Lambeth gets on board the Clapham Omnibus

Omnibus Arts Centre
Alistair Smith
Alistair Smith is editor of The Stage. Having joined the publication on staff in 2004, he has also held the roles of reporter, news editor, opinion editor, deputy editor and print editor at The Stage and has written for publications ranging from The Guardian to Hello! Magazine. He is also the author of two major industry reports (the London Theatre Report and the Theatre Workforce Review) and a founder of the My Theatre Matters! campaign.
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At a time when local authorities across the country are reining in their arts spend quite alarmingly, it's heartening to hear of at least one council which is taking an enlightened approach to supporting culture in its local area.

Yesterday, I took a trip to the Omnibus Arts Centre near Clapham Common. It's still a building site, but when it opens later this year in the former Clapham library, it will host a 90-seat studio theatre, plus a music room, as well as rehearsal space and a cafe/bar.

Lambeth is one of London's best-served boroughs when it comes to theatre provision, but most of this is concentrated around the South Bank - with the National, Old Vic,Young Vic all at the other end of the borough. Actually, there isn't a huge amount of artistic activity around the Clapham end of Lambeth. The closest arts offerings to the Omnibus are probably Oval House (in Oval) and Battersea Arts Centre (in Wandsworth).

[pullquote]The arts world may have to get used to the idea of a future that is less reliant on public subsidy[/pullquote]

Around seven years ago, the local council decided that the Clapham library would be moving to new premises off Clapham High Street. Its old Victorian home could easily have been (and indeed nearly was)  sold off to property developers to be converted into flats, but after a vociferous local campaign and support from within Lambeth council, it was instead decided to grant the lease of the building to a charitable trust. For the first couple of years, the trust will pay a reduced rate and by the third year it will be on full whack.


Meanwhile, the building is being used as a hub to regenerate what is sort of a ghost land off the bottom of Clapham High Street.

The council could have got much more money up-front from a property developer who would have (probably) knocked down the unlisted building and built modern flats, but in the end - proving it is successful - the arts centre should do a lot more to improve the area.

As Mark Ravenhill observed in Edinburgh last week, the arts world may have to get used to the idea of a future that is less reliant on public subsidy.

But the Omnibus Arts Centre shows that there are intelligent ways that councils can help out local arts organisations that don't always mean throwing money at the problem.

Indeed, it mirrors - in many ways - the similarly enlightened role that Hammersmith and Fulham Council played in the Bush Theatre finding its new home - coincidentally also in an old Victorian library.