Future for the arts
A group of arts centres is keeping prices down and its diverse audiences happy. Patrick Kelly reports
Keeping ticket prices down is a goal for many an arts venue, but a new report suggests that a group of arts centres has managed to do it better than anyone else. The latest annual report from Future Arts Centres, a network of nine venues around England, shows that they, and nine others charge average ticket prices of just £9 (compared to a £23 national average for arts events).
The 17 arts centres which took part in the survey for this report hosted a combined total of more than 29,000 events, including 4,740 live events and 14,500 film screenings, reaching more than 1.6 million people. Participation events included 376,000 people.
Contributing venues to the survey came in all shpaes and sizs, with turnovers ranging from just £70k to £6.5m. Their estimated combined economic activity was valued at £73m.
Other figures show that arts centres in the survey have an average Arts Council investment of £457,000 per venue, and local authority investment of £140,000 per venue. But they are generating an average of 63% of turnover themselves, from earned income and fundraising.
Gavin Barlow is chair of FAC, a job he combines with his roles as CEO and artistic director, of the Albany in South London. Annabel Turpin who runs ARC in Stockton is co-chair). He says the Future Arts Centres partnership of nine founding UK arts centres, set up in 2013, supports a wider network of more than 100 arts centres.
“It was set up with the aim of being an advocate for arts centres,” he says. “There were lots of strong single-arts organisations and we felt there needed to be a voice for venues that were multi-arts. Indeed, we felt the need then almost to reclaim the title of ‘arts centre.’ “
But a large part of the network’s efforts go to sharing best practice, collaborating and supporting each other, says Barlow. The original nine now have an online network of 100 arts centres throughout the country sharing ideas and information. They sponsor workshops meetings and major conferences, - the next one is due in March 2019. But the point is not to set up a large organisation with a complex infrastructure, he says. “We get by on the energy and commitment of our core members.”
All FAC Partners have a strong track record of presenting and commissioning high quality new work from across art-forms, and of ensuring it reaches large and diverse audiences - not least due to those affordable prices. But increasingly arts centres are playing an active role in the creation of new work.
There are co-commissions like Cambridge Junction ‘s joint production with Bristol’s Tobacco Factory of New International Encounter’s (NIE’s) Christmas show, Beauty and the Beast, Stratford Circus Arts Centre’s co-production of an all-black production of Hamlet with Black Theatre Live and Watford Palace Theatre and Cultural Shift a three year programme of work challenging perceptions of disability, produced by ARC, which went on to tour to 11 UK venues.
This year, ARC Stockton and the Albany are commissioning two new Christmas shows for children aged 3 – 7. Each show will be presented in one venue in 2019, and then in the other venue in 2020.
Arts centres are also engaging harder to reach audiences through relationships with their local communities, relationships which encompass artistic programmes to staff appointments. Figures show FAC partners were engaging an average of 21% of their audiences from the four categories deemed least likely to engage in the arts, compared to an average of 14% for other arts organisations in England.
“What makes us distinctive is our focus on using space as community building, almost like a library or a community centre, creating the sense of a civic role for the arts centre, involving a wide range of local partnerships,” says Barlow. “Our demographic at the Albany for instance, is same as the local High St. We are proud of that. Local people
don’t suffer from sense of nervousness at crossing the threshold because they have been used to coming here for all sorts of activities, weddings, meetings or just for coffee.”
He is also proud of the Albany’s role as a seeding ground for creative development in the performing arts, with a programme including music, theatre and spoken word, as well as an array of participatory projects. The Albany also manages and programmes Canada Water Theatre, a small 150 seat theatre inside Canada Water Library, run in partnership with Southwark Council. ARC Stockton is also the artist development hub for the North East region, primarily aimed at drama, dance and spoken word artists.
The arts centre business model involves getting funding from other places and we have been quite successful at that,” says Barlow. He points to two new projects, which have secured funding, one involving international commissions and other will establish creative dialogues with 18 arts centres in other countries. “It is interesting to note that lots of traditional theatres are changing their business model to resemble that of the arts centre.”
It is this which he hopes will make the sector more resilient in the face of the dwindling support for the arts from local authorities. “Historically that has been a greater part of the arts centres’ funding mix, so it is a concern.”