Our work with Quarantine

Following our work alongside Manchester-based theatre company Quarantine during our autumn 2015 season, Spot On’s scheme manager and Culturapedia director, Sue Robinson, was asked to write a blog. Here’s what she had to say…

Culturapedia is a small owner-managed arts company based in Blackburn. We began life in 2004 as a consultancy run by two directors and in 2009, in response to the economic crash, we went through a reimagining of our aims, values and purpose and refocused our work. You can find more on our website: www.culturapedia.co

Led by Sue Robinson and Rob Howell, co-directors (and a couple) the business has grown from 2 people and an office dog, to a core of 5 staff, freelancers, and of course, the office dog.

The directors’ backgrounds were in community arts, but they had both meandered through local government work, arts council employment, and freelance activity before settling into developing and building their business which reflects the strengths and interests of each director. Operating out of an office connected to the Directors’ home, Culturapedia is known best by the services it delivers, than by its own company name.

So, first up we deliver Spot On Lancashire. It was 20 this year. Spot On works in partnership with rural community promoters, to help them host and promote live arts events. Sue started running Spot On as a freelancer, but over time it’s become a service being delivered as part of a consortium NPO in partnership with Cheshire Rural Touring Arts,and Lancashire County Council. Starting with just 15 events it has grown to 45 venues delivering about 70 shows a year. (You can read about this here)

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Spot On is on one of 40 networks across the UK working directly with local communities,  enabling them to book and host contemporary performing arts work, which would  otherwise be unaffordable to small venues without our Arts Council support. Every Spot  On show happens in a venue because the local community chose to bring it there, nothing  is ever “bought in” by us and imposed. The core of our work is the production of a twice-  yearly curated menu- an offer of about 20 companies from which the promoters  themselves pick what they would like. This gives real ownership to the community but can be challenging for the artists, as it is another layer of people to negotiate when trying to get dates booked for a tour. It is however, a necessary and essential layer if the show is going to be supported by local people. Spot On is really only one full time equivalent person- volunteer time promoting and hosting events is about 40% of our service. We need their buy-in to make the service affordable and deliverable

One of our challenges in programming contemporary work in rural settings for ‘rural audiences’ is striking the balance between consumer need for “a successful night out” and creating a local buzz, and the expectations on us as an NPO to take programming risks. Risk to an arts venue in central Manchester are not the same as Dunsop Bridge village hall. Simply accepting a show, of any form, and getting an audience to attend, can feel risky and scary to a volunteer who is doing the promotion in their own time. The incentive is different. We therefore balance our offer by encouraging people to have a go, supporting them financially in doing so and respecting the communities’ needs and interests.

Our involvement in Quarantine’s project was really around this subject of “risk” and new work, and new audiences. Everything was new – the relationship with the company, the other partners, the ambitions of the fund, and the fact we were working with installations rather than “live shows”.

Our ambition was to introduce new work to rural audiences, but once we embarked on the partnership it became clear that the work presented us with two challenges – ensuring sufficient footfall, and a space for each piece. Whilst in theory there are plenty of carparks outside village halls, the communities surrounding can be dormant, or simply not big enough to provide suitable local footfall for a week. A weekend, perhaps, but not a week. If this was a casual agreement/exploratory booking we may have given up but our commitment to the partnership made us think creatively about seeking new partners. We teamed up with the Lowther Pavilion and Gardens in Lytham. Although closer to a small market town than anything rural by our definitions, the area does not have a high level of local contemporary arts offer, and has an ageing population that might be perceived as conservative.

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Between Us, We Know Everything… went out to Lytham for a cold week in August. It apparently went down well, attracted interest for passers-by and dog walkers in the park and good support from the local venue manager.

For The Soldier’s Song – again in theory a plethora of village halls should makes this simple. However, the spaces are busy (imagine the Brownies dancing around the installation) and footfall, which again was going to be an issue for anything longer than a weekend. The technical set-up for this wouldn’t have made a weekend worthwhile.

Spot On was successful in February 2015 in a strategic touring bid to develop work in libraries in both Lancashire and with Cheshire Rural Arts in Cheshire. Through this new network, we approached librarians to see if they might help us out in hosting the show. Hence The Soldier’s Song spent two weeks in Morecambe library. Not rural by any means, but definitely an area of low arts offer, and engagement.

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The piece went in for two weeks, October half term, and after, which coincided with Remembrance day. The librarians were amazing in their efforts to encourage people to visit the booth, but we knew they were going to need support to make the venture work.

We also deliver the north west office for somewhereto_ , (a national youth engagement service (www.somewhereto.com). This national initiative is about enabling young people aged 16-25 to find somewhere to develop their creative ambitions. It began as part of the Cultural Olympiad and is funded by Big Lottery. Through this we knew two excellent young producers and recruited Jakub and Shona to look after the installation and encourage people in. They did excellent work, and it was this that made the visit a success. Their blog can be read here and Quarantine have written a separate report on the project.

One thing we observed, is that if we calculated the true cost (my time and travel, Quarantine time, library staff time) how expensive it is to try to tour something into an area of low engagement (I prefer the term low investment- people do engage when the right offer is there). It can’t be a “turn up and hope” booking – you have to go out, talk, and build relationships to make it work.

To continue, this involves considerable development energy. Free is expensive. But the effort and energy has brought great returns.

Here’s a link to the original post on Quarantine’s website