TAITMAIL The ticket to a new audience?

By Patrick Kelly, Northern Editor

Post-pandemic - that is assuming that we are in a post-pandemic phase, and Covid 19 has no new plans to come back and surprise us - what will happen with audiences for the arts? Can we assume that the same people who would have been trooping in to watch theatre, concerts, dance or cinema will return in their droves again, desperate to get the cultural fix? Is it a given that museum and gallery audiences will just pick up where they left off and return in numbers to those blockbuster exhibitions they have been missing?

The evidence so far is mixed. Some venues are reporting packed houses again, while others say audiences are below expectations. The survey data from the Audience Agency also suggests that “the public are still hesitant about attending live events, with little change in attitudes since February” according to the agency’s Oliver Mantell, director of research policy, who adds it suggests that things won’t revert to how they were before either quickly or completely.
So perhaps there might be an unexpected bonus from a splendid initiative in Sheffield, where a unique ticket-donation enterprise called Tickets For Good has been sending thousands of NHS workers to the UK’s best events - for the price of a coffee. 
Basically what happens is that venues, from local cinemas to West End theatres, donate free tickets to Tickets for Good who then use their app to distribute them to NHS and other frontline workers (minus an admin fee equivalent to what a coffee costs). So far more than 25,000 NHS staff have benefited from the system and donors have included the 02 Academy, Sheffield Theatres and the entertainment giant AEG. In their latest coup Sheffield City Council have agreed to underwrite the cost of free showings of the film version of the hit Sheffield -based musical Everybody Is Talking About Jamie.
Now the Sheffield outfit is scaling up their ambitions with a campaign to fundraise for event tickets, persuading individuals and businesses nationwide as donate cash which can then be used to buy tickets for NHS workers. This scheme, called the Ticket Fund, will not only say thanks to frontline staff for their efforts during the pandemic and beyond, but will also direct much-needed cash into the pockets of theatres, nightclubs and event promoters as they struggle to deal with the prolonged effects of Covid.

OK, so the cultural world cannot rely on a new audience made up entirely of NHS workers, though there are a lot of them. But the idea has a major potential spin off. It introduces new set of people to the idea of culture, whether it be a play at their local theatre or a new band in a nearby venue. Free access is the gateway to a deeper and more frequent engagement with culture, as free museums have shown. If a national network of such social enterprises as Tickets For Good were created it would be a wonderful way of introducing swathes of new people to the arts. Why not try it?

A heritage hero bows out

Stephen Bird, head of heritage services for Bath and North East Somerset Council, is stepping down next week after 40 years’ service to the city. In an era when it is still fashionable to measure career success by how much national attention you can gather, Stephen’s contribution to heritage and museums services and to local government has often gone unmarked. 

Thankfully that was remedied when the man who is also officially keeper of Bath’s local history at the Roman Baths received MBE in 2018 for his service, but he says his inclusion in the Queen’s birthday honours list was also recognition of the hard work of all of his colleagues in heritage services who help people to learn more about the area’s history – from local school children on educational trips to international visitors – ensuring everyone has an enjoyable and memorable experience. “This has come as a complete surprise to me” he said at the time. “Over the years I have been surrounded by a hugely talented and dedicated team of people right across heritage services, and the award really belongs to them”.

This level of dedication from staff has also been recognised recently by three South West Tourism Excellence Awards, and a gold and silver at the national VisitEngland Awards for Excellence for the inclusivity they offer to visitors with disabilities.

A key decision Stephen took in 1999 was to take the Roman Baths & Pump Room into the Association of Leading Visitor Attractions (ALVA) where it is still the only local authority-run member. In 2005 he made the case to the council for heritage services to run as a business unit within the Council using a business model under which he planned the transformation of the Roman Baths into one of the country’s top heritage attractions.

His other key landmarks have included masterminding the restoration of the Victoria Art Gallery in 1990-2, introducing audio guides to the Roman Baths and Fashion Museum in 1995 (the first application of them in the world where they were not charged for separately), organising the Queen’s visit to Bath and North East Somerset in 2002, and working with Wessex Water and YTL on the free Three Tenors Concert at the Royal Crescent in 2003.

He was also on the working groups that re-established the Bath Literary & Scientific Institution in 1993 and set up the Radstock Museum in 2000. More recently he worked with the Britain-Australia Society in 2012-14 to create a memorial to Admiral Arthur Phillip (the Royal Navy officer who was the first govern of New South Wales and effectively founded Sydney) at the Assembly Rooms to mark the bicentenary of his death in Bath.

Stephen is a Fellow of the Museums Association, past-president of the South Western Museums Federation and a member of the Chartered Management Institute and The Tourism Society. He is a professional mentor and fellowship assessor for the Museums Association; he sits on the advisory board of Avebury Museum, is a trustee of Glastonbury Abbey and is company secretary of the Roman Baths Foundation. With an infectious passion for local history and determination to improve accessibility, Stephen has helped inspire millions of visitors to the area.
Councillor Kevin Guy, leader of the council said: “Stephen will be sorely missed but he leaves a remarkable legacy arising from more than 40 years of service to our local community. He has overseen the transformation of our Roman Baths into one of the country’s top heritage attractions and made sure that we are at the forefront of innovation, as we see in the fantastic new Archway project now taking shape… Over the last eighteen months Stephen has also managed the impacts of the pandemic on our heritage attractions with great skill, sensitivity and care”.
“I know that Stephen has always emphasised that we are temporary custodians of our wonderful collections, building and monuments. Now the time has come for him to pass these on, Stephen leaves things in fine shape and with my own personal thanks and those of the whole council.”

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