The arts – a marginal activity? Not in our experience.

I began yesterday with BBC Radio 4’s Today programme as I got ready for the day ahead (along with 7 million others). At 8.00am a piece on the arts was promised in the coming hour – I noticed this particularly because it’s the field I’m involved in on a daily basis and because I feel strongly about the importance of the arts and their value both in our collective lives and for us individually. When it came along at 8.20am the feature painted a picture which is quite different from my day-to-day experience and indeed from my sense of what’s going on generally in this field. It noted elitism, particularly in opera and ballet, and questioned whether subsidy of the arts serves the population as a whole. The suggestion was that the arts primarily serve a small privileged section of the population and reaching out to new audiences and participants is marginal and to no great effect.

Two hours later I was in Dagenham at Valence Library being greeted by the extremely cheery and helpful library staff along with around 100 parents and toddlers. We were there for a performance of Henry Purcell’s The Fairy Queen, as adapted for 0–3-year-olds and their parents. The performance was part of a 12-venue tour across Barking & Dagenham and Newham in libraries, children’s and community centres. The library had been transformed into a forest and six musicians, including two from the Orchestra of the Age Enlightenment’s young musicians’ programme and two from The Sixteen’s young singers’ programme, gave us a magical 45 minute show about fairies, trees, love and adventure. It was utterly enchanting and of the highest quality. 100 people – all of whom (I think) would be classed by the Today programme’s report as ‘not attending’ – had encountered Henry Purcell for the first time as performed by some of the UK’s most promising young musicians.

Musical Rumpus: A Fairy Queen in the Forest

Musical Rumpus: A Fairy Queen in the Forest on tour in Barking & Dagenham.
Image: Laura Fensom.

Reaching an audience like this doesn’t just happen, but at the same time there’s nothing mystical about it.  The event was free, it was on their doorstep and it was in a trusted location. We told people about it and made it really easy to get a ticket and know what to expect.

My experience in Dagenham made me recall the Today piece and think about why it had got things so utterly wrong. The Fairy Queen project is not a one-off for Spitalfields Music – it’s just one of a whole range of things we do all of which are about offering music to as many people as possible in East London. And I know we are not alone in our outlook and indeed in our success at reaching new audiences on a daily basis. Quite the contrary.

Musical Rumpus: A Fairy Queen in the Forest

Musical Rumpus: A Fairy Queen in the Forest at Rich Mix during
Spitalfields Music Summer Festival 2012.
Image: James Berry.

So why did the radio piece get things wrong? It’s probably easy to reach for some stereotypes and I suppose things going wrong is much more a story than things going right. And of course, the truth is that there is so much more which could be done.  The arts sector is tiny in relation to its potential – there will always be more to do, simply because the scale of the potential is vast. And there will always be examples of bad practice. But if asked to characterise the sector I work in, I’d say that effort to spend subsidy wisely and to the benefit of as many people as possible is everywhere. It’s certainly not a marginal activity. I’m pretty certain that the roughly 500 people in Barking & Dagenham who saw The Fairy Queen this week would not think so.

And at the end of the day it’s their view that I’m interested in.

Abigail Pogson
Chief Executive


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