TAITMAIL Salisbury’s art of recovery

Written on .

Salisbury’s Novichok horror might, perversely, have been a mixed blessing for the city – and for the Arts Council. 

It’s officially a city because of its cathedral, but with a population of 40,000 Salisbury is one of the smallest. It’s arts activity, however, has been out of proportion with its size. Its museum is exquisite of its type, concentrating as it does on Wiltshire’s archaeology; the medieval cathedral with its tallest spire in England is a persistent draw; the mid-scale Salisbury Playhouse has a reputation for experiment; there’s the multi-discipline Salisbury Arts Centre in the former St Edmund’s Church; and the annual festival now bears the honorific “international”.
But a couple of weeks before the Skripal attack in March an experiment took form with the legal creation of Wiltshire Creative in which the Arts Council’s funding for the Playhouse, the arts centre and the festival were put under a single management with a single £1.3m annual grant.
The amount of ACE money going to Salisbury was the same but the team administering it was thinned so that more of the cash would go into making art than running it, all under Gareth Machin, the artistic director of the playhouse, who will be profiled by AI next week.
Machin is also now joint chief executive of Wiltshire Creative with the Playhouse’s executive director Sebastian Warrack and so in charge of both the arts centre and the Salisbury International Festival as well as the theatre. The festival took a break this year to give the new structure time to bed in and will be back next year with a guest director a la Brighton, but the initiative is an example of how the cultural economy of a city can be remodelled with minimal input from local authorities, and how professionals can work together in and with a community. It’s an experiment many conurbations around the country, large and small, would have been watching with keen interest as they try to rethink their funding models.
Their interest will be even keener now. Wiltshire Creative, just two years in the making from scratch, was to have made Lift Off, a three day festival over the August Bank Holiday Weekend, its fanfare arrival, showing how all Salisbury’s arts organisations could work together creatively and effectively. “Then” Machin says “it became something rather different”.
It would have been a draw for visitors to this pretty and friendly place, but over the summer they have ceased to come. The playhouse has seen a 35% drop in box office sales, the cathedral and museum both estimate a 40% drop. The effects of the Skripal event were surprisingly minimal – the theatre in particular has a loyal audience which had booked well in advance – and by July things were looking brighter than had been feared. Then on July 5thDawn Sturgess and Charlie Rowley were struck, and the psychological impact on the citizens this time was critical.
Visitors were notable by their absence at Lift Off, and though there had been concerns that the fairly elderly population would not take kindly to changes, 13,000 locals turned out in a spirit of defiance rather than celebration, “showing we weren’t cowed or scared”. Particularly encouraging were the numbers of children taking part in the workshops, the community opera, the dancing, the tumbling. 
It is hard for Salisbury and its arts organisations to draw a line under Novichok while it continues it make front page news, and it has given the place a global brand it didn’t want. But Machin sees Lift Off as a tangible part of the recovery, and nothing other than a well programmed arts event could have had such an immediate influence on Salisbury’s mood. 

“But the story hasn’t ended yet” says Machin. “It changes every day, we're in the middle of it. It will take time.”

Posted in Features