MY STORY Thames artistry

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Jan Lennox is director of Watermans, the West London arts centre based in Brentford. Watermans sees over 230,000 visits annually to its programme of independent cinema, children’s and asian theatre, exhibitions, courses and festivals. Watermans also leads several other major projects: bell square, a three year-old outdoor arts venue in hounslow, staging free fortnightly events; the Circulate consortium, a network of london venues promoting outdoor arts in underserved boroughs and Creative people & places hounslow, part of ACE’s major investment in building new arts audiences

How long have you been director
of Watermans, and where were you before?
I’ve been at Watermans 14 years. I started out in development at Academy of St Martin in the Fields and the Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra. I moved back to the UK where I became marketing and development director at the Almeida, head of performing arts at ACE North West, and then CEO of The Green Room Manchester. Previous to Watermans, I was project director at Moss Side & Hulme Partnership,
a major regeneration agency in Manchester where I led on culture-led regeneration.

How has the arts centre changed in that time?
After nearly two decades in operation, the centre had lost its way and was in serious financial straits when I arrived. My first task was a strategic review to refocus the organisation and a three-year recovery and stabilisation phase. We then saw a period of serious growth, underpinned by the successful delivery of public sector contracts. We developed key programme strands like performing arts (principally children’s and Asian theatre) and cinema to grow box office income and moved to a social enterprise model. This enabled us to innovate: we added Weekenders, weekend multi-arts festivals that bring new audiences to the building and give us the opportunity to bring new artists and art forms in the centre; we started Urban Ambush, summer projects for young people, at least half of them from disadvantaged backgrounds; we took the lead on digital performance in the UK and added the Digital Performance Weekender, giving West London audiences a unique opportunity to discover this exciting art form.

Periodically, Watermans’ future has been the subject of speculation. Is it safe now?
Watermans is in a strong position now but, like any arts organisation, we can never be complacent. The breadth of  our high quality programme coupled with our long-standing ethos of engaging with new arts audiences in communities who tend to have low engagement, makes us unique in West London. Our work outside the venue – in Bell Square for example - enhances that position. With economic and social divisions in the news every day, this role will continue to be vital. We must continue to be focussed on delivering audience satisfaction and stakeholder value so that we’re well placed to win public sector contracts, develop strong collaborations with artistic partners, build relationships with local business and attract new audiences.

What is Circulate, how did it come about and what other venues are involved?
Circulate is now in its fourth year. It was born out of London 2012 and the GLA Culture Team’s Showtime Festival of Outdoor Arts that year. This cultural innovation set a benchmark for outdoor arts and demonstrated how they could create genuinely democratic engagement, and that a highly effective way of doing this was to take the arts to people where they live and work. Circulate does this in areas with low arts engagement. We work
with Stratford Circus, The Albany and Millfield Theatre. Working as a consortium is vital to create the touring opportunity that makes us attractive to the best quality outdoor artists.

What have been the stand-out audience pleasers so far?
Olivier Grossetete’s People’s Tower in summer 2015 saw five unique cardboard towers built by thousands of Londoners in five venues across London. Each tower was a giant replica of a local landmark and the feeling of a community miracle was fantastic to see, as was the celebratory toppling of each tower at the end of each event. This year we’ve had a range of events, including French clowning group Barolosolo with their show Ile O and a new collaboration from No Fit State Circus and Motionhouse called BLOCK. Both attracted diverse audiences of well over a thousand at each venue. This challenges the idea that certain art forms don’t have wide appeal and reminds us that it’s often the venue itself that forms part of the barrier to engagement!

What does Circulate mean to Watermans and its future?
It helps us on many levels. It connects us to like-minded venues across London and there’s no question that that is valuable in terms of knowledge and skills sharing. It also helps boost Watermans’ outdoor arts programming: the clout of the network obviously gives us a stronger negotiating position to get the best artists than we would have alone.

The arts centre is due to move. Why, where to and when?
We are in negotiations with London Borough of Hounslow and a developer to agree a plan to move Watermans to a state of the art building in Brentford town centre in the next 3-4 years. Our current building is old, expensive to maintain and run, doesn’t cater for the kind of programme we aspire to deliver and which audiences want and is poorly located. The new building will provide facilities – such as a much larger theatre with flexible seating, and more cinema screens - that will enable us to deliver our programming ambitions fully, cater to audience expectations, and help us raise more income through box office, hires and sponsorship. The new building will support the regeneration of Brentford, being a focal point for the community and bringing new people into the area. Ultimately our goal is to be at the heart of a creatively re-energised West London.

Have partnerships become more important in recent years, and do you have others apart from the Circulate consortium?

Yes, they have become increasingly important as a way of scaling up the programme and sharing knowledge and resources across organisations. As well as Circulate, we lead CPP Hounslow, working with smaller organisations to engage new audiences and build arts capacity; we are a member of Without Walls Associate Touring Network and Global Streets, both of which support us to bring outdoor arts to Bell Square; and we partner with Dance Umbrella and Totally Thames Festival.

You are a multi-purpose arts centre. Will your new manifestation need to have outdoor space for more open air events such as Circulate?

No. One of the key drivers for the outdoor arts programme is to take high quality arts to other places where there isn’t the infrastructure of an arts venue, and where engagement in the arts is less developed. So it’s not a priority to have outdoor space at the front of the new building. However, this type of programming can be very popular with local audiences so we’ll be happy to work with other local partners to put on shows nearby.

You have grant support from the Arts Council and the local authority. Could you manage without it?

Funding support from ACE and Hounslow is vital for Watermans. Sure, we could survive without it if all we did was very popular programming for those who could afford to pay high prices - but that’s not what we’re about. We’re here for everybody, regardless of their financial means - so yes, subsidy is essential to maintain that ethos. That subsidy, when it comes from the public sector, generally tends to come with less strings than funding from commercial or corporate sources or even individual donors, and that enables us to bring high quality arts to all communities, central to why we are here.

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