Farnham – craft town

Next month, as you drive into Farnham, you may notice that the welcome to Farnham signs – that also say something about neighbourhood watch and being twinned with Andernach have been replaced by standard highway signs that say Welcome to Farnham craft town. This has take five years, a bit of luck and a degree of lying. Or, if not lying, a degree of envisioning what the town can be.

I say five years but in truth it has been a whole lot longer. When i came to work in Farnham 10 years ago i was astounded by two things. Firstly how poor the town felt. Not economically, but spiritually, socially, culturally. Yes there is economic wealth and there are, undoubtedly, many good and purposeful people working at making things happen. But, generally, there is little appetite for reinvention, for looking forward.  most efforts are based on protecting the past. Secondly, i was struck by how disinterested my national colleagues are in the South East, and Surrey in particular. When i would gather with arts leaders at a national gathering in Manchester or London more than one person questioned why i would want to come and work here. A perception that it is full of stockbrokers and bankers pervades. But, of course as everywhere, these are hugely diverse communities. So that has been the challenge. As i never tire of reminding people ACEs vision is “Great Art for Everyone” Not just for the poor and marginalised. We might well prioritise spending and effort where it is needed but, if we and ACE are ever going to achieve that ambition then everyone will need to naturally recognise the value of art in their lives – even if they don’t engage. In the same way that everyone recognises the value of sport to health.

Anyway. back to craft town. When i think about it it hasn’t been that hard to make happen. It did require rehearsing some arguments around the danger of not doing anything and pointing out some fairly obvious truths. I discovered that the North West Development Agency – when it existed – had put out a campaign with the strap line ‘its grim down south’. Great motivation. It was relatively easy to get Waverley BC to make reference to the crafts in their cultural plan. Then, when the Town Council, wanted to make a bid to the Mary Portis high street fund there was an existing idea that looked distinctive. And so it goes. So now, when the town mayor opens a new craft commission in the town he happily talks about Farnham’s long and rich history as a centre for craft. I don’t think he knows it but he believes it to be true.

It was important that the town council is the driver for this.  Yes a number of organisations might actually be doing much of the work – but having political buy-in means makes things happen. Which is not to say we haven’t been above just getting on with doing some things directly.

What has surprised me is, once people see it happening, everyone wants to get on board. In the last week i have heard that the local paper – The Farnham Herald – is to replace the bi-line ‘shop locally’ under its title with ‘Farnham. craft town’ and the Local Economic Partnership is speaking to visit South east about investing in a campaign to promote the town. Who knows where this will lead. But we are having a laugh.

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