Saturday, February 25, 2012

Boscombe Centre for Community Arts

The question is always asked in a triumphalist, aha-I’ve-got-you-now sort of way.  They demand “what is more important – houses (or the NHS or social Services or similar) or the arts?” They know what answer they want to hear but the answer I always give is: “We need both.”  Once you have some sort of roof over your head and a crust of bread in your belly, how miserable and utilitarian your existence would be if the only challenge and inspiration that was available to you was peering at Strictly Come Ice Skating or pouring gallons of beer down your throat at some unlovely drinking factory.

The question is right there in your face if you live in Boscombe.  There is a building available to the community ready to provide every sort of artistic enterprise and with a long and honourable tradition of so doing and yet the Council would prefer to build a tiny number of houses and by so doing demolish what could be a thriving hub.  Yes, Boscombe does need these houses, but it also needs a cultural centre to serve the needs of the whole population.  I do sympathise with the Councillors – somebody has to take these decisions and they are remorselessly driven by the need to be seen to be doing something to help Boscombe’s homeless.  But in this case, to my way of thinking, they have not weighed up the situation properly. 

I have visited the Bournemouth Drama Centre as it then was many times over the last forty odd years.  The last time I was there I saw some extraordinary work by a local group of adults with learning disabilities.  It was an act of sheer folly to close down this resource to such groups in the first place.  But it is always easier to destroy than to build up and the work of forty years was swept away at a stroke.  It would have taken comparatively little to keep the building open and, with the right management it could even have survived with minimal input from the council.   If the council was planning to replace this resource with something else all well and good but there is no sign of that happening and it leaves the Bournemouth conurbation in the unique position of having absolutely no community arts resource.  At all.

It is ironic that just this month a survey has been commissioned by Creative Dorset to try to understand how the arts function in Dorset, Poole and Bournemouth.  The answer quite simply is that they survive in spite of the Councils’ lack of interest.

If closing the Bournemouth Drama Centre was an act of folly then to demolish the building itself without giving it a chance to regenerate and thereby improve the lives of those who live in the area is an act of cultural vandalism of the highest order.

Wednesday, February 08, 2012

Dorset Loves Arts

Dorset Loves Arts.  Let’s celebrate that fact.  Dorset must be one of the most arts rich counties in the country.   Every village hall has its panto, every seaside cafe has its row of watercolours of Old Harry or The Cobb lining its walls.  There are festivals of every kind from literature to blues music.  Every pub has its Open mic poetry night and the Cultural Olympiad will see street processions and samba bands a la Rio and Trinidad.

And yet, and yet.  There is still something ...  As well as all the participatory arts mentioned above we are lucky to have some world class practitioners, an orchestra, top novelists, and we all know that West Dorset has the highest concentration of television executives this end of the Galaxy.  Or something.  And then we have two universities (two! Count them) and a college producing arts graduates by the sack load every year, all wanting to try out their new found skills. Not enough?  What about the heroic attempts by a few small venues and festivals to provide a place for any number of artists learning their craft to have a go. And Thomas Hardy?

OK, you should see by now where I’m heading.  None of this amounts to a serious, challenging, developing arts scene.  I can’t think of anywhere less defined by its arts activities than Dorset.  And I have lived and worked here for twenty odd years.  Ask any prospective visitor to the Cultural Olympiad what arts activites they are expecting to see and I don’t imagine it will be anything cutting edge and of the twenty-first century.
As I see it, there are two reasons for this. The first is obvious.  Dorset people don’t particularly want anything too exciting in their cultural mix.  They come here for a bit of a metaphorical snooze; (you know the old joke – elderly people come to Dorset to die and then forget what they came here for).If they want a bit of excitement they will get on a coach to London or Bristol or Exeter.  And, following on from that there is no practical tradition of funding the arts.  And the reasoning for that is impeccable.  If people don’t want to see anything challenging, why fund it?  And in any case Dorset is a poor County/Times are hard/we need another hospice.   So any arts organisation hunkers down with its diet of funny folk bands, volunteer run events, local stitchery and imported theatre from Bristol and Exeter and occasionally Poland.  And they still lose money.

So what happens to those young bright, dynamic young graduates emerging blinking into the cultural sunlight?  Well, mostly nothing.  If they’ve got a bit of get up and go, they disappear off to places where they can get a bit of encouragement and experience and earn a humble crust.  The rest just carry on working in hotels and guest houses.

But that still leaves Dorset with a chunk of experienced and thoughtful practitioners most of whom are living here and plying their trades elsewhere.  Why aren’t they fermenting this exciting cultural liquor that should make the place heady with ideas and images? Well, there is a geographical issue, communities are more diffuse with wildly divergent cultural links than might be found in a conurbation.  Artists are less likely to bump into each other in a Starbucks and begin the sort of banter that leads on to crazy new ideas. But, most of all, because nobody has thought to use this resource to develop the arts scene.  The effort, up to now has always been on the young and emerging artists.  The established practitioners can be ignored to get on with their own stuff.

But I maintain that making use of established practitioners is exactly how you develop new art.  Take someone who has learnt their trade and encourage them to go further, faster, higher.  But yet, again and again opportunities to exploit the experienced artists come to nothing.  Five years ago when the Cultural Olympiad loomed on the horizon a database of some two hundred practising Dorset artists was established.  An initial list of arts projects was put forward.  Excitement ensued. Nothing.  And here we are six months away and still nothing.  Excitement gave way to cynicism long ago.  Dorset practitioners have full diaries for 2012 but not in Dorset.  The Cultural Olympiad will be a great success but it will leave no legacy for the arts in Dorset.  Similarly with the Jurassic Coast project.  Very little in it for the Dorset artists.  It’s bizarre that Dorset artists were not deemed to be of suitable calibre to work on Jurassic Coast projects.  And yet, if you were to travel to, say, the Rift Valley in Africa, would you not expect to see the work of the locally based artists and crafts people? All foreseen long ago.  All ignored.

Oh yes, Dorset practitioners do occasionally get invited in to participate.  There are plenty of opportunities posted on the internet for them to pay to go to training sessions to learn how to be a better artist.  Or to buy a stall at an art fair.  Honestly, when you have been honing your craft for forty years it becomes a bit of a mockery.

Other countries have a different view of their practitioners.   They see them as a resource, something to build upon for the future.   By encouraging their established artists there is always a sense that the arts can keep moving forward.  They don’t, as the cliche has it, have to keep reinventing the wheel.  Added to this, a networked pool of established artists can concentrate cultural experience into a recognisable local arts scene big enough to attract interest from outside.  At the same time your practitioners can be there as a resource for new and emerging artists to build on or fight against.  Most established practitioners are delighted to be asked to pass on their skills and experience.

How do we achieve this in Dorset?  Well, the arts organisations that there are have to be turned back towards supporting practitioner arts in the County.  It’s wonderful that new ideas can be sought elsewhere but I think it’s vital that resources are put into developing what is already here.  And not by futile training sessions but by supporting actual product.  Invest in an art event in Dorset and it might even make enough to plough back into more art work.  There was a really useful arts networking organisation called Dorset Arts Promoters’ Forum that gave birth to initiatives that lead to the formation of Activate and Creative Dorset and an annual County wide arts conference.  It attempted to bring practitioners together from across the county.  Alas it could not sustain itself on a purely voluntary level but things have moved on in the few years since it was wound up and it could provide a revitalised platform for arts ideas working alongside organisations such as Activate and Dorset Loves Arts.  Oh, that’s where we came in, I think.

It might be worth referring back to a previous post from 2008