One of my nieces, her husband, and their two kids came over for dinner this weekend, a post-Christmas catch-up after a difficult year for both of us.
Her husband, an electrician who works for a contractor, often on big builds, told us about his new job, working on a major, highly respected, publicly funded, theatre rebuild. It’s a theatre I’ve worked at and care about. He knew I would know it. He didn’t know I would find it terribly sad that no part of his work there has made him even the tiniest bit interested in visiting that theatre as a punter, as audience.
I don’t mean he has seen what’s on and isn’t interested, I mean he has NO IDEA what they’re doing there.
He has photos on his phone of the lovely interior, the space they need to work around carefully because much of it is listed. He proudly showed me this gorgeous environment that he’s working in, but he doesn’t know what they have on now or what they have coming. No-one from the venue has told him or any of his colleagues.
Sure, he could find out himself, but it’s a 90 minute public transport journey for him to get there by 7.30am in the morning, and a 120 minute journey home later in the day, when the tubes and trains take even longer, and he’s been working in dirt and dust for much of that day, he’s not going to hang around on the off-chance he’ll like what’s on and give it a go.
He has a wife who works as a child-minder and two kids and he’s been re-building, re-creating their own house, slowly, when he can, for years, and doing an amazing job. He’s a worker, a really hard grafter, we love him for it, for his enthusiasm for building, for creating beautiful spaces in wood and brick and plaster. As far as I’m concerned, this means he is a maker too, just like everyone in that theatre, just like any artist in that theatre – and he doesn’t know that theatre is for him, that it might have something for him.
He and my niece don’t come from a regular-theatre-going background (neither do I!) and, despite our serious and genuine attempts to do otherwise, we arts-makers are still pretty rubbish at letting new people in. We want them (we NEED them!) but we just don’t manage to open our doors well enough. Not even when the person we could be inviting in is building that door.
I find this deeply saddening, because someone working on the very fabric of an arts space has a real sense of ownership about the building itself, a real and working knowledge of what ‘backstage’ actually is. They could be an astonishing audience, an audience we makers could really benefit from working with and for.
And this is OUR fault, it must be, we keep saying we want to include everyone – the Arts Council has arts for all as one of its five core goals, and we’re just not getting there. Arts for all should not be able to be a box ticked-off by a school visit, or one example of community outreach, TRUE arts for all really would mean a sparky working on a building site that is a part of one of our arts institutions feels welcome in that space, is welcomed in that space, is welcomed and wants to stay on, after a long day’s work, because he feels that the space has something to share with him.
On a very basic level this might just mean offering him and his colleagues tickets.
This hasn’t happened, which is a bit rubbish given they’re working there on a day-to-day basis. (My niece, a childminder, said that as soon as she heard he had the job she looked to see if they were doing a panto or a Christmas show they could take their kids to, she thought they might be offered a discount. They weren’t. She said “It’s not that we don’t like theatre, we just can’t afford it, two of us and two kids and the transport …).
Worse though, and more stupid, than being ungenerous with our tickets (tickets we all know are often given away for papered shows or press nights or previews), we’re not even telling them what’s on. The builders of our arts buildings, the people without whom our arts buildings (literally) do not exist – we’re not telling them what’s on.
I truly find it both sad and utterly infuriating that we’re not engaging in this way, with the people working in and around our buildings – our publicly funded buildings. And I’m sure it’s not just the theatres either, I doubt very much that we’re doing a great deal around inclusion for those working on art gallery extensions, or cleaning the offices of the opera and ballet companies, or erecting the scaffolding outside the local arts centre.
So, what to do?
Obviously, part of me just wants to shout “Wake up! We’re losing interest and support for the arts left, right and centre, if we don’t make more of an effort, if we don’t reach out better, then maybe we deserve to lose that support.” Maybe we will end up with the elitist-only work and audiences and makers so many of us are terrified of.
But I think there are things we can do.
As well as a whole bunch of other Fun Palaces plans for this year, I’m going to make this my personal push. When a building signs up, instead of merely suggesting to them that they might see their ‘community’ as more than just the artists they always work with, as more than just those in the building who are artists or facilitating arts, I’m going to implore them to consider wider, to look at themselves more closely, to make the effort to speak to their builders, their cleaners, their workers and find out what THEY would like to do for their Fun Palace. And then to enable them – the cleaners, the builders, to do it – to not only make for them, but with them.
My nephew giving a hands-on demonstration in how to extend lighting cables through a Grade 2 listed wall would be a very good start. Perfectly integrated arts and sciences.
nb, after this blog was posted, Dan King – who was Head of Marketing for Fun Palaces – left a very thoughtful response on my facebook page about the piece. I asked if I could share it on my blog, here’s The Marketeer’s Response.