Whatever Rishi Sunak did or didn’t say or did or didn’t mean in his interview with ITV, the debate over the value of the arts and of artists in our society and economy has been front and centre recently. And rightly so. The UK’s creative industries are estimated to contribute around £13 million to the UK economy every hour in normal times, according to the government’s own figures. But it’s not all about the money. The arts play a vital role in communities up and down the land, feeding and developing creativity and acting as a salve and a refuge from the very many assaults on our mental health.
In a new series of articles, we will be showcasing community art centres, projects and individuals who are ensuring that art is accessible to everyone, not just those in the big cities or with deep pockets.
We begin with a profile of Ashburton Arts Centre, housed in an imposing former Methodist chapel in the heart of this elegant stannary town on the edge of Dartmoor.
Autumn sunlight streamed through the windows and onto the wooden floor of the hall. As we said our socially-distanced hellos, I was struck immediately by the purity of the acoustics and was not surprised when Arts Director Andy Williamson told me that some of the world’s finest musicians were willing to play at this relatively small venue because the sound was just so good. “It’s the gallery (a feature of Methodist buildings) that helps create the magical sound and the wooden floor of the Arts Centre has a few feet of space underneath it, making the whole thing act like a great big bass amplifier sending the sound of the instruments all the way through the wooden pews and into your body”, explains Andy.
The Methodists worshipped in this space from 1835 until 2015, when the dwindling congregation and the ongoing maintenance costs meant that it was time to sell up and move up the hill to St Andrew’s church hall. Andy and half a dozen other like-minded locals got together to try to buy the building which, being grade II listed, in a conservation area and under the aegis of Dartmoor National Park, had limited uses and was difficult to value. He and the team applied to Teignbridge Council for the building to be registered as a community asset and securing this meant that the vendors had to give the community six months’ notice before it could be sold at auction.
Andy had a vision for the place as ‘The Workhouse/Playhouse’, somewhere that would be open all day, every day, providing working, performing and community space for all. With documentation from a friendly firm of architects which proved just how serious Andy and his colleagues were, the team mobilised the locals to get behind the project. There was some resistance to the ‘Workhouse’ with its negative connotations, so the group formed themselves as a not-for-profit company limited by guarantee and called themselves Ashburton Arts Ltd.
On 19 July 2017, in the very hall they would soon transform into an arts hub, the auctioneer’s hammer went down on their bid. Money paid over, a team of volunteers got stuck into the transformation and on 17 December 2017, they staged their first event with a Christmas concert by the Newton Abbot Orchestra.
Andy is a professional jazz musician and professional singer and, as he described it, ‘an accidental promoter’ having run live jazz events in a smaller venue in Ashburton. He had the connections and the clout to pull in some world class musicians right from the off and, as a result, Ashburton Arts was fast-tracked as a destination venue for performers.
The programme is diverse and dynamic, covering theatre, poetry performances, book launches, flamenco, folk and a monthly movie via Platform Cinema. The venue has hosted 200 live music performances alone in the past 33 months…no mean feat when you consider the impact the Covid-19 crisis has had on the programme. Rooms off the main hall are used for yoga, dance, life drawing, workshops and a monthly repair café. The venue will develop further with the addition of ‘art between the windows’, created by students at the South Dartmoor Community College, which is located at the other end of town.
They’ve staged so many memorable performances that it is invidious to pick out any, but Andy cites the visit of the Harmonic Cannon as a particular favourite and wishes he could show you some film of all the percussion instruments being played. You can see the mesmeric, revolving cannon as it winds down from its sonorous ringing here:
In 2018, Ashburton Arts successfully laid on its first fortnight-long, annual ‘Tinners Moon Festival’, (sadly cancelled this year for obvious reasons), and, in 2019, organised and hosted the Ashburton Chamber Music Festival, attracting top international musicians who, in addition to performing at the centre and in venues round about, stayed with hosts in Ashburton and held open rehearsals in their homes. Andy hopes to repeat the experience next year and make it an annual event.
Returning to the subject of the pandemic, Andy said that it has acted as a catalyst to speed up the live streaming of gigs. They’ve had socially-distanced live audiences back in the venue since 12 September but the national picture on the virus’s resurgence suggests that they will need to rely on the ‘virtual’ events for a while yet. The venue has not been eligible for any money from the Cultural Recovery Fund because it had already built up enough reserves to be able to survive, which is a tribute to the management. Closure has been a blow for local galleries, shops, restaurants and pubs, though, which benefit from the higher footfall generated by such a vibrant and busy venue. (You see, Rishi, the Arts are not just about the artists…)
Andy has masses of ideas for events in the post-pandemic world and he clearly has the energy and vision to make them a reality with the support of the team of volunteers that make the whole thing work. He wants to continue to build a reputation for world-class performances and to be able to involve the local community even more, with drama for all ages, more opportunities for visual artists and a Mardi Gras festival. Sounds great! Count me in!
I have no doubt that there are fabulous, creative, life-affirming, community-run venues like this all over the west country, so why don’t you tell us about them? Email firstname.lastname@example.org