Wednesday, 15 July 2015

Revolution Through Collaboration: Impressions After A LOV Meeting

The arts are in crisis. With an austerity happy government in power for the next five years, mercilessly cutting public spending and personal income still increasing slower than inflation there is just less art to go around along with less people able to factor art in to their budgets. It’s tough out there for a small arts venue, especially one in a rural county like Lincolnshire which isn’t exactly famed for its arts output. In the face of this hazardous economic outlook, ten venues in Lincolnshire decided to change the game by choosing collaboration over competition and forming the LOV Network.

Lincolnshire One Venues (LOV) was borne out of a need for change in the arts industry. Recognising that there were many small or independent arts venues across the county who were struggling to generate audiences and profit at a time where the austerity axe was hovering over the arts particularly ominously, a new idea was broached that proposed a coming together of venues across the region, a joining of forces that put the arts first and focused on the common challenges those venues faced. Ten venues across Lincolnshire make up the network, ranging from central Lincoln venues such as the LPAC and Lincoln Drill Hall to Spalding’s South Holland Centre and Stamford Arts Centre in the wider region. The venues include arts theatres and visual arts venues like The Collection & Usher Gallery and Sleaford’s NCCD. Every venue contributes to the running of the network and benefits from what it has to offer. Staff share best practices from marketing strategies to programming and advise other venues on issues they may have faced before, shuttles have been organised to take people to the more rural locations, and connections are distributed among the teams. Being part of the LOV network also gives venues the chance to collaborate on projects and shows and provides audiences with an up to date guide of what’s going on in the arts in Lincolnshire.

This approach is more radical than it seems. Under austerity businesses usually conform to a Darwin-esque survival of the fittest type model, where they compete to undercut each other’s prices or to gain more of the market share. Just look at what’s happening with the supermarkets right now where there are outright attack ads airing from all sides all claiming someone else is more expensive or worse quality. When there’s less money to go around businesses tend to go into fight mode, to essentially make sure they survive instead of their competitors under the presumption that the town is no longer big enough for the both of them. The ideas and values behind the formation of the LOV network challenge this idea and ask whether this reaction is the only way to deal with economic adversity. Instead of fighting it out to the last venue standing, they joined together to work as one; promoting each other and lifting each other up to ultimately raise the profile of the arts as a whole in Lincolnshire. Business is famously cutthroat and secretive; corporate espionage is a criminal offence and company tactics are closely guarded. The network’s approach rejects this clandestine and overprotective attitude and instead fosters a culture of co-operation and information sharing. At meetings venue staff share methods and tactics that they’re implementing and whether they’ve been successful or not. They tell each other how shows did, whether audiences were receptive to a certain kind of programming and how they boosted their social media presence. Sharing what works and what doesn’t helps the people in charge avoid pitfalls and push through new and innovative ways of running their venues, whether that be through marketing, programming or finance. Choosing collaboration over competition and working with your peers towards a common goal flies in the face of capitalism and recognises that the survival of the arts as culture and as an industry should be the aim of all cultural venues. It says that individual success can only happen if art as a whole is successful, that we are stronger together than apart and that, in a county like Lincolnshire, pooling resources and supporting each other might be the only way we can keep art available and accessible to everyone.

As a network that spreads across the whole county of Lincolnshire, LOV is also in a unique position to use its connections to help bring more people into the arts industry. For now its focus is on young people with its LOV Young People’s Programme- how to get youth more engaged in the arts, and how to create more space for young people entering the workforce to start their career in the industry. The programme came out of a shared interest across all ten of LOV’s venues in focusing on youth audiences and engagement. This work is even more essential now, as yet again austerity is eating away at the arts from all directions. With university fees tripling and the new proposals to turn maintenance grants into loans as well, young students are more likely to eschew an arts degree in favour of something with a more guaranteed lucrative outcome. Artistic subjects ranging from fine art, illustration and sculpture to theatre, dance and performance have always had a bit of a stigma attached to them as they don’t necessarily push graduates into premade careers. That stigma is now even more pervasive as the financial risk associated with going to university seems to be growing exponentially. It’s vital to the continued existence of the arts as an industry for us to encourage more young people with drive, passion and talent to pursue a career in the arts, or at the very least to provide a counter-argument to all the negativity that might deter our talented youth.  LOV’s various youth programmes encourage engagement at all levels, from performance with a group like Fretless to production and programming with their young directors schemes. This kind of engagement not only adds to the audience of a venue and of the arts in general but also provides much needed experience for the youth involved. When money is tight, job opportunities dramatically reduce and those positions that are available require someone who already has the necessary experience to perform the role with minimal training. For young people looking at starting their career in the arts this can me more than a little intimidating and can often feel like an impossible task. By actively providing the young people enrolled in their programmes with valuable experience, LOV is giving them an idea of what working in the arts is like, and also making them vastly more attractive to the organisations they might be applying to. On top of this, LOV are sending a select group of their young volunteers on a trip to the Edinburgh Fringe this year to scout out new shows that could be brought to Lincolnshire to appeal to young arts fans, providing them with a rare opportunity that youth from a small rural county may not have otherwise had.

LOV’s approach is a small revolution, changing the way ten venues work with each other in an oft ignored county, but if the idea – the concept of changing the way we react in adversity, bringing a community together through common goals and rejecting the competitiveness of traditional business practices – if that spreads, then so does the change that a new attitude brings about. Perhaps the arts is a specialised case, perhaps this collaborative approach wouldn’t work in the financial trade or in retail, but surely the message behind it can only be a good thing. We work together to improve things for everyone, rather than as individuals fighting to win. We join forces and share ideas and make our common goals easier to achieve. We reach out when the circumstances steer us into shutting down. We become a we, not an I, and we stand better together. 

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