I have been investigating how an ‘arts centre’ can transition its role in the community especially in relation to the current Local Government Reform Act 2014. This is a key aspect of my current research for an MBA in professional arts management. The Act matters because it will require the abolition of many town councils and the formation of municipal districts as well as regional assemblies across the country. As a consequence, for many arts centres this reform could be considered a threat, especially for those that may primarily be supported by town council funding in comparison to county funding for their ongoing operational costs. The outcomes of the current Arts Council Strategy Review could also have a negative impact on future arts centre funding support that has already been slashed significantly. The task then is for the arts centre model to turn the threat into an opportunity; to position itself strategically during the period of transition that lies ahead. But how and what supports need to be in place to support the transition?
Through in depth interviews with major stakeholders, including the Arts Council and local authority representatives, field research with other venue/arts centre directors, as well as research into alternative models in the UK and US, among my findings so far the following have been revealed as essential for success:
Looking across the waters at different arts models within counties in the UK, centralised management centres have been established in partnership with local councils such as Theatrau Sir Gâr in Carmarthenshire Wales which acts as a centralised management organisation for three theatres/centres of varied capacity within the Carmarthenshire County (Ffwnes, Lyric and The Miners) and in the US each county within the state has its own arts council which is a hybrid of arts office/arts centre overseeing distribution of local arts grants as well as managing certain community arts programmes. These are just two examples of how arts centres can transition their roles for ongoing sustainability and all dependent on the unique artistic remit of each centre within each county and the supports available for the transition.
Of course there are many forces for change and against change but finding the happy medium is key. Right now though, forces against change are hindering the growth of arts centres and in some cases even crippling them. Recent funding cuts have impacted on the need for arts centres to include additional services for income generation outside their artistic remit or apply for EU grants with large scale administration demands on an already strained human resource capacity dependent on temporary community employment schemes and JobBridge schemes due to lack of funding which hinders organisation growth. The vicious cycle needs to be broken and a new one developed for arts centres.
The research also looked at additional supports required to support arts centres in transition phase. Though Theatre Forum does excellent work representing venues in relation to performance arts needs, perhaps there is an additional need for a venues association similar to the local arts officers association and county managers association so that there is a representative voice speaking on behalf of the venue/arts centre sector including many multi disciplinary arts centres who need a voice for their multi disciplinary needs. In the UK there is Arts Development UK which initiated as an arts officer association and has evolved into an association that offers practical advice, networking and support to the arts profession, and advocates for the important contribution that the arts and creative industries make to today’s crosscutting agendas, such as social inclusion. In Europe there is the Trans Europe Halles, European network advising and bringing together independent multi disciplinary cultural centres across Europe.
As noted from field research with venues at a recent Theatre Forum event, a venues association network could also attract large scale philanthropy for art projects so often unavailable to smaller regional centres. These are just some ideas that can contribute to strengthening the position of the arts centre in the community and would require further exploratory research.
In the meantime, we only have to look back at history to guide us into the future. In 1970, Paul Funge a founding director with Project Arts Centre in 1966, set up the Gorey Arts Centre in his back garden. In 1974 Wexford Arts Centre was established in the Town Hall in Wexford town and celebrates 40 years this year as the oldest regional arts centre still in existence in Ireland today despite over 40% in Arts Council funding cuts since 2008. In 2015, we hope to have evolved again into a centralised professional arts management resource model serving the county and we hope to have the forces for change behind our back to make that happen.
Executive Director, Wexford Arts Centre.