Sara's art attack puts Ipswich on map

When your town's fallen off the arts circuit, and that vexes you, you can either suffer in silence or do something about it. Sara Newman chose the latter.

Steven Russell

When your town's fallen off the arts circuit, and that vexes you, you can either suffer in silence or do something about it. Sara Newman chose the latter. Steven Russell discovered what happened

SPORT shouldn't have much of an impact on the arts, you'd imagine - but it can and does. Which is why Sara Newman will be keeping a weather eye on the skies above Wimbledon during this summer's tennis championships. She's one of the driving forces behind the Ipswich literary festival, and has found that match scheduling at SW19 can present book-lovers with some awkward dilemmas. “One of my absolute dreads is when we hit a Wimbledon night and there's a really important match,” she confesses. “Last year we had one author's talk which was absolutely at the same time that Andrew Murray was going on court to play a vital game and I knew that was going to affect the numbers. They did drop. You feel so for the author, because they don't warrant that.”

It's mainly the walk-up crowd, rather than those with pre-booked tickets, who are tempted to stay at home to enjoy the serves and volleys - the ooos, aahhs and grunts - rather than hear about an author's motivations and writerly agonies.

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“It gets particularly bad if you get a wet first week of Wimbledon. Then you get all these good late-evening matches scheduled and that does affect the festival.”

It's not just lawn tennis, either, that can be a pain in the bookish derriere.

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“The first year we had [photographer] Eamonn McCabe doing a talk about his photographing of writers' rooms. He's also passionate about sport; and unfortunately we hit it on European Cup Final day. The poor man was so gracious about it. He came and did his talk at the Ipswich Institute and you could hear the cheers and shouts from the pub nearby, when the goals were being scored. But when you're organising these things in November or December, you can't always know what's going to be on.”

Sara nowadays concentrates mostly on the literary side of the annual Ip-art festival, but that's not the whole story. In fact, it was her impetus that got the summer arts celebration off the ground in the first place.

Born and raised in Suffolk, near Saxmundham, Sara went into fashion design. In 1974 she and husband Tony moved to Suffolk. “When it was impossible continuing in the fashion industry with small children and living in the sticks - by that time we were in Rendlesham Forest - I turned to interior decoration, because I could basically do that from home,” she explains. “I started a small painted-furniture and interiors business.

“We moved to Ipswich in 1984 and well into the '90s I continued to do that. By the end of it we were running workshops in London and Suffolk, and had furniture in Harvey Nichols and at Snape Maltings, and did very well.”

Sara was interested in the wider arts and in the late 1990s found herself growing increasingly frustrated by the way the cultural scene in Ipswich was perceived by people both inside the town and beyond the boundaries. “It was quite a negative feel. The strange thing is, there were excellent arts activities going on in the town, but it seemed to me it wasn't drawing people from outside.”

At about that time, too, changes in Arts Council funding policy were drawing organisations such as the National Theatre and the Royal Shakespeare Company out of the capital to tour the regions. “So suddenly you didn't have to go to London to see all these people. You were able to go to Norwich and Cambridge and Colchester, and of course Snape, to see all these wonderful artists. But they skirted around Ipswich!

“I thought 'Well, we've got some fantastic art going on in Ipswich that people don't seem to know a lot about outside Ipswich, and these great national and international groups coming to the region . . . could we not find a way of putting together some two-week celebration to get the two together? That's really how it all started.”

Aware she lacked the knowledge to do it personally, Sara took a sabbatical from the painted furniture business and sent herself to City University in London for a post-graduate diploma in cultural management. Three months at the end of the course featured a placement in Whitechapel Gallery's development department.

“I needed to learn key skills, like how funding works - public funding as well as private sponsorship - and also about the structure of the arts. I came away thinking that, yes, Ipswich could definitely sustain a festival.”

One of the people she went to see about her idea was James Hehir, chief executive of Ipswich Borough Council, who thought it definitely had legs. The borough called an open meeting of business figures and arts organisations, and a project group was formed. Ip-art was up and running: a multi-arts festival to catch the eye.

The first was in 2003. Sara, then heavily involved with the visual arts side, remembers how the town's redundant churches were opened to house contemporary works, “so people could not just come and see the churches but also be wowed by the art there”.

A cornerstone of the festival was the desire to showcase art not in traditional venues but to reach the places it wasn't often found: workplaces, shopping precincts, public spaces and so on.

Sara nurtured the visual arts strand for the first three years or so, while it built momentum, and then focused her mind on establishing a literary section.

“It was quite hard that first year” - difficult, from a standing start, to sell the idea of a new literary festival to industry folk. “I didn't have a background in literature; I didn't have publishers that I knew or authors that I knew. But we managed.”

Actually, that debut year proved a success - featuring best-selling novelist Jasper Fforde, for one.

The organisers sought from the onset to give authors a good time in Ipswich: picking them up from the station and, if they needed to stay overnight, putting them up in the Salthouse Harbour Hotel. Looked after, the philosophy ran, writers would spread the word among publishers and other authors that Ipswich was a worthy newcomer.

“We're now reaping the benefits, because it's become a lot easier and I can contact publishers, when we start putting programmes together, and they have the confidence to suggest authors they think will be appropriate,” says Sara.

In the second year, matched funding from Prettys solicitors and Arts & Business East saw Bernardine Coverley installed at the law firm as writer-in-residence. Copies of the resulting Prettys Shorts, a collection of stories written by staff, were distributed around the town.

Now, the literary programme is a well-established feature of the Ip-art festival, with talks by authors, writing workshops, a themed short story competition, a writer's caf�, a speakerthon on the Cornhill and a poetry tent at the music day in Christchurch Park. New attractions are added along the way: this year there's a “slam” where young writers can read what they've written.

“One of my ambitions has been to create a new piece of work, and we've been able to do that this year with the help of University Campus Suffolk and Turnstone [a property company], who have jointly supported a new piece of writing by Clare Wigfall. She won the BBC National Short Story Award last year. We've commissioned her to write a story on the theme 'safe', which is the theme of the competition. It's that sort of thing I want to do more of.”

In considering tweaks, Sara bears in mind the original ethos of the festival, as set down in that first proposal. “I have four words that I use constantly. Quite often, when I sit down and think about the programme, I say them: aspiration, inspiration, community and education. This keeps coming up over and over again.”

This June brings something new. The “festival read” - a book that will be widely read locally and then discussed - is Stephen Booth's Dying to Sin. It brings crime-writing to the festival for the first time. “We don't know if there's a big crime audience out there in Ipswich - in Harrogate it has its own festival - so we'll watch how it goes and see if we can't look to develop that strand.”

Sorting out the programme has had a welcome spin-off for Sara personally, making her read books she otherwise probably wouldn't pick up in a bookshop. “I've been bowled over by some authors I wouldn't otherwise have read, which has led me to read more of their work. That's been an inspiration for me.”

An example is Justin Cartwright, in town this year. And Sara read two or three more novels by Jasper Fforde after meeting him.

She's happy with how Ip-art - nowadays organised by Ipswich council in conjunction with the festival management team, made up of specialist arts groups - has gone thus far.

“What I'm most pleased about is that people locally feel they own it, which is really nice - not just the people who take part but audiences who say they feel very involved.”

Events under the Ip-art banner attract between 90,000 and 100,000 people each summer - and not just from Ipswich itself and outlying districts. Folk travel from Essex and Norfolk, for instance. Justine Picardie, who'd written a novel inspired by Daphne du Maurier, last year drew from a wider area. “And with Rageh Omaar, who we had the previous year, we had tickets booked from Newcastle!”

And what about future plans?

“If I tell you, they won't come true, will they!”

Oh go on . . .

“One idea buzzing around my head is bringing in a guest author and asking them to put together a programme for one weekend of the festival. It would be so exciting; but I'd need to get funding for that. It would need another sponsor. So, any ideas, let me know!”

What has Ip-art achieved?

“I think it's given the town a sense of pride and it's become very much part of the general regeneration of the town. The festival is part of the celebration of all that's going on, really. And I think it's bringing in people to Ipswich who may not normally come to the town centre except to go to the hairdresser or dentist, shopping or whatever.

“Also, I think what the festival has done - because we don't tend to put events in traditional venues - is bring people to spaces they wouldn't normally go.

“One of our supporters is the Ipswich Institute [in Tavern Street], which is a little gem of a place. People go there to hear an author speak and say 'Wow! I didn't realise this existed in the middle of Ipswich!'”

Festival website:

Ip-art: The literary line-up (June 27-July 12)

Booker Prize-shortlisted Justin Cartwright

Martin Bell, 30 years a foreign correspondent

Historian Anna Whitelock on Mary, first queen of England

Stephen Booth, author of “Festival Read” Dying to Sin

Kes Gray, creator of the Daisy series for children

Children's stand-up comedian James Campbell

John Boyne, who wrote The Boy in the Striped Pyjamas

Short-story enthusiast Vanessa Gebbie

Clare Wigfall, winner of the BBC National Short Story Award

Wife and husband Rachel Hore (The Painter's Daughter) and DJ Taylor (Ask Alice; Orwell: The Life)

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