massive void that is left unfilled and will have a detrimental effect to people who use these services. It will be the people, the end-users who will ultimately suffer from these types of cuts.

  
Participants from the floor made some really good points about how other cities are much more advanced than us Culturally. Many of our twin cities in Europe have their own proper concert venues, symphony orchestras etc and we have none of that. These cities that are successful are so because they fully understand and embrace the importance of the Cultural and Creative industries, they understand the Economic benefits of cultural tourism and they embed the arts at the heart of everything that they do.

  
I think Ben Howlett made a great point. Bath is not a museum. It’s a living evolving thing. Those of us who work in the arts can see this (although admittedly some organisations are still doing things the same way they did the 30 years ago and need to have a long hard look at themselves and change and adapt as well!). Without a singular, joined-up future vision, without being brave and innovative, Bath is never going to move forwards. It’s going to be stuck in its past whilst other areas thrive and flourish and look to the future and embrace it. It’s a World Heritage City. That should be an amazing thing to be and we should be at the forefront of Arts and Culture and unfortunately we are being stunted and held back by our Council and their lack of vision and ambition.

  
I do have to say that out of all the Council departments I’ve personally found the Arts Development team to be the best, most understanding and most supportive. They have helped me a great deal over the last three years and a lot of the projects I have run would not have happened without that support and those projects have been of benefit to a lot of people in Bath and the surrounding areas.

  
It seems to me that as ever, if we want Bath to evolve and reach its full potential then it’s going to be down to all of us who are involved with the Cultural and Creative industries to do it ourselves in spite of the Council. And I know there are those of us that will fight tooth and nail to help Bath reach the amazing and outstanding heights that it should be at. It really does not have to be this hard though. The Council just needs a massive shake and a bit of a slap around the face to wake them up to what the rest of us can see so clearly – arts and culture should be at the very heart of our beautiful city. Bath is a vibrant city because of our arts and culture and all of the benefits they bring. Without support and a change in mindset we risk Bath becoming as stale and as lifeless as the Roman skeletons that inhabit the Roman Baths. Bath must not become a graveyard for the arts.

  
So I ask all of you to keep on producing amazing work, keep on believing in what you do and NEVER stop fighting to make this City the best that it can be. It is OUR city, and it is us that makes it everything it is – not a load of out-of-touch politicians who have spent far too long stuck behind the confines of their desks, slowly building up layers of dust and becoming more like relics of times past that they so love that they never seem to experience the wealth and variety of culture that we have to offer them. The culture that is right on their doorsteps. Perhaps if they experienced more of it they would begin to see it’s importance and relevance in the same way that we do. I know not all of them are the same – we have some amazingly supportive councillors as well and I truly do thank those that support us.

  
We are going to have a fight on our hands over the next three years, there is no question about it. It’s time for us to join together and unite to make our voices heard. If the Arts Council want a single vision and clear message for the future of Arts and Culture in Bath – then let us give them one, together. We have something the Council seems to lack – creativity, vision, passion and drive. It’s up to us to move this city forwards, together.

I’m ready for action, are you?

   
This post contains my own personal opinions and in no way represents the views of any of the organisations that I work for or am affiliated with.

A Response From A “Normal” Participant To The No Boundaries Conference 2014

10 March 2014 at 02:30

It has taken me a few weeks to sit back and think about everything I have learned from the No Boundaries conference before writing this response. I was originally going to post it to Theatre Bath as an article but decided that actually that’s not what Theatre Bath is about and my personal rants and views have no place there. So here it is on Facebook instead!

 

I may edit this again in the near future when more things spring to mind (this is draft 6 I believe), but for now here it is!

 

 

No Boundaries 2014

 

Having never attended any of the State of the Arts events before I didn’t have any preconceptions about what this would be like. I wasn’t quite sure what the conference was going to be about or how it would work so I went into the experience with an open mind.

 

The title itself, “No Boundaries” is a very large ask of any conference. In fact by drawing attention to the word boundaries in the title it makes you acutely aware to look out for any boundaries that do arise – and they did. A few technological boundaries were broken but how much were the boundaries actually stretched when it comes to talking about arts and culture?

 

 

The Ticket Structure and Pricing

The idea behind the tiered ticket structure was to allow“a wide range of Arts and Cultural professionals”  to attend the conference. The tickets were priced at different tiers depending on the size of the organisation, everything from £60 for independent artists up to £234 for large organisations. This, for me, created the first boundary of the conference. In trying to spread the tickets “evenly” it actually excluded a lot of people from attending. I would particularly have liked to see a ticket bracket for arts organisations that are not funded by public money, so for example the many profit share theatre companies in this area and also the voluntary organisations. And perhaps a tier for low-income individuals and practitioners. The conference was very much weighted from the top downwards with the preference seeming to be on getting the big names and “Cultural Leaders” there rather than those of us on the bottom rungs of the ladder. For a conference whose focus was on “doing not funding”, I think this needs to be addressed next time – just because we don’t have public funding does not mean we don’t have an opinion or anything valuable to bring to a discussion on the arts and culture.

 

 

Technology

Technology played a huge part in this conference – in fact you could not get away from it. It could have easily been mistaken for a digital conference rather than an arts and culture one. I’m sure some people will argue that this was the point – bringing the two things together in a more cohesive way. I’m not sure – the technology, as brilliant as it was, actually sometimes acted as more of a distraction. Now don’t get me wrong, I love technology and gadgets coming from a technical background but perhaps at times they were just trying to be too clever and showing us what they could do, rather than what they should do. The production and technical teams did an amazing job in keeping all of the technology involved with the conference working – and there was an awful lot of technology to maintain. The whole event was broadcast live over the internet between Bristol & York so that both cities could see and hear everything that happened. This was no mean feat and hats off to the production teams for making this work smoothly.

 

It was also brilliant to see that subtitles and a British Sign Language interpreter were used to make the content more accessible to all. This was a brilliant achievement and certainly broke boundaries. As one participant said – this has raised the bar and set a benchmark. There is no way back from this now. It can be done and should be done for all future events.

 

They produced a book, overnight (WOW!), which contained all of the keynote speeches from the first day, a breakdown of all the speeches for the second day and a whole host of responses from Twitter. These were distributed to every participant and will serve as a legacy of the conference and a useful resource for those of us who wished to revisit the speeches later. After the book went to print they were planning to keep updating the online version so that it included the second day of the event as well. I was amazed when they handed me the book – again another brilliant innovation that others should try and replicate in the future.

 

 

 

The online version of the finished book can be found online here:http://nb2014.bookkernel.com

 

 

The Conference Itself

Supported by the Arts Council England, British Council and the Local Authorities of Bristol & York you could not get away from the impressive scale of the conference. It was massive and must have cost many thousands of pounds to stage. I was assured by a few of the attendees that it was much better than the State of the Arts conferences that the Arts Council had run before. Having never attended one of those I cannot comment on that.

 

The organisers hoped that “By sharing provocative ideas from a diverse range of sources, new models, methods and collaborations will grow to shape the future of the arts.”

 

 

I would question part of this statement. What provocative ideas? The only time that anyone was even slightly challenged was by the brilliant and articulate Luke Wright who said he:

 

 

“Expected to be welcomed at the conference as an artist but felt like he’d wandered into the wrong office”.

 

 

A view that I very much empathise with – I didn’t tick any of the magic boxes of our “cultural elite” and floated around the fringe of conversations while our already established “cultural leaders” chatted amongst themselves. Me being me, I did try and break into a few conversations, hovering on the edges and slowly pushing in. This was met by the cold steely stares of the closed groups – who was this unrecognised young person trying to break into their elite circles of conversation. Needless to say I failed miserably.

 

 

The conference offered no ice-breakers or opportunities to be introduced into these elitist circles instead you were left wandering around craning your neck to try and read the tiny names printed on people’s shiny lanyards – this resulted in many of us walking around with tilted heads staring at each-other’s chests trying in vain to discover who was who. Another boundary! Thank goodness that there were some familiar faces there or it would have been very uncomfortable!

 

There was an underlying sense of panic and perhaps even desperation that I haven’t been aware of in the arts until this point. I think the realities of funding cuts and an uncertain future for many organisations was perhaps the cause of this. The fact that funding wasn’t anywhere on the agenda didn’t help matters much.

 

 

The argument I would make is – it’s great talking about new ways to work in the future but what point is there in discussing the future when many organisations live in fear that they won’t be there to see it? With more and more Local Authorities and the Arts Council tightening the purse strings and numerous cuts happening weekly, this is the real threat to organisations – not just that they aren’t adapting enough to meet the needs of modern audiences. How can a conference about the future of arts and culture that takes place in a time of austerity not mention funding? You may argue that it was actually refreshing not to hear people talking about money and I would agree if the conference had actually provided us with alternative ways of working that would prepare organisations for budget cuts – it offered us little in this respect.

 

 

It also struck me as weird that there was no mention of Local Enterprise Partnerships (LEPs). “LEPs are locally-owned partnerships between local authorities and businesses. They play a central role in determining local economic priorities and undertaking activities to drive economic growth and the creation of local jobs.”

 

 

See more at: http://www.lepnetwork.org.uk/the-lep-network.html#sthash.0rv0HfSO.dpuf

 

 

LEPs are looking more and more likely to be the key source of funding and support for Arts and Cultural organisations in the very near future. As continued evidence emerges about the benefits to the Economy that the arts and culture brings I believe that more and more investment will come through these partnerships and less from the Arts Council and Local Authorities on their own. LEPs are definitely worth keeping a close eye on over the next few years.

 

 

Elitism

I throw the word around as though it is a dirty thing to be sneered at. Whether people like it or not there are quite obvious hierarchies at play within all cultural and arts organisations. I have no problem with people rising to the top of their profession but I do wish that some of them would re-engage with their roots and remember where they themselves came from.

 

 

And I would ask this: “If they cannot actively engage with other members of the creative community who are slightly lower down the pecking order than them, then how can they ever possibly hope to engage with their audiences and the people who support their work?”.

 

 

Whilst listening to the keynotes and conversations I was very aware that they are full of lingo, which, in itself can create a boundary to “normal” listeners. I’m by no means saying that these speeches should be “dumbed down” but I would merely like to make the point that the language we use is creating a barrier. I look at my journey up the elitist ladder over the last two-and-a-half years (whether I like it or not I have begun this ascent). I recognise the fact that when engaging with some of our cultural leaders my use of language changes, even in writing this report I begin to realise that I’m throwing in words which some people will not be able to relate to. Perhaps it is a camouflage mechanism to try and blend in with those that society tells us we are supposed to look up to? I’m not sure but I do realise that in order for me to speak to bigger organisations my vocabulary has had to grow in an attempt to converse and gain support from bigger, more established companies.

 

 

The Speakers

An eclectic mixture of speakers were on-hand throughout the two days to share their thoughts and experiences from a cross-section of cultural organisations. All of them were brilliant in their own way. Some were perhaps more relevant than others but it was a good diverse range of speakers.

 

 

 

The speakers I related to most included Sophie Setter Jerome, an amazing 17 year old who gave a talk about social media and how to use it to connect with young people. How viewers of her YouTube videos had become more than just an audience but as key contributors to her work. She finished by saying

 

 

“If you want to engage with young people online, you need to meet us where we’re at. Don’t expect us to come to you.”

 

 

Key Themes:

One of the reoccurring themes in this conference was around the importance of the audience.

 

It reminded me of a lot of the things John McGrath discusses in A Good Night Out. McGrath says:

 

“It is next to impossible to take the existence of various different audiences into account, to codify their possible reactions to a piece of theatre, to evaluate a piece of theatre from within several frameworks. So what do we do? Well, I’ll tell you what most of us do – we take the point of view of a normal person – usually that of a well-fed, white, middle class, sensitive but sophisticated literary critic: and we universalise it as the response.”

 

Sophie Setter Jerome explained her views on her YouTube viewers:

 

 “I’ve referred to these people who watch my videos as my audience, but in a lot of ways that does them a disservice, because they don”t just watch my videos, they actively engage with them, just as I engage with other people’s content. Their contributions to what you have made are every bit as important as your content itself, it’s a group project and that’s really important to remember.”

 

Lynsey Merrick from the Lowry explained how they are attempting to embed cultural activities back into the “mainstream” by working with vulnerable and at risk young people. The Lowry is now seen as a key organisation in making this happen.

 

 

 

Vicky Haywood stated,

 

 “Artists need to engage more”

 

The brilliant Russell Willis Taylor commented,

 

 “Audiences have an increasing appetite for participation, not just passive observation. People want to pay as well as pay… Collaboration is a muscle – the more you use it, the better you get.”

 

David Lockwood who runs the highly successful Bike Shed Theatre in Exeter reminds us to

 

 “Be connected. To your audience. To your artists. And make sure you occasionally clean the toilets as well!”

 

 

Nicholas Lovell, author of the Curve talked about how to make money out of things that are given away for free. He relates this to fans and super-fans. A fan is someone who appreciates what you do, a super-fan is someone who loves what you do and wants to invest in you and your idea. He says,

 

“Let those who love what you do spend lots of money on things they truly value… Love your community. Love your free fans, they’re the heart of your community. Love you super-fans, they’re going to pay your bills.”

 

 

How much do we as artists actually think about our audience?

 

 

Do we consider what they expect from a production, what demands they may have?

 

 

Howard Barker in Arguments For A Theatre says:

 

 “To take an audience seriously means making demands on it of a strenuous nature. There are people who wish to be stretched, challenged, even depressed by the work of art, and who will make considerable efforts to experience those things.”

 

John McGrath comments,

 

 “I do believe that there is a working-class audience for theatre in Britain which makes demand, and which has values, which are different from those enshrined in our idealised middle-class audience.”

 

There was a lot of talk about audiences but it seems not a lot of talk to audiences.

 

 

Everyone who spoke identified that the audience are important but there were no real answers on how to directly connect with them. This is where being able to break into discussions would have been incredibly useful. To formalise ideas and an action plan to engage audiences across art forms would have been a brilliant use of this conference and seems like a obviously missed opportunity. Perhaps this is a gap that the My Theatre Matters Campaign can begin to fill?

 

 

Diversity

Sure we all have equal opportunities policies but how many of us can honestly, hand on heart say that we are actively seeking out new ways to ensure that we are truly diverse and equal in what we do?

 

Nii Sackey from Bigga Fish reminded us how uncomfortable we still are with diversity. He challenges us to

 

“start to get comfortable our uncomfortable-ness”.

 

He also said that

 

“The arts should be less like Downton Abbey and more like the Closing Olympic Ceremony”.

 

 

Conclusion

Nothing can take away from the achievement of this conference. It was a massive feat and orchestrated brilliantly by those involved behind the scenes. The talks were interesting and a few good points came out of them. There was nowhere near enough discussion or the physically doing of anything productive though, which seemed a shame as this was a key opportunity having so many of our “cultural leaders” in one place at one time (or perhaps that should be two places?).

 

I have certainly learned a lot from attending the conference – more what not to do, which isn’t a bad thing. I will use the things I have learned to enrich Theatre Bath’s future events and projects.

 

It has made me reflect on Theatre Bath a lot more and I want to end with a few of those thoughts now…

 

The No Boundaries conference has reminded me of how far Theatre Bath has come in the last few years and actually I think we’re doing things right. Working from the bottom upwards has allowed us to engage with more people than it would have if we’d worked from the top down.

 

I hope that everyone who gets involved with Theatre Bath feels some sense of ownership of it. It has always been my vision that it works with and through the community it supports rather than dictates what that community should do or become.

 

We will continue to be open to anyone with an interest in theatre, at whatever level that may be – audience members, students, community theatre makers, professionals. Everyone is welcome to get involved and we will hear everyone’s views no matter what they might be.

 

At a time when funding is increasingly becoming less and less we hope that the Theatre Bath network and united voice we provide can help strengthen the case for theatre and the arts in Bath. As we discovered last October – Bath theatre really does matter and it matters because of those of you who are involved with it. As audience members, as participants, as the makers of magic. For anyone who has ever dared to dream and make that dream a reality by being brave enough to put your imaginations, your souls, out there to be seen by the world. You make Theatre Bath, and without you we would not exist. So keep dreaming, keep imagining, keep pushing boundaries, keep challenging and keep creating the amazing magic through your works of art and we’ll continue to champion and support your work as best as we can.

 

###

 

For more information on the conference and to watch all of the speeches visit:www.nb2014.org

 

 

The two books I’ve quoted from (and that I highly recommend you read) are:

 

 

A Good Night Out, Popular theatre: Audience, Class and Form by John McGrath – (1996) Nick Hern Books.

 

 

Arguments For A Theatre (Third Edition) by Howard Barker – (1999) Manchester University Press.

 

 

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