Two weeks ago, I was at Norwich Cathedral for the seventh annual Norfolk Arts Awards. Norfolk is where I grew up and attending performances at Norwich Theatre Royal and Norwich Arts Centre had a huge impact on my subsequent career.
As a county, its greatest strength is that it’s far enough away from London to have its own identity but close enough to feel its influence, thus creating an enormous social purpose for the arts in any such community. Like many other regions that are often found at the end of a train line, it has suffered from its own share of deprivation and social challenges.
Despite this and the growing concerns for rational theatre’s future, Norfolk’s annual arts awards have provided evidence of a continued cultural growth happening across the region. Having said that, it’s juxtaposed with the worrying decline in arts funding and educational arts opportunities within its own state schools.
What makes these awards special is that they recognise both professional and non-professional arts contributions whether from artists or (in other creative and administrative capacities) organisations and community projects.
If regional arts have a future, it will be as the catalyst for creating cultural collisions between individuals, organisations and communities. The Norfolk Arts Awards reflect this in an annual event that brings arts sectors together. Through this celebratory platform, it has provided a greater awareness, respect and understanding of what others are doing throughout the region, and of the issues being faced. Out of all this have come ideas and collaborations, many starting on the awards night itself.
If regional arts have a future, it will be as the catalyst for creating cultural collisions between individuals, organisations and communities
The range of nominees was heartening: internationally acclaimed visual artist Colin Self; the long-running Cromer Pier Show; circus impresario Peter Jay who, 39 years ago, saved Great Yarmouth’s Hippodrome Circus from becoming a bingo hall and has turned it into one of the most successful circuses in the country; and leading fiction writer Sarah Perry.
These established names were recognised alongside less-familiar but equally worthy recipients such as John and Elizabeth Stokes, who have made a continued commitment to amateur theatre in the region; Norwich’s acclaimed GoGoHares visual art community project that’s raised large sums for charity, and a drama bursary given to a young aspiring actor. This year’s recipient of the latter, Lucy Jackson, is a student at a Norwich comprehensive school whose acting talent was spotted and developed at Norwich Theatre Royal’s weekly arts course.
For many organisations and their staff, regional acknowledgment through these awards has been enormously valuable. Both Cromer Pier and the Sheringham Little saw the significant commitment they have made to their communities recognised. I watched productions at both these venues this summer and was blown away by the hard work and dedication of their teams of staff both on stage, behind the scenes, and front of house.
Like The Stage’s Unsung Hero award, which has just opened public nominations for this year, the Norfolk Arts Awards have been adept at highlighting the contribution of individuals. This year, Mark Hazell, Norwich Theatre Royal’s former marketing director, was among the individuals to receive an outstanding achievement to the arts award for his skilful and passionate stewardship at that organisation.
He was joined by others including Michael Rooney, whose charity work has seen the realisation of a remarkable community visual arts project; radio presenter Paul Barnes, whose late-night jazz show helped raise considerable awareness of the art form in the region and engendered many opportunities for live music acts; and intrepid local arts correspondent Emma Knights, whose commitment to covering the region’s arts scene has contributed to both audience and creative growth.
The awards are also a fine example of a project that began because three passionate local theatre artists, Stash Kirkbride, Peter Beck and Peter Barrow, wanted to celebrate the creativity of their communities. The event’s subsequent success is a testament to collaboration and belief.
They took place a month after Manchester Evening News announced that it would be discontinuing its own annual theatre awards that, for the past 37 years, have proudly celebrated arts and creativity in that city. This loss is a tragedy, not just for the acknowledgement of the good work and creativity in the region, but also in light of how the awards have galvanised both industry and community alike, building an enviable national and international reputation.
Attending the Norfolk equivalent reminded me why such events celebrating talent and creativity are important for the region, its community, and its arts industry. They also serve to inspire others, a vital cog in ensuring a region’s artistic future.