Extending access in Norfolk

The view from London

Last week, Sajid Javid, the new Secretary of State for Culture, Media and Sport used his first speech on culture to issue an important and justified challenge to the cultural sector on of its record of inclusion. Three days later, his shadow, Harriet Harman made a very similar argument in her own speech, linking Arts Council funding to extending access. With such seamless coordination, you’d be forgiven for thinking they were in coalition.

The question of access is fundamental to all discussion of public funding of the arts, and was recognised in the Royal Charter that set up the Arts Council of Great Britain in 1946, which tasked it with:

‘Developing a greater knowledge, understanding and practice of the fine arts exclusively, and in particular to increase the accessibility of the fine arts to the public throughout Our Realm.’*

Nowadays that is summarised, not inaccurately, in the phrase ‘Great Art for Everyone’. Few people, I think, object to the vision. The arguments start when you define ‘great’, ‘art’ and ‘everyone’, (actually even ‘for’ is tricky, in this context). There is much more to say about these tensions, which have animated the arts and political worlds for 70 years, but that can wait for another day.

West Acre Theatre

West Acre Theatre

As Ms Harman was delivering her speech, I was visiting the West Acre Theatre, in Norfolk. A former chapel, it was converted into a rehearsal room by Livespace Theatre Company about 20 years ago. Having found a base, Andy and Isobel gradually began to do more where they were, building an audience through an open air Shakespeare festival. The West Acre Arts Foundation was established to take over the site, which was improved and extended as a theatre and arts centre for the area.

The programme includes professional and amateur theatre, cinema, workshops and other events. Children are introduced to theatre through a weekly drama group. This month you can see a screening of Ibsen’s Ghosts, as directed by Richard Eyre for the Almeida, attend a Craft Fair for local makers and enjoy a Jazz Picnic at Gayton Hall.

A regular marvel

West Acre Theatre is 90% self-sufficient, though capital works have been supported by charitable foundations. And its success depends, in part, on precisely the imaginative openness that Sajid Javid and Harriet Harman, in their different ways, are calling for. So, the theatre offers discounted tickets only to under 18s, recognising that being retired no longer automatically equates to having limited resources, as it did in the past. It’s a small challenge to orthodoxy but one that the audience has no complaints about.

West Acre Theatre may not be pushing the boundaries of artistic form, but it is pushing the boundaries of access, that other  vital and equal part of the Arts Council’s mission. It reaches parts of Norfolk that few other artists reach. The quality of its programme, facilities and customer care leaves nothing to be desired. It is a remarkable, but actually not so unusual, example of how the arts thrive in communities across the country: a regular marvel. We would have a truer picture of the state of the arts if politicians, critics and arts managers remembered these invaluable parts of the cultural ecology more often.

West Acre Theatre 2

PS I turned to my well-used copy of Robert Hewison’s Culture & Consensus, England, art and politics since 1940 (Methuen 1995) to check the exact words. It’s still one of the best books I know on the arts in England since the war, and his follow–up, about the years since 1995, will surely be as valuable when it appears.

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