Gavin Barlow, Co-Chair of the National Partnership of Arts Centres and CEO of the Albany, explains the thinking behind the forthcoming Future Arts Centres event. You can find out more about the event here.
This article first appeared in The Stage on Thursday 6 March.
Arts venues of the future are sure to look very different to those of today. The clarion call from those in the political and economic seats of power is for organisations to pursue a far more dynamic model, both in terms of their sources of income, the diversity of their agendas and their output and points of engagement with their communities. In short these are social enterprises, concerned with social impact as much as artistic excellence. Or, more to the point, the coalescence of social impact and artistic excellence.
Theatres are responding to this challenge, as highlighted by Honour Bayes in her blog, ‘Theatres should be our new churches’. She writes about the Royal Court’s ‘Big Idea’ series, with specialist led discussions on a variety of topics widening the range of experiences available to audiences. Other examples include venues like the Birmingham Rep, situated within a shared public space with Birmingham Library, or Contact in Manchester, who place young people at the heart of everything they do.
Much of this dialogue has resonated with the leaders of arts centres. In many ways it feels like what is being proposed as the future model for theatres reflects what has existed within arts centres for a considerable time.
Arts centres are typically alive with people from early in the morning to late at night. They provide a unique offering to their communities, often with an extensive range of services and platforms for engagement, meaning they attract those audiences the arts usually finds hard to reach. This flexibility of approach combined with the architectural design has allowed them to develop the kind of innovative and responsive business models which many theatres are now exploring.
While this may be easy to acknowledge, what is often missed is that the way arts centres operate has increasingly created fertile ground for artists to find new meeting points with audiences and new ways of creating work. Not producers in the classic sense, arts centres are nevertheless often the starting point now for producing surprising and wonderful work which resonates with audiences up and down the country.
Arts centres are often absent from the public discourse about the arts. They have suffered as a result of the very things that make them brilliant. Their diversity of output makes them difficult to categorise: funders find them difficult to place within their portfolios, and editors find them difficult to place on the pages of their newspapers. Because their impact is felt at a much more grassroots level than, for example, a celeb studded opening in central London, it’s easy for the story of the transformational impact arts centres have daily on the lives of local people to get lost in the national picture.
The National Partnership of Arts Centres, which I co-chair with Clare Connor of Stratford Circus and is formed of nine leading arts centres across the UK, came together to address these concerns. We believe that the experience of our organisations represents a rich, and currently underexploited, resource for the arts community more widely. We’re keen to prompt a wider debate about the role that arts centres can play, and to imagine what that role might be in the future. On 12th May, we are inviting arts centre leaders and others to an ‘open conversation’, Future Arts Centres, where we will explore why arts centres are so important to the cultural, artistic and social life of our towns and cities, and how we can challenge ourselves to go further.
We hope that by so doing we will begin to ensure that the voice of arts centres is properly heard, as we work as an industry to shape the venues of tomorrow.
Gavin Barlow, CEO, The Albany, and Co-Chair of the National Partnership of Arts Centres