Camden Arts Centre provides an environment for artists to develop work. Photograph: Graeme Robertson
The role the arts plays in our society is changing. Increasing pressure on public subsidy means the industry has to work harder than ever to prove its value in a variety of frameworks, and the arts venue of the future is going to look very different to what it does today.
The ivory tower model of elite artists and arts organisations being funded to cater for a narrow segment of society has crumbled. Forward-looking arts organisations now focus on the coalescence of artistic excellence and social impact, the broader health of their communities and offering public spaces that truly enrich the high streets they inhabit.
The inherent features of arts centres – their multidisciplinary context and the community, civic and artistic role they play – can make it difficult to pin down their identities, and often lead to them being underrepresented in the media and public dialogue around the arts. But this challenge is also their greatest strength. Arts centres are the unsung heroes of the creative sector, and they might hold the key to the future of UK arts.
Arts centres are often busy from early morning to late at night, offering an extensive range of services and platforms for engagement, attracting audiences the sector usually finds hard to reach. Not producers in the classical sense, they provide fertile ground for artists to produce new work and find new meeting points with audiences.
Visit the Albany on a Tuesday and you’ll encounter an artist-led day club for the over-60s, where you’re likely to see participants suspended from silks in a circus workshop or developing their spoken word skills. The club not only increases the richness of audiences for the programme as a whole, it also challenges artists to find new ways of creating work that speaks to a diverse audience.
Crucially for the council, we are also working to deliver a public health agenda, combating issues around the isolated elderly, more efficiently and cost-effective than many of the other options available. As a Lewisham councillor said recently: “We spend 40% of our budget on adult social care. Perhaps if more of them had experienced the arts that figure wouldn’t be so high.”
Arts centres have for years worked closely with councils, who are often their principal funders. As the demands on council resources increase, these building and venues are playing a central role in finding creative solutions to fulfilling social remits.
At Stratford Circus, a priority is engaging those who would otherwise have no opportunity to engage with the arts. Its home borough of Newham is one of 20 districts in Britain where the financial loss from the welfare reforms is greatest.
However, over the past year, we’ve seen a 159% increase in audiences for children’s work – a direct result of a strong partnership with the local authority that means, among other things, every child in Year 5 from Newham could see Michael Rosen’s Centrally Heated Knickers for free. With the arts in the curriculum increasingly under threat, arts centres can play a lead role in creative arts education, providing access to artists, consultancy, networks and training.
Artists also recognise that arts centres provide a more vibrant environment in which to develop work – places where they can connect with potential audiences during the creative process. So when Hannah Nicklin wanted to collect stories about breaking Britain; when Unlimited Theatre wanted to ask children about their approach to money; and when Andy Field wanted to find out about different kinds of love, they went to ARC in Stockton, an arts centre that was able to connect them to their local community. It’s this kind of engaged, socially driven activity that could help provide a framework for the future of UK arts.
Clare Connor is director of Stratford Circus, and Gavin Barlow is CEO of the Albany – both are co-chairs of the National Partnership of Arts Centres