Originally written for the Guardian Culture Professionals Network.
What value do you attach to a community art exhibition? How do you assess a conversation on a funding application? Is it possible to put a price tag on a space that allows young people to feel that the art inside belongs to them?
Responding to Arts Council England’s recent report on arts funding,Towards Plan A, some commentators suggested that arts organisations might be better off formulating a funding plan B. It’s clear that pleading the economic case for the arts is failing to have the desired impact with the government, while equally failing to take into account the many other, less tangible ways in which the arts produce value.
The alternative proposed by a recent article on the Guardian is to transform cultural organisations into vital, cherished hubs of their local community, making their disappearance unthinkable. This is not a new idea; many organisations are already buzzing hives of community activity – think of the local classes and workshops at Battersea Arts Centre, or the Albany’s commitment to open its doors to the people of south east London.
But it’s beyond London, where the funding climate is harsher, that such initiatives might have the greatest impact. This is certainly the hope of Annabel Turpin, chief executive of the ARC in Stockton, who insists that “arts centres have a much bigger part to play in the lives of local people”.
It’s her aim to open up the organisation as much as possible to its community: “giving people permission to come in and use the building.” Alongside its artistic programme, the ARC hosts activities that cover all demographics, from children’s dance classes to an extensive programme for older people. “It’s a very broad spectrum, and that allows us to attract people from right across the community,” Turpin explains.
The same discovery has been made by mac Birmingham, which can boast high levels of engagement with its local community. “What’s important is the range of what we do because we are a multi-artform centre,” stresses artistic director and chief executive Dorothy Wilson. The centre aims to take visitors on a journey, offering various points of entry and leading them to unexpected destinations, be that a contemporary theatre show or a craft workshop. Its mantra is that the community are all artists. As Wilson puts it: “We encourage people to feel that this is a place for them.”
One of the greatest assets held by arts centres is their space. This is something that has been recognised by Chapter Arts Centre in Cardiff and Farnham Maltings in Surrey, the latter of which has offered much of its space over to its local community. “For us to thrive – to be truly popular – we needed to become relevant to more people and improve our usefulness,” says director Gavin Stride.
The difficulty, however, can be getting people over the threshold. “I don’t think we make enough of the fact that it’s free to come into an arts centre,” suggests Turpin. As public space shrinks, arts centres remain some of the only places that can be enjoyed without necessarily having to buy anything, a fact of which local people are not always aware. It is for this reason that mac Birmingham, for example, invests heavily in “free at the point of access opportunities” for those who might just stumble across the venue.
As well as throwing their doors open, some venues have gone further in their attempts to hand ownership over to local people. Matt Fenton is a passionate advocate for involving audiences in programming, an idea that he first tried out at the Nuffield Theatre in Lancaster and has now taken to Contact, Manchester, where a group of young people from the area have a key role in how the venue is run. He argues that audiences today expect more of a “two way conversation” and that the best way to target new, more diverse audiences is to represent their voice from within an organisation’s decision making structures.
“If arts organisations are genuine about a desire not just to reach more people but more broadly across the spectrum of their communities, then they’re going to need to think about how open they are, how engaged they are, as organisations,” Fenton insists.
The anecdotal support for these approaches is backed up by some compelling statistics. Contact’s commitment to young people has resulted in audiences that are 70% under 35, while mac Birmingham achieves 30-65% crossover audiences across its arts programme. Chapter boasted 800,000 visits in 2013, two-thirds of whom attended non-core activities and, as all of these organisations are keen to emphasise, none of this is at the expense of making great art.
Convincing as this model may be, however, the organisations that have committed to it all stress that such changes cannot be made purely in the service of self-preservation during difficult times. As Fenton puts it: “Arts organisations, especially publicly funded ones, should be doing this anyway.”
Photo: Chapter Arts Centre.