thoughts about towns

There is something in Raymond Williams observation that “the common image of the country is an image of the past, with the common image of the city an image of the future”. Which leaves us, living in towns, inhabiting an undefined present.

These are a few reflections around the challenges, particularity and opportunities for cultural organisations working in towns. I am based in the southeast but hopefully there are some universal truths. I know that Banbury and Borden in the southeast are wildly different from the towns of Mansfield and Shirebrook. However, these thoughts are about communities of a certain scale, places with little cultural infrastructure where most people live. All are facing the same challenges: the decline in the high street; the scale and influence of local authorities; the gravitational pull of cities for young people; the pressures on other services, the prioritising of cities and areas of greatest need by funders. All my career I have heard half acknowledged truths that ‘towns are difficult’ and the most recent elections feel like they have demonstrated that.

According to the centre of towns the southeast has, by far, the largest number of towns of any region in the country. We don’t have a major regional city like Birmingham or Manchester championing its hinterland. London is the capital city and, whilst living in its shadow has a huge impact, it never feels like it has the southeast region in its stewardship. Which leaves us as a slightly ill-defined set of communities. ‘Near London’ describes us by where we are not. Towns are a key characteristic of our region and are something to be thought about, celebrated and cared for.

When it comes to arts development towns face a particular challenge. They lack the critical mass of a city which can deliver an ‘arts’ audience yet are often too large to have a coherent community that might turn out for an event in a village. Towns sit in that middle space and venues, where they exist, have to navigate how they build relationships with their community that are as much about place as they are about art.

One of the most useful things to come out of the pandemic for Farnham Maltings has been that, because we had to shut the buildings, we put our energy into responding to the immediate needs of our local community. We organised help lines, shopping, prescription pick-ups, share stores, buddying schemes and a hardship fund. We also used our convening skills to host a weekly meeting for every organisation involved in the response. From the Town Council to the Emergency Services, the Herald Newspaper, Churches and MPs office with over 40 organisations attending each week. What this did is throw us into a completely different set of relationship with our community based on identifying shared ambition. We agreed three principles. That activity should be delivered at the most local level, that we should only do the things no-one else was doing and that everything we did should be designed to outlive the pandemic. We also held true to the principle that everyone was welcome and we would not be a political, lobbying body. Our dearest hope is that we can sustain these relationships and the common purpose that has resulted.

We have learnt from those weekly meetings that there are lots of good and purposeful people trying to make things happen in our community. We knew that of course, but I don’t think we listened as hard. It also became clear we had a role to play in setting the culture of the discourse.

How do you ensure the leadership of these places aren’t isolated? Yes, they need to be deeply embedded within their communities, but they also need to be connected to and in conversation with others around the country – and world – who are working to solve the same problems. Almost all international exchange happens between our major capital cities, between Tokyo and London, Seoul and Copenhagen. How might we develop international dialogue between communities away from the centre? Is there a role for making better use of the digital? In writing these thoughts I randomly googled towns named Farnham, found one in Virginia, USA and have sent an email to the director of the local theatre. We will see what happens….

It would be good to have a conversation about towns within an international perspective. I have often thought that the people of, say, Petoskey in Michigan have more in common with the people of Midhurst than they do with Detroit. I am sure that the local newspaper will be telling similar stories and the amateur drama group in both communities will be working out how they sustain their audiences, or whatever. Through New Conversations – an exchange programme we run with BC and the Canada Council, the towns of Selby in North Yorkshire has begun to work with Selby, in Canada – born out of someone emailing the box office for one theatre thinking they were talking to the other. And it has led to a delightful series of exchanges between junior school classes, community arts groups, even stand-up comics. A kind of community up twinning. But how you make that happen at scale thus far avoids me.

Arts centres, where they exist, have a crucial role to play, particularly with so much of community services in but what happens when there isn’t one. This is a question that haunts me. Maybe because I once lived in a place that had no cultural offer and the community felt the poorer for it. Yes, to some extent, people make their own culture – I played in a local skittles team – and, maybe, some people travel the 20 miles to the nearest theatre but if we and ACE are arguing that access to culture is essential doesn’t something have to be available to everyone. By the way I am not arguing here for spreading resources thinly across the whole country – although they could be more evenly spread. I am acknowledging that lots of people don’t even get the chance to choose to engage.

Surely we have to make more of the things we have? I cannot imagine over the next few years the resources for lots of new infrastructure or initiatives. We will have to resist the instinct to compete and work collaboratively. By which I do not mean, ‘putting aside our differences to get the money’ or even worse, ‘getting someone else to pay for the things I want to do anyway’. I mean working with people whose ambition we care for. Where it matters that they succeed. In my own world the house network is one small example of this.

We are going to have to find shared ambitions, particularly with people unlike ourselves because it is these alliances that allow us to reach new and different people.

We are going to need to remain sharp, be ambitious, care and support each other, yet I retain an indefatigable belief in the value and ability our work has to make a difference to the quality of all the people of our communities lives.

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