A little bit of history and a lot of future.

When I first walked into the Carnegie Library in Wakefield almost 3 years ago it was cold, dark, damp, stripped of all its books, but not unloved. Though the staff and users had moved to new premises 12 months beforehand, they and other Wakefield residents held on to their fond memories and hoped the library would somehow be brought back into public use.

Today, following a £3M refurbishment, the building is officially re-opening in its new guise as 34 artists’ studios run by The Art House, Wakefield. The team that made this mighty transformation happen includes an award-winning brass bander, an illustrator, the star of a classic 1980s pop video, a burlesque artiste and a make-up guru. Only in the arts.

In February 2013 my job was to bring the Old Library back to life, guided by plans originally set out in 2011 that had stalled due to lack of funding.

Year one was spent mainly instilling belief that the project would happen, meeting Arts Council funding conditions, securing £1.5M from Europe and transferring the lease from Wakefield Council. Paperwork was involved. Meanwhile, the condition of the Grade II listed library was deteriorating as rain came in through the roof, the windows and the floors, pigeons made merry in the cupola and a tired and emotional citizen of Wakefield propped herself up against the stone balustrade. Both she and the stonework took a tumble.

The following 18+ months were spent mainly instilling belief that the project would happen (that’s a bit of a constant in capital projects), and procuring the contractors – the builders, the asbestos removers, the metal workers, the historic paint samplers. After which:

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18 layers of paint were stripped off the walls to reveal handmade arts & craft tile work.

The original cast iron radiators were blasted and fitted.

A lasagne of floor coverings was peeled back to reveal the original parquet flooring.

A ramshackle history of 20th century wiring was pulled out, along with pipes, conduits and phone sockets.

Historic paint schemes were agreed, disagreed, agreed again.

The weather vane was removed and restored.

Two buildings on slightly different levels became one.

The roof was re-leaded.

Pods and partitions were installed.

Lighting schemes were agreed, disagreed, agreed again.

People said you’ll never fill the studios.

New studio holders and office tenants moved in.

The project was completed – on time and on budget.

 

Was it worth it? A little bit of history and a lot of future.

 

Early postcard showing ill-fate stone balustrade

Early postcard showing ill-fated stone balustrade

Built in 1905, Wakefield’s library was one of 660 in the UK and Ireland made possible with assistance from the Scottish-American industrialist Andrew Carnegie. At the time it was criticized for its cost (£8,000 from Carnegie, plus a penny rate levied by the council) and its appearance (a ‘plain, barn looking building’).

The design had been put out to competition. Of 81 submissions, Surrey-based Trimmell, Cox and Davison won the contract. Their budget was based on London prices. Finding materials and labour much cheaper in Yorkshire, they were able to respond to the ‘barn’ criticism by creating a neo-Baroque style topped by a wooden cupola with leaded cap and an ornate iron weathervane.

The foundation stone was laid by lord mayor Henry Childe in February 1905. Carnegie himself – “just a quiet, well-dressed little man, with nothing in feature, figure or apparel to suggest any special distinction except his big head and large top hat” – formally opened the library in June 1906.

So that’s a bit of the history and one reason for preserving the building. The second reason is the people who will be using it.

“… A brilliant resource for Wakefield and Yorkshire. With leading facilities it can host national and international artists, provide a flexible and supportive workspace for visual artists and showcase the best of visual arts.” (Arts Council England, Feb 2014)

The Art House was established in 1994 by a group of artists with a vision to provide fully-accessible studio space, where disabled and non-disabled artists could work side by side. In 2008, The Art House ‘Phase 1’ building opened on Drury Lane in Wakefield, with exemplary access for people with physical and sensory disabilities.

Now, with the doubling of facilities provided through the Old Library project The Art House can continue to develop and work towards removing barriers for artists through residencies, professional development and mentoring and extending its remit through new activity challenging conventional approaches to diversity and the arts.

The opening, fittingly on the International Day of People with Disability, is an opportunity to show off the building. More importantly, it is a showcase for the work of a new creative community of artists who now have a base in the centre of Wakefield.

As the wonderfully committed project team would say, “You’re welcome.”

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Straps

Today I saw a lorry outside Leeds Station emblazoned with a company name plus ‘aluminium extrusions’. Nothing else. My vision blurred by tears of joy I couldn’t capture it on my phone camera. ‘Aluminium extrusions’. The sheer relief that there is still one business in the UK that hasn’t locked its staff in a conference room with a flip chart, a facilitator, lukewarm instant coffee and Crawford’s family selection biscuits until – in some hallucinatory state – they agree their rallying cry should be “Extrusion *Solutions* for the Aluminium *Community*”.

I have no idea what extruding aluminium entails. I could look it up – in fact I just have and can confirm it’s a service I’m unlikely to need for the foreseeable. It simply does what it says on the recyclable can for people who know that they need it.

Other businesses seem less confident in accepting that actually not everyone is their market. (Although I must say that as I pass their lorries on the A17, “Lomas Potato Transport” has always struck me as rather limiting).

So what’s with the rash of solutions, communities and random phrases that adorn the livery of so many vehicles and the brochures of so many Arts organisations?  Why do so many of us succumb to some version of “To Inform, Educate and Entertain”, paste it under a logo and call it a brand? I plead guilty to having done that one – “A unique complex offering unrivalled entertainment”. I do apologise.

Although there’s a certain pleasure in having your strap line repeated back to you as a truth by funding bodies, what does it mean and why do we put so much time into polishing adjectives and verbs into a sort of drop down menu to describe what we actually do – all the while studiously avoiding words like ‘art’ and ‘theatre’? Who actually cares about these signs and slogans apart from the people who devise them after a gallon of coffee and a fistful of pink wafers?

Hmm PINK wafers. See how the colour is inextricably linked to the product there? Never mind the trite slogans, a poll carried out earlier this month showed that brand recognition can increase by up to 80% based on the colours used. And Britain’s favourite colour is blue. Apparently. It works for me in terms of Steel City footballing alliances but certainly wouldn’t get my vote in other respects.

So. Back to this morning. It’s a 3 mile walk from Leeds station to Weetonwood Hall. Fuelled by the joy of Aluminium Extrusion I skipped along merrily to meet Nima Poovaya-Smith and Rachel Feldman from Alchemy and Ilkley Literature Festival respectively. I was looking forward to discussing  the successful bid to Arts Council’s Catalyst fund that will allow us to develop private giving investment programmes. Then I came upon this sign on the Otley Road:

iconic psychobabble

“Traditional Values delivered with an Original Outlook…Iconic Beer Garden…” And there’s me thinking it was a pub. Jeez. And it’s not even blue.

It almost ruined my day. But talking to Nima and Rachel over proper coffee and handmade biscuits proper cheered me up again.

 

 

 

 

 

 

How Much?

 

“The Donmar season at the West End taught me an unavoidable equation, which is that cheap tickets equals young people…It’s as simple as that.” Producer/Director Michael Grandage. Metro 6 December 2012 All Hail Michael Grandage for keeping accessible pricing in the public eye, but I’m sure Michael is hugely embarrassed that the media cult of him as ‘West End wizard’ [Sunday Times, 9 Dec] airbrushes out the vital role of regional theatre in building his platform. How Much? was a major project run by Sheffield Theatres from December 1998. Subtitled Sex, Violence, Brilliance, Shakespearethe original aim was to investigate the importance of price sensitivity among young people. We soon realised that price was by no means the only, and often far from being the most important, barrier to young peoples’ arts attendance. The first rule of price club is that you must never talk about young people as if they are all the same. expired sites . The project’s focal point was a scheme offering tickets at £3.50 to 16 to 24 year-olds. The initial programme on offer included:

  • The Maly Theatre’s Winters Tale (in Russian),
  • Ben Elton’s Popcorn
  • Grandage’s production of Twelfth Night

I doubt anyone’s first thoughts on seeing this programme would be, “They’re dumbing down for the youth market…” The rationale for the choice of shows was that of all the reasons young people might give for not attending, poor quality and high prices wouldn’t be among them. The first wave of research with new young attenders showed, amongst other things, that they were willing to pay more than we were charging. So the ticket price was edged up to £10

It is difficult not to be envious of those young people in season two whose first experience of theatre was Christopher Marlowe’s Edward II at the Crucible. I doubt any of them remember they only paid £10 for their seat quite as well as they remember a truly stunning piece of theatre with gripping performances from the company led by Joseph Fiennes.

So How Much? found that price is not an absolute constraint to theatre attendance for young people, but the uncertainty of what they will get in return for their money is. One of the key findings concerned young people’s leisure spend: over half expected to spend at least £45 per week on “nights out” (and remember this is in the late 1990s). Clearly then as now, many young people have the money to spend, but many choose not to spend it on the theatre unless say, as in the case of Grandage’s west End season, there is the ‘security’ of stellar casting.

Back in 1998 a New Audiences for the Arts grant of £350,000 over three years allowed Sheffield Theatres to take the Box Office hit from slashing prices, generating edgier marketing materials and changing ourselves and our theatres to be more accessible to young people. Through that public funding we were also able to run a comprehensive programme of action research and original quantitative and qualitative research supported by colleagues from Sheffield’s two universities. How Much? started as a marketing led audience development project in one of England’s regional producing theatres. It was fine-tuned in subsequent years, emulated by the National Theatre, the Donmar and now the Michael Grandage Company’s West End season amongst others. It is still the basis of keynote presentations at Arts conferences around the world.

The irony is that whereas risk-taking outside London provides the case for philanthropists to invest in starry West End promotions, as Grandage points out, “Regional theatres need subsidy to stay alive” I’d disagree with Grandage only to the extent that regional theatres need investment, not subsidy. An investment of £350,000 of public money nearly 15 years ago enabled How Much? to take risks that are still reaping benefits, influencing policy and provoking debate.

So what price public support in the next spending round for the ideas, the energy and the risk-taking of regional theatres? 

Not to mention the sex, violence, brilliance and Shakespeare…

See also: Call it a tenner: the role of pricing in the arts  

 

CULTURE VULTURE? JUNE 2010

EARLIER THIS WEEK I WAS DESCRIBED AS A ‘CULTURE VULTURE’ BY LOCAL RADIO HOST RONY (RHYMES WITH ‘MOANY’) ROBINSON. WHICH SET ME THINKING…

Is ‘culture vulture’ to audiences what ‘luvvie’ is to actors, i.e. an annoying, dismissive and rather lazy sobriquet?  Seeking inspiration for an alternative title, I’ve made a list of this week’s cultural activities so far:

VISITING: Chatsworth House,for an exhibition celebrating the 90th birthday of Debo,the dowager duchess of Devonshire and last surviving Mitford sister. I read The Mitfords: Letters between six sisters (4th Estate) earlier this year and couldn’t resist a hardback copy in the Chatsworth shop bargain pile. things to do So, I’ll be dipping into it again for another forensic personal view of the 20th century’s major events and figures, and to find descriptive gems such as, “I heard the most terrifying sound, just like a hermit tearing calico.” Better still is their facility with nicknames. qa forum . I don’t think ‘culture vulture’ would have made it through their screening process – far too dull. As Debo would say, Get on.

READING: I Know My Own Heart, The Secret Diaries of Miss Anne Lister (Virago). Inspired by the BBC tv dramatisation filmed in a Yorkshire where the sun never shines and side-stepping one of her obsessive concerns but hey, good fun. Where Sarah Water’s wears her historical research on her sleeve, Anne Lister doesn’t have to – she’s real. After a gap of 22 years, I’ve taken the book off the shelf again. I doubt the original diaries now archived in Halifax are quite as yellow and musty as my old Virago copy from 1988.

LISTENING TO: Mozart’s 9th Piano Concerto (Warner Classics); Live Lounge (iTunes download) & Radio 4 for news on cuts, oil leaks and guns. Not uplifting but thorough.

TALKING TO: Rony Robinson on BBC Radio Sheffield, where the hot topics were swimming, the likelihood (sorry, inevitability according to a new survey) of first born children being rock stars, and ‘marmalade – for or against?’ I’m very much for marmalade.

SINGING ALONG TO: Cat Stevens. And somehow connecting his folksy anthem Wild World with the sort of song the UK should enter in the next Eurovision. Either that or a boom-bang-a-bang version of Millwall FC’s No-one likes us, we don’t care. Not quite sure how I came to be daydreaming about the desired properties of next UK Eurovision entry.

CINEMA: The Time That Remains, dir Elia Suleiman, at The Showroom. Significantly less time remains after sitting through this; some humour, some pathos and many longeurs. The critics’ references to the story being Tati-esque should have warned me, if I’d known what it meant. A long film to tell a short story. ip on the same subnet The trailer’s quite good though. Click on and have a look.

SCRAPBOOK:”A woman had to be pulled from a rubbish chute by firefighters after she got stuck when she tried to retrieve a packet of cigarettes she had thrown away. She lowered herself down head first into the chute from her flat in Roscoe Drive, Stannington, but got stuck at her waist and could not get out again”

(The Sheffield Gazette).

Admit, you can picture it can’t you?  AS YET NO NEARER A MORE PLEASING PHRASE THAN ‘CULTURE VULTURE.’ TO BE CONTINUED…