Written evidence submitted by Newhampton Arts Centre
Evidence submitted by Trevelyan Wright, Chief Executive of Newhampton Arts Centre, Whitmore Reans, Wolverhampton, WV1 4AN
NAC is an arts centre located in the heart of Whitmore Reans offering high-quality creative events and courses in an inclusive and accessible space. NAC has a strong tradition of enabling creative, educational and social activities to happen in a single building. This flexibility allows for a wider variety of roles for an arts centre, rather than ‘just’ the arts.
There are over 100 shows a year; from contemporary folk and jazz programmes; to family, community and youth theatre. Its crucial role in providing opportunities for the local community is reflected in the variety of partners who use its spaces: local residents come to learn English as an Additional Language; train as a door supervisor; or develop their business ideas with The Princes Trust. There are 30 organisations and artists based onsite including a day-care provider for adults with learning disabilities; a community radio station; two recording studios; and a training organisation working with the long-term unemployed.
NAC is currently a National Portfolio Organisation of Arts Council England.
How can culture reanimate our public spaces and shopping streets?
By investing in activity and people. Between 2003 and 2006 I worked at the largest project yet which took a ‘shiny building’ approach to culture-led regeneration, The Public in West Bromwich. The Public was a capital project undertaken by community arts organisation Jubilee Arts intended to kickstart the regeneration of West Bromwich. Will Alsop designed an (initially) £28 million building with many functions imagined from crèche to digital art gallery. It was perceived by many in the local community as top-down and vision led, and not what was needed. Eventually The Public went into administration and the building after a long-delayed opening is now a Sixth Form College. The was seen as a costly failure, as the building came first without a compelling role to play in the local community. The clue is in the word reanimate: buildings can be platforms, but it is the people who work in them or from them that create the activity that happens in them that can change how people view their public spaces. NAC has taken a different route: inhabiting a previously-built site and slowly evolving the site role as local demand and need has suggested: it is a home for artists and community organisations, as well as a performing arts venue and a key local set of meeting spaces for anything from job fairs to teacher training.
How can creatives contribute to local decision-making and planning of place?
In Wolverhampton we have developed a very productive working relationship with Public Health, who have a holistic view of improving the health of communities in the city. They see their role as enabling citizens to lead better lives – and culture is a part of a fully lived life. If people can live better lives – educationally, socially, professionally – then public health issues such as smoking, drug use etc. will reduce.
Too often place-making is seen in terms of the visitor economy: how can we make this place more attractive for visitors. This shows a lack of concern for the people who live there every day of the year, and who use (or not) the spaces concerned. There are as many examples of cities that work for their citizens first (Bristol springs to mind) as those that have placed the visitor first.
NAC is currently engaged in a substantial community mapping project, supported by the Esmee Fairbairn Foundation. As a centre it has always sought to enable community development as part of its overall mission. As part of the post-COVID recovery of the city we have commissioned five artists to work with five community groups in Whitmore Reans to co-create maps of their communities: where are the resources, where are the gaps, what hidden needs might there be. This project will in turn inform a new role for NAC to support the post-COVID recovery of our communities and improve the communities who live in the streets around the centre.
One of the themes that emerges time and time again in terms of planning of place in an area of deprivation like Whitmore Reans is ‘safe spaces’. Though parks, shopping centres, High Streets may be redeveloped communities do not feel safe in using them. Our outdoor performance space which we produced in 2022, the New Horizons Stage, was home to many activities such as youth music rehearsals, music festivals and community choir events. This took place during a period in which COVID caused many to be reluctant to go to indoor spaces. Partners such as the Police and Public Health see NAC’s role as providing a ‘safe space’ for communities to come together – and we have plans to further develop this role in 2023.
How can the Government support places without established artistic infrastructure to take full advantage of the opportunities that the levelling up agenda provides?
There are many examples of partnership working in the city that seeks to create larger infrastructure than any single organisation could resource. Currently the University, Museum and Art Gallery and many independent artists and organisations are working together to stage British Art Show 9 in the city, together with a vibrant Offsite programme of local work.
How should Government build on existing schemes, such as the UK City of Culture, to level up funding for arts and culture?