Meet Me at the Albany. Photo: Roswitha Chesher
by Samuel West, Chair of the National Campaign for the Arts (NCA), Actor and Director.
Whenever we’re invited to a Hearts for the Arts presentation, I am reminded of the importance and joy of these very special awards. Besides arts and culture, our local authorities have many responsibilities: education, health care, transport, social care, housing, environmental protection, waste management. In recent years, all of these services have been squeezed by central government cuts; the arts have been cut disproportionately, sent to the back of the queue or even cut altogether. We need to celebrate those Local Authorities who fight hard to defend their arts budgets and who move heaven and earth to keep arts activities at the heart of their communities. If we can do something that says ‘Hey, we see what you’re doing: we love it and we love you for doing it’, that encourages them to keep going. We benefit not only now but in the future, as Councils feel emboldened to think differently and take risks.
In March this year, the actress Olivia Colman and I presented Lewisham Council with the ‘Best Local Authority Arts Project Encouraging Community Cohesion.’ A wordy title but a worthy award: it went to the work Lewisham did with The Albany Theatre, Deptford and Entelechy Arts on a project called ‘Meet Me at the Albany’. It’s an inspiring, progressive project which asks: What if isolated old people were supported to attend their local arts centre, instead of a day centre? ‘Meet Me at the Albany’ showed us a bold new approach to day care, providing a regular meeting place where people can take part in creative workshops with artists, watch performances or simply sit back and enjoy the atmosphere. If you’re thinking knitting needles, think again: dance, comedy, aerial circus choreography (yes, really) and performed spoken word are just some of the captivating and empowering activities available in Deptford for these once-isolated people.
The great thing about this particular project is the number of benefits it delivers. Not only are the people who attend the group getting stimulation, activity and friendship, but pinched social care services are given relief. The project reduces pressure on our NHS: research shows that loneliness and social isolation as a risk factor for early death is comparable to smoking fifteen cigarettes a day. ‘Meet Me at the Albany’ is a shining light, and was recognised as a model of best practice in the Arts Council England’s ‘Create’ document and in the 2016 Arts White paper.
This kind of joined-up thinking is thankfully not exclusive to the Borough of Lewisham. But it’s far from easy to initiate; bringing together different organisations like this requires an openness to risk, exceptional vision and leadership. The Albany Theatre and Entelechy Arts have roared with success and created brilliant art, and three years later over 100 isolated older people are engaging with arts activities every week. A simple idea, brilliantly executed, and exactly the thing the National Campaign for the Arts believes in: art not just as spectator sport but as an ordinary, immersive, essential part of everyday life.
Hearts for the Arts winners 2018 will be announced on Valentine’s Day; I would love to be writing for UK Theatre again next year, waxing lyrical about another initiative which delivers such outstanding results for the people it serves. Nominations are open until the 20th of November in four categories:
1. Best Local Authority Arts Initiative
2. Best Local Authority Arts Champion- Officer
3. Best Local Authority Arts Champion- Councillor
4. Best Local Authority Arts Project encouraging community cohesion
So I implore you: if you know of work being done in your community which is supported by the Local Authority and uses creativity to bring people together, tell us about it. Then we can let them know that we absolutely love what they do!