How do we work with our local authority? I always remember the experience of a colleague who some time ago went to meet the Director of Children’s Services of a large authority. Prepared to talk about educational attainment and how the arts can enrich young lives, she asked him what his biggest priority was. “To stop children dying” was the blunt answer. She came away saying how the meeting had changed her perspective. I absolutely believe that the arts improves lives, but it doesn’t necessarily save them. It can be too easy to forget that local authorities deal with matters of life and death every day, and we only realise this when something goes wrong and makes the headlines. That’s not to say that local authorities “don’t get” the arts. In my experience, local authority leaders can be the biggest advocates for culture. More than anyone they can see the impact a theatre can have on a place and community. I absolutely believe local authorities and the arts share many common objectives, and fundamentally, we serve the same people. But, with decreasing resources it’s hard for culture to get on the agenda.
So how do we get past the life and death stuff? In my experience it’s a combination of case making with fun and popularity. We need to be a pleasure to work with! Staff at the Council often comment on how a meeting at the Octagon is the fun part of their day. We go out of way to make meetings here memorable. Nobody has ever yet turned down a backstage tour or a quick look at the set for the latest production. Theatres offer endless scope for anecdotes and good news stories. A colleague once remarked to me that the best way to get a local authority on side is to befriend as many people as you can. And we openly do so, with every level and department of the council. Of course, it takes huge amounts of time but it can pay dividends. One of the proudest days of my career was an invite to attend the annual Mayoral Inauguration. In the council chamber, the theatre literally stood next to the Heads of the police, fire, NHS, magistrates’ court as the town’s vital services. As far as I’m concerned, that’s exactly where arts organisations should be.
We do need the facts to back up our likeability though. Economic and social impact studies are vital tools. Key messages need to be ingrained in the narrative, and all theatre staff at every level should be able to use these messages with everyone them come into contact with. Councillors can sometimes have inaccurate preconceptions, and so I make a point of inviting them to see a show and talking with them at the interval. We directly send them a brief annual report, and we even ask (apparently unheard of!) to present at Council scrutiny committee meetings. We use our social media to engage directly with Councillors and officers, and keep involving them in everything we do. The common ground is soon realised. They, like us, care deeply about their community and want to see it prosper. But it all starts with that hand of friendship.
Octagon Theatre Bolton Vision
This blog and an accompanying case study from Octagon Theatre form part of our Local Authorities Resource Kit which we introduced for UK Theatre members earlier this year. The resource kit includes:
- UK Theatre Members' Network: You are invited to join a virtual network of our members who are willing to support each other to find answers. We would love you to be join and get posting, so if your are a UK Theatre member, just email us and we can add you to the group.
- Case Studies: A collection of case studies from members working in new and successful ways with LAs. If you would like to contribute one, I’d love you to, please email Hannah Gagen.
- Blogs: The new UK Theatre blog will reflect the most common questions and ways of working.
- Signposting: We have created a resources page to collate useful information on LAs