Tag Archives: the stage

Arts Centre Model is Theatre’s Future

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

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Why We Call the Albany an Arts Centre

‘ In 2014, we need to turn theatres into secular churches.’

This was the provocation of Honour Bayes in a recent blog for The Stage. She was writing about ‘events that bring the outside world into theatre – not just artistically-led platforms, but socially-led ones too’. She kindly mentioned Meet Me at the Albany, our artist led day club for the over 60s.

Her article chimed with many of the conversations that are taking place at the Albany on pretty much a daily basis about what we stand for, and, for the communications team, how we talk about the work we do. It provides an interesting context for a live discussion about how we define ourselves.

The Albany describes itself not as a ‘theatre’, but as an ‘arts centre’, and increasingly, as a ‘community arts centre’. This isn’t just semantics. It is significant for us because it reflects the fact that we operate in a very different way to most theatres – and we are funded to do so. While we have a strong programme of professional theatre (this season you can catch work from the likes of Kate Tempest, Jonzi D, Polarbear and Bryony Lavery on our stages), we are, first and foremost, driven by a consideration of the needs of our community. This is the principal reason we’re supported by our main funder, Lewisham Council, and their recognition of the role the arts and organisations like ours can play in fulfilling their community agenda means that the range of ways we are working with them is growing significantly, at a time when many local authorities are cutting arts and culture budgets entirely.

For example, within the last couple of years we’ve been contracted to take on the management of two libraries, both in Lewisham (Deptford Lounge) and over the border in Southwark (Canada Water Culture Space). Meet Me at the Albany forms a core aspect of the council’s programme of activity to tackle the issue of isolation in older people. We provide office space for twenty seven small charities, arts organisations and social enterprises, and we are working with the council and others on various enterprises to increase networking amongst businesses and the creative industries in the borough.

There’s a queasiness about the term ‘community’ in the arts: it hints at cringy ‘Legs Akimbo’ style outreach projects where artistic quality is compromised in the fulfilment of social agendas. Historically, we’ve had something of a love/hate relationship with it here. But today, we find it useful to embrace it as a prompt that drives us to, quite radically, interrogate the notion of community spaces: the role they play in people’s lives, and how they can serve the needs of the contemporary community.

Bayes writes about theatres fulfilling the role churches have played historically. At the Albany, we’re drawn to the idea of the ‘third place’. Originally defined by Ray Oldenburg, the ‘third place’ is a social environment distinct from the ‘first place’ (the home) and the ‘second place’ (the work environment). ‘Third places’ are the informal meeting places that anchor community life and facilitate broader, more creative interaction. The qualities of a third place are, according to Oldenburg:

–       Free or inexpensive

–       Offer food and drink

–       Highly accessible

–       Involve regulars

–       Welcoming and comfortable

–       A location for meeting new and old friends

Examples of third places might be a general store, a barber shop or a sports centre and of course, it’s a role that has historically been played principally by churches. The secret of Starbucks’ success was in part the fact that its founders capitalised on the need for third places at a time when churches were no longer playing this role in people’s lives.

The qualities of a third place go above and beyond what most theatres typically deliver. They are public places where people linger for substantial periods of time, throughout the day, a role certainly not fulfilled by West End theatres that may only open their doors an hour before a show starts, and offer only a restricted bar space with prohibitively expensive drinks.

The Albany is open throughout the day, offering a stimulating environment with affordable, nourishing food options and ease of engagement with others. On Tuesdays, visit our café and you might find yourself caught up in a Meet Me at the Albany sing-a-long, or an impromptu spoken word performance. On Wednesdays, Fridays or Saturdays the building will be buzzing with people spilling over from the adjacent market, nipping in to use our toilets or discussing their latest purchase over a cup of coffee. And for many local children, the relationship they have with our garden – whether through our Growing Up Club or helping out on our allotments with their class – is just as important as the shows they see in our theatre.

In short, the socially-led activities that Bayes refers to are the heart of what we do, and have been for a long time. But the crucial thing in all of this is that this foundation to our work enriches our ability to deliver great art. Artistic excellence is not a side issue – for us artistic innovation is driven by the need to access and engage with our wide and diverse audiences. For example our leadership on the Circulate project, a three year programme of large scale outdoor productions developed specifically to tour to outer London boroughs, was motivated by the need to access audiences for whom crossing the threshold of arts buildings is a huge barrier. Similarly our work in libraries is underpinning a major strand of our thinking about creating outstanding art that responds to the particular needs of audiences in this setting. Furthermore, by adopting an increasingly dynamic business model, we are securing new opportunities and resources to support the creation of new artistic output that truly resonates with the people of Deptford.

Amber Massie-Blomfield, Head of Communications, the Albany

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