“Culture plays a vital role in bringing people from all backgrounds together. And I want every Londoner to have the opportunity to access culture on their doorstep.”
As someone who runs a performing arts centre in Stratford, east London this statement from London’s Mayor Sadiq Khan is something that resonates deeply. In spite of the incredible cultural offer that exists in this city and the audiences that flock to enjoy it, my experience has taught me that it is only through a localised or ‘doorstep’ offer that it is truly possible to engage people “from all backgrounds”.
We have found that performances in outdoor public spaces have the greatest reach in drawing people together. These outdoor events can be affronting, disruptive, intriguing and joyful. This is the type of art that you can just happen upon, and as a result the audience is always a random coming together of individuals across class, gender, ethnicity, age, and (dis)ability.
Part of the exhilaration of this (often unexpected) experience is that you share it with strangers. In a big city, when it feels difficult to smile or even acknowledge someone that you don’t know, suddenly you’ve shared an experience that was extraordinary.
As well as building and unifying communities, studies have also shown the link between culture/art and health. However, the recent Creative Health report by the All-Party Parliamentary Group also made plain that engagement with publicly funded art is relatively low amongst those who are economically and socially disadvantaged. While there are multiple reasons for this, bringing artistic performances to peoples’ doorsteps not only allows us to come together through joyful and inspiring experiences: it is also a vital investment in the health of our communities.
Of course there are many examples of incredible spectacles taking place in the city centre. The unforgettable Sultan’s Elephant, nine months after the 7/7 bombings, brought people together to marvel at something fantastical and transformative. I remember watching it, mesmerised, in Horse Guard’s Parade.
Putting outdoor spectacles in less grand corners of the city is important. It brings outstanding experiences to where Londoners live. It makes a statement that our neighbourhood and our community is worthy of something remarkable too.
Arts centres have a duty to serve their communities: it’s one of the things that differentiates them from commercial theatres. They are community hubs that play a civic role in neighbourhoods, and they should serve the whole community, not just a sub-section of theatregoers. But no matter how diverse the range of work presented and the breadth of access and cultural learning programmes, there are always invisible barriers to entering cultural institutions. Outside the building, the opportunities to reach new audiences and make unexpected connections between people are vast.
The nature of outdoor work, particularly in more residential areas, means that these unexpected connections are integral to the success of the events. We presented some large scale aerial circus performances in a park in North Woolwich last summer as part of a community festival. The work involved building a huge aerial truss – from which the artists hang their equipment, ropes, hoops, silks, and so on – in a park with no infrastructure for live performance.
Through getting to know the regular users of the park, our performers were able to use a bowling green club-house for dressing rooms, and the members of the club then came along to the performance. They felt an ownership of the event having met and helped out the performers. Without investing in these relationships with local people, we would simply be imposing ourselves on a space that isn’t ours. Local communities need to be part of the experience from start to finish and seen as more than just a prospective audience.
Presenting outdoor work often means you can give a platform to local artists and support existing projects, inviting community groups to perform and making technical equipment and expertise available to support them.
Working in an arts centre, you are continually surprised by who walks into your building because of the range of work you present. By taking work outside our building we can engage with people who normally wouldn’t cross the threshold. We live in increasingly challenging political, social and economic times and the bonds within communities are vital. Putting art on doorsteps of people regardless of their backgrounds, that connects us through joy and inspiration, has an important place in nurturing our society.
Tania Wilmer is director of the Stratford Circus Arts Centre, east London.