Photo copyright Russell Pendregaust
A strategy for pride in Gloucester through Heritage and the Arts
It is time to set out a structured approach to the Arts and Heritage in Gloucester. In a city whose history is its greatest unexploited asset and which a century ago could boast several theatres; Gloucester seems to have lost its way in promoting its unique historical and cultural heritage. This heritage offers opportunities to build a community spirit and pride while also driving economic growth: not through massive upfront investment, but by empowering the many city-based groups who, while they individually cannot make these necessary changes, collectively have the community momentum to deliver an artistic revolution.
The main content of this document is informed by nearly three decades of involvement with producing theatre in the county and with contact with a wide cross section of the hundreds of people operating in local communities across the County who feel passionate about the arts.
There are significant social and community benefits to be gained by exploiting the unique heritage of a city: its’ buildings, historic sites and events. In the case of Gloucester, this heritage is not promoted to the city’s residents or in local Schools, to make the next generation aware of the uniqueness of the City that they are growing up in and so giving that sense of ownership and pride that builds the community. Such promotion would also bring benefits to the incoming immigrant population and build a sense of community across all areas of the city, and between different cultural, religious and ethnic groups.
Access to the arts can play a key role in enhancing quality of life, in terms of how people feel about the place where they live and benefit to individuals in developing self-expression, learning and corresponding health benefits, both physical and mental. The arts can also contribute to the development of local economies, attracting visitors and encouraging the local population to support arts events in their own city, rather than having to travel elsewhere to access events.
What do we mean by ‘the Arts’?
This strategy will use the term Arts to include the following:
- Theatre (street theatre, small-scale touring, youth theatre)
- Visual Arts (painting, drawing, sculpture, printmaking)
- Performing Arts (puppetry, circus, variety, comedy)
- Dance (modern, ballet, contemporary, ballroom, world, street)
- Music (classical, opera, jazz, folk, rock, world, pop)
- Literature (writing, storytelling, poetry)
- Folk Arts (music, dance, word)
- Combined Arts activities
- Craft (traditional, contemporary, ceramics, glass)
- Media (photography, film-making, cinema, video)
- New Media (digital arts, CG arts, web-based arts, multimedia)
- Broadcasting (radio, TV.)
- The enlargement of the current GTA (Gloucestershire Theatre Association) concept to form an umbrella arts organisation that links all the Arts groups in the county to a central body and location, for example, The Gloucester Arts Council (GAC) heading up The Gloucester Arts project (GAP) at the Olympus Theatre. ( or another venue )
- The creation of a central box office, “Gloucestershire Box Office “(GBO) to promote all events in the county, however large or small and across all the Arts; offering an online box office service; the development of a central database and proactive marketing and promotion facility.
- The ongoing development of a central resource database for all local arts groups, design: technical, lighting, sound, costume, properties, rehearsal and performance spaces
- Profits from the box office and other services to be used to create a local fund for the provision of short-term interest-free loans to performance groups and seed funding for local projects, subject to certain criteria.
- The development of local history education and promotion through the creation of new plays and films working closely with heritage groups, schools, colleges and Gloucestershire University. ( AEthelflaed , Henry III, Edward II )
The Arts in Gloucester and the county
The National Context
Gloucester is currently seen as a culture ‘cold spot’ by the Arts Council, and is therefore the only English city on a list of towns to which it is felt funding should be given to develop the arts scene.
Arts funding provided by the DCMS and National Lottery is distributed through the Arts Council England (ACE) .The policies and priorities of the ACE can be found on their website www.artscouncil.org.uk . Development of any agreed blueprint to drive the arts forward will require a close working relationship between all city/county-based arts groups and the ACE in order to effectively capture and use any available funding. This should not merely focus on grants to host professional arts festivals. Such events use large amounts of funding and do not benefit the population as a whole, but cater for the same minority that already have access to theatre. They leave no tangible legacy behind them that will positively impact or improve access to the Arts on a wide and developing locally basis.
Alongside ACE there are various other national and local trusts and foundations that support the Arts in Gloucester. These range from large-scale national organisations to local charitable funds such as The Summerfield Trust, who have a leaning towards the Arts.
As far as I am aware there has never been a long-term plan to develop the Arts in the city under the city council or for the county under the county council. I believe that to pursue any arts development program under these banners would only hinder its progress and delivery as a result of the financial restrictions and personal politics of those involved.
Gloucester as a city is poor at sharing information with its population and in promoting the wide range of Arts events which already exist within independent groups. There is currently no central facility, database or location to find out ‘what’s on and where’ in the city or even a venue capable of hosting large regular events.
On a strategic level any future Arts strategy should be determined by a committee of people who represent all interest groups in the city / county across all of the arts and heritage (GAC). In the past two years bridges have been built between these groups and key players across the country to promote a high-profile project .This example of community-building though Art and History could well be repeated by other cities in the UK. This project would work to develop and manage large-scale events, raising money to empower the continued development of a rolling five-year program, and the creation of annual festivals in the city of Gloucester to encourage social tourism and benefit the local economy. 4
The aim should be though this community Arts project to improve the quality of life in Gloucester and the wider county by providing vibrant cultural and performing opportunities and experiences for all, across all cultural groups, and to underpin a wider sense of inter-cultural community. Individual self-interest groups alone cannot achieve this result.
The current Arts Infrastructure
A full audit of information on all existing bodies will need to be carried out using a high-profile search through the local press and BBC Radio Gloucestershire who are already on board with this concept. This should be across ALL interested areas: heritage, professional and amateur theatre, and all genres of performing arts, including educational. With Gloucester University already a leading provider of drama courses, this is another reason why the city should now be combining its marketing of the Arts.
Professional Arts Venues
A century ago the city of Gloucester boasted eight theatres, but we now do not have one fully-committed theatre space in the city. It is hard to see how a city can develop its cultural and arts base without the assets needed to back it up.
The Guildhall Arts Centre
One cannot fault the staff and commitment of this city council-owned venue, but limitations of funding will always strangle its true potential, hampered also by its lack of frontal impact onto the city centre. Its limitations as a theatre space are obvious, with no backstage areas and limited seating capacity.
This is a wonderful building and offers a very atmospheric space, but its layout is limiting and with no heating system its use throughout the year has problems.
This amateur-operated little theatre is currently the only ‘traditional’ theatre space in regular use in the city. Recent refurbishment of the seating and the constant hard work of its volunteers give the city a 140-seat theatre capable of hosting small productions, but is again limited by again its back stage area and its technical facilities.
Promoted as the city’s large-scale venue holding a potential 1200 people, this is rarely used for any kind of performance. Primarily a leisure centre, it is not a welcoming venue. There is potential for development of this asset.
As the city’s only large potential stadium performance venue, holding 14,000 plus for outside performances, you would think this would be recognised as a major asset. However, as a working Rugby stadium, this is a private corporate venue capable of operating for only one month a year for other events and therefore does not meet the city’s needs.
The city’s largest indoor venue holding 800, but due to its structure only 600 spectators are able to have a direct view, and due to its difficult acoustic it will only be suitable for certain types of event. Of course, it is also fundamentally a place of worship.
The city is blessed with open spaces that can accommodate large-scale events: The Quays, The Park, The New Inn, Blackfriars, Kings Square, and the pedestrianised city-centre streets make the city a natural location for hosting city-wide summer festival events. City investment in a raked portable and flexible seating system would transform these areas into performance spaces, and could be a common asset available to all. The cost of hiring such seating makes staging individual events more difficult; when a common asset owned by the city, and hired at a sensible rate, would empower local groups and make visiting event promoters look more favourably at the city as a potential venue.
Olympus Theatre Barton Street
This is the city’s only remaining purpose-built theatre building, with a capacity of 400 plus, and is a beautiful theatre c.1900.It has attracted both amateur and professional theatre groups including The Royal Ballet and Shakespeare’s Globe Theatre in the past twelve months once reopened by the GTA . The ownership of this theatre is currently limiting its use, a situation which will hopefully be resolved in the next few weeks. But should we not be able to secure this space then plans to open a permanent theatre space in the city must be a priority. (Plan B: the old KC Club in Longsmith Street)
Professional Arts sector
With the Everyman and The Centaur (Cheltenham Racecourse) as the county’s only real professional event venues, backed up by the Playhouse and the Parabola Arts Centre – also in Cheltenham, the cultural difference between the county city and the county town are obvious and this balance needs to be addressed.
Arts Festivals and Community Arts events
These are the key to the growth of the arts, the arts community and the building of a sense of local pride and heritage, they will be more successful if they are delivered by the community and not created in the hope that the community will engage.
Gloucester hosts the Three Choirs Festival every three years. This is held up as a major event, making a positive impact on the city. But how many local people really engage in this event, know much about it, or feel that it relates to them in any meaningful way? Once again, this is a commercial operation run by the Three Choirs organisation, and not a city event. But it could be and it should be. In Worcester where, like Gloucester, the event is hosted every three years, the city constructs an arts festival around the Three Choirs Festival, which embraces all the arts in the city: live music events, drama, arts exhibitions and school performances. This makes the two-week period of the Three Choirs event a vibrant time in the city, both for local people and for visitors who come into the city for the Festival. This was done in conjunction with the Festival in the first instance, but became so popular and successful, both economically and artistically, that it now runs independently.
This ‘piggybacking’ on the back of established events could be the blueprint for developing an annual festival that builds Gloucester’s reputation as tourist destination, feeding the local economy and raising funds which can be reinvested into the local arts scene, creating a positive spiralling effect.
The Tall Ships event, Gloucester Day and Heritage Week, Three Choirs and The Crucible Sculpture exhibition are obvious examples of existing events that could potentially be further developed.
There are already plans to hold a national gathering for Mystery Plays. Groups from York, Coventry, Lichfield, Chester, Lincoln and Gloucester have all committed to hold the first national gathering of plays to be performed in the streets of Gloucester in 2016 as part of the Medieval Festival Weekend, originally planned for 2013, but which was cancelled due to withdrawal of funding.
Jazz, Folk, Rock, Heavy Metal, Orchestral, and Dance events already happen in and around the city, but who knows about them? There is no central source of information about these events, or central ticketing or what’s on point.
Professional Theatre Arts
The recent JOLT and Strike a Light festivals held in the city in 2014 were a positive step forward for touring professional theatre companies visiting the city. The Royal Ballet School came to perform here, and plans for Shakespeare’s Globe to come to Gloucester on tour are also in progress. This was made possible by the reopening of the Olympus Theatre as a venue, proving that if we create the right environment the Arts can flourish in the city, but without such a venue the opportunity and ability to host such professional theatre events would not exist. This applies across all forms of the professional performing arts.
Non Professional Theatre – Arts
Gloucester and the county has one of the most active and vibrant Arts communities in the UK. It is possibly the city’s most unrealised asset, both in community and economic term, with opportunities to make real changes in the city and the wider county, crossing social, political and religious divides to help unify a fragmented population. There is so much already going on, and it is not the creation of the Arts that is a cause for concern, but the cohesion, marketing, promotion and empowering of what already exists. With over 90 amateur theatre companies in the county now linked by the Gloucester Theatre Association (GTA) the non-professional sector should not be ignored by the professional arts community. This network holds the key to attracting attention to the ‘big picture’ that could develop, being firmly embedded already in every community. The same logic applies to the Music, Dance, and Visual Art sector.
Gloucester University bring to the city a vibrant new focus on drama and theatre studies, attracting hundreds of students into the heart of a city that offers them little outside of the University itself. The University has had to enlarge its drama department to cope with the demand for this highly successful course and yet there is still NO traditional large professionally equipped theatre venue in the city for the students to perform in. In 2014 the Olympus hosted the university end of term production. With this venue currently closed, the University are driven to look at school theatre venues or towards Cheltenham for performance space. This is a serious failing in a city with a University specialising in Drama and Theatre Studies.
The commitment of the local authorities
The following questions need to be asked:
- Is there an Arts plan for the city?
- Do we have an Arts Officer?
- Do we have allocated ring -fenced funding to promote Arts festivals and events?
- Who decides how this funding is spent?
- Is there a commitment to developing the city as a vibrant centre for culture and the Arts?
- Do the city authorities accept that Gloucester’s heritage can be promoted through the Arts?
- Will they commit to a rolling five-year plan?
- Will they commit funding and assist in obtaining further funding by being seen as committed to an Arts development strategy?
- Will they support the creation of a professional theatre space in the city?
The Economic and Social Impact Study for the Arts
Worcester twenty years ago could be considered very similar to Gloucester today:
- a county city with its Cathedral at its heart and a river running through it
- a diverse population
- a number of struggling performance venues
- no central marketing or box office facilities
- no real strategy for the development of the Arts
- not particularly known as a place for the Arts
The creation of a university focused on theatre and the arts brought artistic life into the city.
In 2009 Worcester County Council and The Elmley Foundation funded a report to look into the Economic and Social Impact of the Arts in Worcestershire. The subsequent report ‘Like Living and Breathing – The Arts Matter’ examined six case studies to investigate their impact.
The report showed the very positive economic impact of the arts in the county, but also how the arts can make, and is making, a positive impact on the population. The highlights of the report were that for every £1 spent on the Arts by the County and District Councils supporting the arts, generated £32 of value within the county economy, I can think of no other area where a 320% return can be achieved. The report also showed that around 250 jobs were created within the Arts sector.
Why reinvent the wheel?
The blueprint created from this report has driven the arts in Worcestershire, and a similar strategy could work in Gloucester, driven not by the city or county council (and so removing the problem of ‘Funding’) but by the city’s already large and committed number of Arts practitioners heading up the existing groups.
The New Gloucester Arts Partnership (GAP)
Although I think the whole county would benefit from this type of organisation, my personal focus is on developing the Arts in the city of Gloucester. The aim of the proposed New Gloucester Arts Partnership is to create and bring together a broad representation of the Arts across the city and to create a connected and focused core. This would be capable of:
- producing real structure with centralised marketing and promotion
- delivery of events and festivals of all sizes across all areas of the Arts
- the use of all existing and potential venues
- empowering existing Arts groups by offering expertise and funding in the process of producing art events.
The partnership should be made up of representatives from:
- the professional Arts sector.
- the non-professional and voluntary sector (Rotary, Masonic, WI, etc.)
- the amateur sector, in all areas of the Arts
- the city council, Arts Officers, and Arts Education Services.
- University of Gloucester Theatre and Drama Dept., Gloucester College and local schools.
- local charitable trusts such as The Summerfield Trust.
- various cultural sub-groups in the city: health, libraries, parks and countryside, city centre, play, heritage, tourism, youth services and others.
The Arts Partnership has the following objectives:
- To serve as a network forum, providing the structured exchange of information and intelligence, expertise and asset management needed to facilitate the development of all art forms.
- To create, debate, develop, deliver and monitor an Arts strategy and action plan for the city.
- To identify and engage with all relevant bodies, professional and non-professional, who contribute to the development and delivery of the Arts in Gloucester?
- To be available at all times to represent the interests of all local Arts groups in an informed, formal and meaningful way.
- To act as a forum to initiate debate and action on joint issues that affects some or all of the participating groups and organisations.
- To help, co-ordinate and oversee the development of grant bids.
The Consultation process of the strategy
Over the past few years there have been attempts to develop large-scale events, which have encountered first-hand the problems that stand in the way of creating successful and meaningful arts productions in the city.
The city has a large cross-section of key movers and shakers, for example:
- Gloucester Cathedral
- the University
- venue managers
- city councillors
- funding organisations
- professional theatre practitioners
- local and national groups: Rotary, WI, Masonic, and business groups within the city.
All without exception agree that the common goal to drive an arts program within the city would be beneficial to all.
We have already secured the patronage of Jeremy Irons and the support of the Everyman Theatre, The Globe and the Barbican on projects planned for 2016-17.
The next logical step is to identify the key people to represent the various Arts groups that are already vibrant in the city and invite them to join the forum to create the Arts strategy and vision for the future. We have already formed relationships with local press and radio that will assist in this.
The first step will be to ask these key people a series of questions about their views on the current state of the Arts in the city. The aim of these questions will be to get a feeling for their perception of the Arts in Gloucester, to identify the strengths and weaknesses of the sector, and indentify the priorities for Arts development. Where possible, this should be done face-to-face to enable relationships to be formed and developed.
As a starting point, the following priorities have been identified for consideration:
- To make the arts in Gloucester as accessible as possible, to as many people as possible by:
- supporting the development of enhanced promotion and publicity.
- facilitating engagement, including the development of new audiences across all the Arts.
- finding ways to remove barriers to attendance and participation.
- To build capacity in the Arts sector in Gloucester by:
- continuing support for professional Arts events such as JOLT and Strike a Light.
- exploring with sector professionals all opportunities and approaches to sustainable financial health for the Arts, including profit retention from large annual events to create a local Arts trust.
- Facilitating collaboration, networking and partnership to strengthen all Arts provision in the city.
To develop the Arts in the city by:
- exploring the needs of the Arts in the city
- supporting quality provision.
- developing the range and choice of provision.
- To develop the provision of physical space for the Arts in the city by:
- creating a database of existing rehearsal, performance and other spaces around the city that are suitable for the different needs and requirements by the different Art forms.
- promoting the wider use of non-arts spaces for Arts activities
- developing a centralised availability and booking system
- exploring the development of a landmark project to act as the heart and hub for the Arts in the city
- the expansion of an existing venue (The Olympus) or the creation of a new performance, rehearsal and education space in conjunction with the University.
- the rebranding and development of the Barton Street area of the city into an Arts Quarter capturing all the city venues, night clubs, park, railway and bus stations (see map).
The Action Plan
The Action Plan will be a working document which demonstrates the many projects taking place across the city, The Gloucester Arts Project (GAP) website will act as a portal to the websites of all Arts groups and a central Arts information point for the city, backed up with an online ticketing service for any size of event at any location. These will include existing and new projects which the partnership will develop through group collaboration. The partnership will use the Action Plan document as a report to keep all interested parties fully informed and advised, including funding agencies, as to the progress of the long-term project resources and financial health.
- To create more opportunity for people to enjoy and participate in cultural activities.
- To make local people feel more connected to the wider community, and more able to participate with more confidence, with the health and other benefits of involvement in local Arts and culture.
- The education and promotion of Gloucester’s cultural heritage through relevant historical plays both existing and newly-commissioned, such as:
- Marlowe’s-Edward II, 2010
- Gloucester Mystery Plays, 2012-2013
- Henry III, 2016 (developed by Cheltenham Everyman Writer’s Lab)
- Aethelflaed, 2017 Olympus Scriptorium
- The development of associated festivals, building pride and a sense of ownership in the city.
- Economic benefits from increased tourism.
- Improved community cohesion through Arts and culture.
- The preservation and promotion, through the Arts, of Gloucester’s cultural heritage for future generations to enjoy.
This is the first draft of a proposal which now requires the input of all interested parties.
- We now want all to engage in the debate.
- We need to locate all key players in all the areas outlined in the flow chart.
- If you feel you represent an arts, social , heritage or cultural sector in the city and want to be part of this project please do get in touch.
On the basis that we have to start somewhere, why not start here?
Gloucester Arts Council