I have often wondered what might happen and the benefits that would accrue to the whole theatre ecology, if instead of funding venues we funded artists, and instead of funding buildings we funded places. Just imagine the transformations if we stopped building theatres and started investing in the creativity of communities.
There are signs of change. A newer national portfolio organisation such as Heart of Glass in St Helens is an example of a place-based arts company following a different creation model for socially engaged practice. In St Helens, artists and local people are co-creating on projects that last not just two or three but many years.
But perhaps more change is on the way with the news that Derby Theatre and Bradford’s
Theatre in the Mill have, together with a consortium of local partners, been awarded £1.5 million each to become producing hubs.
These are Arts Council Engand-funded pilot schemes that will examine different producing models that are very much place-based. It is telling that the funding body has chosen two venues that already have embedded relationships with their local communities, rather than much larger organisations.
Those with long memories may recall the 2016 Devlin Report. It raised the prospect of different producing models that would move arts organisations and buildings away from their tendency towards a silo mentality. Instead, they were to think of themselves as platforms creating capacity for their communities and encouraging creativity whether people thought of themselves as artists or not. The intention, declared ACE at the time, was to “test a place-based approach to supporting artistic risk-taking and developing and strengthening talent and audiences as the basis of building vibrant local theatre ecologies”.
To some degree, organisations such as Battersea Arts Centre are already moving towards working this way. What will be fascinating in the longer term is the impact its partnerships with Wandsworth’s agencies, grassroots organisations and people has on the long-term commissioning and programming of its spaces.
It is abundantly clear that part of Hull’s astonishing success in reaching the 97% of the population who took part in cultural events in 2017 was because City of Culture went to the people and didn’t expect them to come to it.
Place is important. More arts organisations are recognising this. The Royal Exchange in Manchester announced recently that it is creating long-term residencies in Greater
Manchester boroughs with the aim of responding to the “cultural ambitions of each community”. It is a reminder that the cultural ambitions of one place may be very different from those of another community a mile or so down the road. One size does not fit all.
Excitingly, the producing hubs pilot could prove a mechanism by which we can fund artists and places while investing in communities. That’s because they are set up so that theatres work with other arts organisations, social enterprises, community groups, artists and companies to strengthen the local arts ecology. One of the reasons some have been against the idea of producing hubs is because of the prospect of already well-funded NPOs teaming up to create super conglomerates.
But that isn’t the model being piloted here. Derby’s partnership is with the local council, the university, and with national producing organisations such as Crying Out Loud and China Plate. But it is also with the local football club, Derby County, and with a number of artist-led local companies such as Maison Foo, Milk Presents and Not Too Tame. The Theatre in the Mill consortium includes Mind the Gap, Kala Sangam, 154 Collective, Common Wealth and Displace Yourself.
Most of all, the producing hubs are about trying to create a partnership with the people of Derby and Bradford, listening to what they want and building something from the ground up rather than top down. Derby already has an excellent artist development scheme, but as Derby Theatre’s Sarah Brigham points out, it only attracts those who identify as artists. What about the untapped creative potential of those living in the city and how can it be harnessed for the good of all to make Derby a better, more enjoyable and happier place to live?
One of the crises of the 21st-century theatres or arts institutions is that they are often unable to change quickly enough to respond to cultural shifts and the changing nature of communities. The big question is not how the arts might become relevant in the 21st century, but how partnerships can ensure they employ their considerable resources, expertise and creativity to enable everyone in their communities – not just the artists they already know and the audiences who already come – to reach their full and shared potential? It’s a big ask, but one the producing hubs pilot consortiums may start to answer.
Lyn Gardner is associate editor of The Stage. Read her latest column every Monday at: thestage.co.uk/columns/gardner