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Chris Grady: A glimpse inside the Arts Council

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I've just come to the end of my first term as one of 200 Arts Assessors (and in true West Wing fashion, I am happy to serve another two-year term if wanted). 

Over the last two years I have been sent to see new and classic musicals, compilations and showcases. My colleagues with whom I gathered yesterday, had been to all manner of site specific creations, children’s theatre, set texts and new plays.

There are other cohorts doing opera, dance, literature etc. We were the theatre cohort.  It is a privilege to be sent out to see work, and its been a pleasure to write assessments for the Arts Council to aid them in creative conversations between the arts organisation (NPOs to give them their proper name – National Portfolio Organisations) and the relationship managers (I guess that should be RMs).

As Barbara Matthews, the inspiring current Director of Theatre, so kindly said – our reports are often a way to help the conversation return to the art when the NPO and RMs could get stuck in discussing boards and budgets. The arts organisation may not agree with what we have written, but we're charged with being an informed member of the audience, giving subjective opinions, and allowing room for them to have discussions. They're private reports, but personalised. We are not anonymous and I hope I have not lost too many friends where I may have been slightly critical of a production (or in the theatre’s terms probably completely off the mark, missed the point, and full of daft comments).

It's not often 30+ theatremakers get a morning to explore the arts as we see it across the country,  and it was a fascinating range of enthusiasm, realism, and worry.  Enthusiasm for the way so many (in fast probably nearly all) NPOs are working to create the best theatre experiences they can for their audiences, and how some are really managing to reach into their community and connect with audiences, participants and new potential attenders. 

Realism came in the form of a shared feeling that we were witnessing the bright blooms from the flowering caused by careful nurture of the theatrical garden 4-5 years ago, and then we could all see the cold spell causing damage to bright and beautiful work. And the worry that maybe we were not, yet, finding a way to grow the overall audience base to be able to enjoy what was on offer, and that lack of disposable income,  and a potential reduction in available exciting product was not helping regional theatres to achieve targets. And when they don’t achieve targets there is a danger of taking less risk, doing less interesting stuff, and a spiral of disinterest can result.

There was real delight at some of the festivals which are attracting new/occasional audiences, the success of some televised and streamed theatre productions broadening expectation of excellence, and the essential work or rural touring schemes bringing the best possible product to a village hall near you.  This lattice work of creative output is all interrelated, and the work which the Arts Council, and the enlightened Local Authorities, trusts, sponsors, and theatre supporters, all go together to make it possible.

At its heart though, there seemed to be two common concerns – the lack of interest / commitment / financial will to support the arts overall in the current funding rounds, and the need for arts organisations and boards to remember to cheer and champion the very best staff and volunteers who are there to welcome the audience, make them feel ownership of their theatre or arts event, and connect to the community in which we serve. If you were throwing a party at your home, you’d be there to welcome your guests. Our audiences are coming to a party – make them welcome with a human touch.

And finally a comment I really liked when we were talking about some extraordinary site specific and site responsive productions from a wood in North Cornwall to a rather big stadium in East London. Don’t forget every piece of theatre, in every theatre, is also a site specific performance.

A great meeting.


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