Valuing Suffolk’s cultural goldmine

The Pavao Quartet is performing at the 2013 Bury Festival. Attracting top performers makes Suffolk a

The Pavao Quartet is performing at the 2013 Bury Festival. Attracting top performers makes Suffolk an important cultural destination. Clockwise from top left: Kerenza Peacock (violin), Bryony James (cello), Natalia Gomes (viola) and Jenny Sacha (violin).

Sometimes cliches are cliches because they are true. Other times they are simply misguided.

The Launch of 2013 Pulse Festival at The New Wolsey, Ipswich. Pulse is an important part of Suffolk'

The Launch of 2013 Pulse Festival at The New Wolsey, Ipswich. Pulse is an important part of Suffolk's cultural calendar. - Credit: Archant

I can’t count the number of times I have met some “amusing” individual who, when the conversation turns to my job or the fact their taxes go towards the Arts Council, they throw their hands to their forehead, feign a mock faint and wail, in the manner of a bad Victorian actor, “It’s not about the money, darling. It’s art.”

I smile a non-committal smile and change the subject – not really wanting to be treated to a full-blown impression of Sir Herbert Beerbohm-Tree. But, it is worth saying here that in my 25 years as an arts journalist I have never encountered any arts organisation or any individual who has ever been blasé about money.

There’s simply not enough of it to go round, so everyone is constantly worried about money. Everyone is fighting to balance the books.

Ever since Maggie Thatcher chopped off arts subsidy at the knees every theatre company and concert promoter, every art gallery and arts institution, has been increasingly preoccupied with making their work pay.

Yes, the arts are concerned about the quality of the work. They are always looking to discover a new way of doing something; they want to push the boundaries; but they can’t afford to do that if only a handful of people are going to come and see it.

The way that many programmers work is to construct a season with a wide range of work. In this way it is more likely that a number of different shows will find a receptive audience.

Most Read

The (Ipswich) New Wolsey’s chief executive, Sarah Holmes, has told me on a number of occasions: “There’s not any one single audience – there’s lots of different audiences, and frequently their interests overlap. The secret is to introduce the audience for one show to another show.”

By mixing and matching a programme, it’s easier for more popular ventures to then help pay for the less successful parts of the programme. No-one stages a show expecting it to be a flop but the arts are a very inexact science. It’s something that even the mighty business brains in Hollywood have been unable to crack.

The problem is that people want originality from art – be it film, theatre, music or fine art. What is even more vexing, from a marketing point of view, is that audiences don’t know what they want until they see it. It is absolutely impossible to say with any degree of certainty what will fly and what will crash and burn. There is always a little bit of magic involved – that little indefinable piece of something extra which lifts a film, a theatrical performance or a piece of music out of the ordinary and the mundane – which is why sequels or copies seldom match up to the original.

All of this makes investors very nervous, because the arts cannot be quantified or manipulated in the way that most business opportunities can. The positive side, however, is that the rewards (when the public do respond to something) can be enormous, as the wealth of film giants like Steven Spielberg and theatre impressarios like Cameron Mackintosh prove.

They may be unpredictable but the arts have always been an important part of our economy. Cultural tourism is now seen as a major generator of income and during the past 20 years Suffolk’s arts provision has become essential to the economic wellbeing of the county.

In the last decade Suffolk’s cultural provision has exploded, with existing festivals and events becoming longer and more varied, and new events being added to the calendar. From the beginning of May until the end of August, there is a cultural event happening each week somewhere in the county.

They are not just small community events, either – as important as they are. Suffolk culture now commands national attention. It draws performers and audiences from all over the UK, bringing much-needed people and spending power into the area. Tourism is a booming industry and high-quality arts is a prime mover in attracting people to an area – couple that with some fabulous history and some wonderful scenery and we are on to a winner.

The quality of the arts on offer in Suffolk is what drives our cultural tourism economy. Festivals are an obvious draw. We have a clutch of national-profile festivals which keeps the place buzzing throughout the summer – we have HighTide, the new writing theatre festival in Halesworth, at the beginning of May; the New Wolsey Theatre’s PULSE fringe festival at the end of May, preparing acts for Edinburgh. Then there’s SPILL, the performance arts festival which links Ipswich with London. The Aldeburgh Festival, the granddaddy of them all, this year is attracting more attention than ever, with events celebrating founder Benjamin Britten’s centenary. There’s Latitude, the large-scale, family-friendly, arts festival at Henham, near Southwold, which combines music with dance, literature, theatre and film. In addition there’s Snape Proms, which runs throughout August.

We mustn’t forget the Bury Festival which, although taking a breather this year with just a four-day programme, has been punching above its weight for 25 years. Even this year they have managed to get Lesley Garrett, Emma Johnson, Timothy West, the Pavao String Quartet and the groundbreaking Aurora Orchestra.

There are also smaller events that keep things interesting. ldeburgh Cinema stages an annual documentary festival programmed by Diana Quick, which takes place over a long weekend in November, and to add to that they are also staging Sounds and Silents: A Festival of Film and Live Music which will feature work by Thomas Dolby and Mark Kermode’s skiffle band The Dodge Brothers.

Aldeburgh is also home to The Wonderful Beast theatre company, who are building up a series of storytelling events with such names as Roger Lloyd Pack, Helen Fraser and Penelope Wilton. They also stage events featuring dance, mime and multi-cultural storytelling elements.

But festivals are only part of the story. To attract people to live here, to locate their businesses here, the arts provision has to be good all year round. This is where the excellence of the New Wolsey, Bury Theatre Royal, DanceEast, Eastern Angles, Red Rose Chain, The Apex, The Regent, The Cut at Halesworth and The Snape Maltings come into their own. They provide the bedrock of our cultural life.

When the New Wolsey or Theatre Royal stage world premieres, it makes people in positions of authority sit up and take notice. The same is true when Eastern Angles attract national critics to their shows or tour to Edinburgh or take part in HighTide. DanceEast, again, is a national resource which is located on our doorstep, bringing international performers to Suffolk. These are all institutions to be celebrated.

By staging new work, reviving the classics, or attracting some world-class touring work, they ensure that Suffolk is not forgotten. It is a county that attracts attention because it realises that an investment in art is an investment in its people, and this then translates into a concrete boost to the economy.

Supporting the arts always pays.

Become a Supporter

This newspaper has been a central part of community life for many years. Our industry faces testing times, which is why we're asking for your support. Every contribution will help us continue to produce local journalism that makes a measurable difference to our community.

Become a Supporter