What is an Arts Centre for?
Kate Romano, CEO of Stapleford Granary
Before taking up my current role at Stapleford Granary in August 2020, I was a bit of a nomad. For over 15 years, I’ve created, produced and performed shows, operas, music theatre and concerts with my own production company and for other organisations. But these shows have always toured; they dip into festivals, drop in on theatres, concert-halls and schools, pop up in marquees, warehouses and gardens… it’s traveling art… art on the move…
My approach to dreaming up productions has been similarly un-rooted and liberated. If I had an idea, it could potentially become anything - a story for radio, a piece of theatre, an opera, a puppet show... an endless world of possibilities that never felt restricted by boundaries or conventions. It’s a shape-shifting way of creating productions and projects which - fascinatingly - take on some qualities of the places they end up in.
Yet there was also a part of me that quietly nursed the idea of having a home for art. I imagined this place as a wünderkammer - a life-sized cabinet of cultural curiosities where the arts could mingle and make unlikely, exciting connections. Allowing this concept to grow freely in my mind (untroubled by concerns such as ever having to actually realise any of it) my fantasy ‘home for the arts’ has taken on playful forms such as The Theatre Of Unrealised Ideas and a Borges-inspired Infinity Gallery Of Sound.
Then Covid came. In April, still in shock, I wrote about the strange and silent times we all found ourselves in. Over a thousand venues went dark overnight. Without these homes-for-the-arts, music-making and the performing arts stumbled into living rooms, gardens and existed behind glass screens.
By June, like most musicians, I was grieving for what we had lost, but determined to remain positive. I wrote about life beyond the concert hall exploring the ways in which music and the arts might manage to survive without venues. I started peering into the cracks and crevices that had opened up in the sector to see what might still be growing. I looked hard at smaller, flexible regional organisations, creative community groups, individuals who found inspiration in the hostile landscape… These - I concluded - are the people and places who will enable art to thrive and we must protect them and nurture them.
And then, in July, came an unexpected and life-changing opportunity to head up an Arts Centre: Stapleford Granary. After months of trying to imagine how art and music might somehow exist without places to put it in, I found my thoughts returning to the idea of a home for the arts - a real one this time - and I asked myself: what is the purpose of an Arts Centre, now and in the future?
I was thinking these thoughts as I arrived at Stapleford Granary for the first time in months. It was quiet. I had forgotten the wonderful smoky smell of the douglas fir flooring and the earthy brick that hits you the moment you step in the door. Outside, the old orchard and the river banks were overgrown but a bumper crop of red apples decorated the trees and bunches of fat, jewel-like purple grapes hung heavily from the vine. I went into the art workshops in the stable block. There were some half-finished sketches and cold cups of coffee - a poignant throw-back to 23rd March when life-as-we-knew-it stopped. In the concert hall, the chairs were set out ready for summer concerts that never took place.
I love this place with all my heart. I have known it since it was developed into an Arts Centre from an old 19th century farm complex ten years ago and my ensemble held a year-long residency here. I’m not the only one who feels this way. Messages of support started to come in… ‘When are you opening? We miss the Granary so much… Can we come and perform? Can we help?’ My team and I set to work in this unchartered and precarious terrain, trying to build on a quicksand of ever-changing restrictions and rules. How could we work with artists during this time? How could we keep a fire burning for the arts? Some days it felt like all we did was take two steps forwards and six backwards. We lived and breathed risk assessments and we learned fast: how to black-out a whole concert hall in just four days, how long overseas deliveries of lighting take in this covid-y brexit-y climate, the pros (many) and cons (many) of digital programming.
We also learned how much music and the arts are desperately needed right now. We publicised our first concert since lockdown – it sold out in a few hours. We worked out how to restructure the stable block so that artists and students could safely come back to the workshops. Once again, printmaking, bookbinding, jewellery-making, stained glass and painting are taking place every week. ‘Its lovely to be back’ said one of the participants, as she sketched the fallen apples in the orchard. ‘I’d forgotten how important this is...’
But what, specifically, was so important about being here? She could have sketched apples anywhere. I turned to my dog-eared copy of Gaston Bachelard’s The Poetics of Space, an allusive, lyrical book which guides the reader through an actual or imagined home. Bachelard, the scientist-turned-poet-turned-philosopher, describes the comforts and mysteries of the home as an inner landscape of the mind which inspires and nurtures thoughts, dreams and memories. ‘The house shelters daydreaming…’ he writes. ‘The house protects the dreamer, the house allows one to dream in peace’. Imagination is set free in this way, says Bachelard, ‘whenever the human being has found the slightest shelter’
Reading Bachelard helps us understand how this ‘shelter’ (for my purposes here, an Arts Centre) could also open up the wider world to us. We are motivated to behave in various ways by the building itself; motivated to gaze out the windows if the view is beautiful and if they are accessible to us, motivated to linger in the foyer and look at the paintings if the chairs are comfortable and the light is good. We are motivated to return to the concert hall if the sound is wonderful and the atmosphere is thrilling and welcoming. And we are motivated to sketch apples in the orchard if the tutor encourages us, if the community is warm and non-judgemental, if the wooden bench and table is set just right under the trees and the view is idyllic.
These ways in which we respond bodily to the built and natural environment do not disappear once we leave. We take a little of the Arts Centre and the cultural experience with us when we step outside and we move through the world this way, subconsciously carrying with us the experience of the places we visit. In this sense, an Arts Centre has the ability to help shape the kind of world we want to live in.
Reflecting on the past two months, here are my thoughts on what an Arts Centre is for, what it must do and what it can be:
An Arts Centre is a facilitator: it is a vibrant place for work to be made and for artists to connect with audiences and participants. It is a place where conversations take place, where people come together, share experiences and learn from one another. Its influence should be light-touch – an enabling, ‘hands-off’ environment which avoids hierarchies and universal judgements and does not impose itself on the art or creative practice within.
An Arts Centre is a shelter: it is a place that people think of as ‘theirs’. It is a refuge that sustains, maintains, supports and enables us to take creative risks. It should focus on the coalescence of artistic excellence and social impact, the wider health of communities and offer a public space that truly enriches the area it inhabits.
An Arts Centre is a connector: it is a node in a network of art forms and disciplines, where music meets literature and visual arts, where dance meets theatre, where live meets digital. It is a hub where people are happy to meet one another. It can be a junction-maker between other organisations such as festivals, museums and galleries. Arts centres can play a lead role in creative arts education, providing access to memorable events, phenomenal artists, imaginative resources and ideas.
An Arts Centre inspires: it is a fertile ground where artists can perform, collaborate and produce new work. It is a place that that challenges artists to find new ways of creating work that speaks to a diverse audience. An Arts-Centre-as-Curator is unafraid to explore the cracks, the dissonances and the ruptures and turn them into something extraordinary. An Arts Centre is a collection of stories.
How do we achieve this? I believe that an Arts Centre should never stand still and must continually examine its purpose, remain flexible, malleable and able to represent the people and needs of its communities and the changing world. It is still early days at the Granary and we have much to do, but we are excited about the future and the opportunities for change that the pandemic has opened up. If you are reading this and would like to be part of our story, please do sign up to our regular newsletter via the new Stapleford Granary website and follow us on social media as we develop and unveil our plans. If you are in a position to help support us and would like to be more involved, please do consider becoming a Culturally Curious Friend via the ‘giving’ page on the website. Arts Centres are homes that everyone should have access to. And whilst the pandemic has enabled us to pause and reflect, there is a desperate need for action - for musicians, communities, artists and audiences to come together and re-connect in spaces such as Stapleford Granary. In the words of 80-year old Bachelard in an interview in 1961, ‘life is about thinking… and then getting on with living’.
Kate Romano, October 2020