Mary Swan, What Next? Basingstoke and Proteus Theatre, gives her insight into working with Local Authorities and some suggestions on how we can make the most of these relationships.
As the spending review draws ever nearer most of us find our gaze turned toward the Arts Council waiting to find out what their reaction will be to the outcome, and what that might mean for us all. However, our gaze perhaps should have been diverted earlier elsewhere to give us a chance of survival in the long term – Local Authorities could be the decisive factor in the next three years in terms of the wider theatre ecology.
For many organisations the Local Authority is not seen as relevant to them – it may not own their building, give them any funding, or engage in their work; but it will almost certainly be doing one of those things for a co-producing partner, receiving venue, or individual artist; and this is where the danger to the wider ecology lies.
The problem with talking to Local Authorities is that they speak an entirely different language, and it isn’t always ‘about the money, stupid’. More often than not it is about a sense of place, community and well-being. Local Councillors look directly at their own wards and communities and ask what an arts organisation is doing for them. That may seem like a dystopian view of culture, but often those questions can lead to a proper re-evaluation of appropriate community engagement in an organisation. It’s easy for organisations of any size to forget to look outside the trends in the industry – working with Local Authorities forces one to do that, and it’s no bad thing.
Don’t get me wrong – the process of working with Councillors and Officers in Local Authorities is hard and time consuming, don’t assume they will know anything about the arts – that’s not patronising – that’s just experience; and most of them want to learn about your business models. And here’s the thing – you must find the right language to use – Local Authority Councillors may have allegiance to a political party, but in my experience that isn’t the driver behind the decisions they make, it’s personal – personal to place, to their passions and to their understanding of the value of what arts and culture do. That may sound depressing, but I think its supremely positive – we all have a base in a geographical spot – it’s time we stopped ignoring that fact and started engaging with the elected bodies that govern them.
The only way we ensure the survival of all of us – no matter the size – is to ensure there is a thriving ecology, and not just in terms of venues and artists, but in terms of audience. There is a danger we have missed creating the habit of art in a whole generation – which may be why we are where we are now, to ensure that doesn’t happen again – all shapes and sizes of organisations and artists must engage with the audiences around them now, because those people don’t stay put, one day they will be in your audience.