Arts & Cultural Development In The Strettons

Second Draft Report

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The Corona Virus pandemic has had a devastating effect on the arts and cultural (the Arts) activities for what will be over a year, both nationally and locally.  In Church Stretton it has included the cancelling, or perhaps, postponing one of the major attractions of the year: the Arts Festival.  It has entailed the absence of many forms of entertainment, relaxation, learning and uplifting social experiences.  The loss of opportunity to perform in choirs, drama and smaller events, some of which would have supported charities, has been dispiriting.  This has cut across all generations and affected the health and well-being of the community. Whilst some people have borne it stubbornly and with resilience, others of us have become quite socially isolated and withdrawn.

All of us have been affected, and struggle to keep hope alive. It gives concern for the long-term mental health and well-being of people in our community.


There have been brave attempts, in innovative ways, to keep something going and instances of using online material for people to find some sustenance in their own homes.  None of this has been wasted and could be additional means offering cultural experiences to many more people.  We have learned how much the Arts contribute to social well-being and sense of place – perhaps through its absence.  We are aware that numbers of professionals, for whom the Arts is their vocation and means of livelihood, have lost their jobs.  Even for retired and voluntary performers, not having the opportunity to use their talents and skills is at the least dismaying.  Perhaps, we have undervalued the contribution performers, volunteers and the social engagement of public participation make to health and hope.

LOOKING FORWARDS
What follows is intended to encourage us to take a longer, bolder and more life-affirming look at the potential of the Arts in this area going  forward into the next two decades: first in the Strettons; and then going on to think wider, to the area of south Shropshire.  The proposals in this paper are urging us to begin to think of the Arts in this rural area in similar ways as it is viewed on the national scene.  That is: to see the Arts as not solely about entertainment, but also a very necessary conduit in bringing people together and creating belonging, pride, understanding, learning and community.  


The Arts has the capacity to attract people to come to live and work in, or from this place.  Corona Virus has made many value the outdoors and the space of the rural areas and awakened the desire to move from the cities. It can be an attraction to visitors who want to find more than just a beautiful landscape. All this is accompanied by a need to have different expressions of culture in the community they have joined or wish to stay in for a while.  


Participation in cultural activities, in all kinds of ways, has a positive influence on mental and physical health and prevention of ill-health. Nationally, it is a very large part of the wealth creating economy and there is no reason why it cannot create opportunities for business and jobs here too. The Arts as a whole can also reflect the changing times and challenges, together with recognition that the population itself is more mixed than we had supposed.  Only recently has it been acknowledged by government that it is a significant creator of the national wealth, at least as much as agriculture.

COMMUNITY PARTICIPATIONArts and Culture in its many forms can inspire a community to come together and increase people participation.  We can think of this sector as a very wide one inclusive of sport and leisure which bring their own distinctive cultures.  It is the inter-connection between all that makes for a flourishing community.

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We are well placed in the Strettons in having the Mayfair Community Centre and the National Trust here.  There is surely great scope for the Arts to work with these resources to help the Strettons recover its equilibrium.   We know that Mayfair is already committed to different forms of arts and crafts and across the age spectrum. This is being part of the healing, restoring, sustaining and inspiring of those who come to use its services.  We are at present, largely a population who come to retire here, and some do reside in care homes.  This should give us an opportunity not only to include those residents who have been participating already  in the available entertainment and social events, thanks to our excellent Ring and Ride transport system,  but to greatly enlarge the pool of such individuals. 

Living here should be the only requirement you need to be part of what is going on.  The logistics of wider inclusion would of course be adapted to different locations and groups. Technology should allow us to beam in to care homes a live performance, maybe a live opera from Cardingmill Valley or the annual All Stretton Pantomime.


More can be done within care homes through the sharing with residents some of the output of the Arts.  It is well known that when school children visit a care home, they make an enormous difference to the well-being of the residents and staff.  It can and must be inter-generational.  We have to think of the Arts as belonging to all ages and conditions and participation helps develop a good quality of life and inspires the members of Staff.


Mayfair with ‘Loft Arts’ drama group and Cardingmill Valley work with young people in educational visits and events, both have an aspiration to get a re- balancing between an older population and young people and families.  The Cardingmill Valley seems an ideal setting for many kinds of outdoor performances.  This area with all its natural beauty cries out to be a place to linger on in; to sample all its delights, of the hills, things to do, events to enjoy, good restaurants and places to stay. We can care for our climate, protect the environment and give people a memorable cultural experience.


We should be able to think larger about ways in which we can take the opportunities that both these ‘institutions’ give us.  The one: in terms of the inter-generational, and the other; as outdoor experiences that can embrace a mix of cultures and physical and emotional needs. When the town centre traffic flow and freedom for the pedestrian is settled then the High Street and Market Square are places to enjoy with entertainment too.  Of course there is a range of young people’s organisations that are already equipped to be partners in the development of projects.

LEARNING AND SENSE OF PLACE
Can we see our place as being a centre in the area of the South Shropshire Hills; centre of walking, exploring; of learning of the geology and history of the place; a centre of the performing Arts in different forms?   Can we embrace the idea that here too we can reflect a changing modern culture?   If we can find a way ahead that can aspire to these things, then there is no reason why we cannot be an even more attractive option as a visitor destination.


We have a library and its support group which already does a lot to engage people in learning about all manner of interesting aspects of the local and the global.  There are opportunities to delve into our own past and explore the future; to learn a new language and that of poetry.  Learning is a continuous process across all ages and in bodies like U3A we realise that although we think we know a lot, there is still so much more to understand about ourselves and our community and world.


One of the key components of any sizable place has a museum where you can gather the story of the place for people to wonder at, and to make sense of.  Church Stretton has started out on that process with the time-line boards and historical plaques around the town.  A guided walk through town is an experience well worth the effort. To finish up in the local museum, if we were to create one, where you can see and touch and feel the past would cement the idea that this is not just a pretty place, but has been a significant part of the making of Shropshire. Together with the Acton Scott Victorian Farm this makes for one of the best family visits around.


We have to convince our school that community Arts have a potential to support the educational aspirations for all students and assist in achieving the school’s goals.

FESTIVALS, CHOIRS, ART AND DRAMAAll of these are long established features of the cultural life in the Strettons.  They have sustainability if they are responsive to changing social and environmental challenges.  Climate change is going to affect the way we live, work and play.  A balancing of the demographic of the community will call for more diversity.  Festivals give the opportunity to include a whole range of cultural activities; choirs, drama, popular music.  In part two of this document it is suggested that by seeing this in the larger area of south Shropshire so much more is possible. All of this can be a positive change in the direction of a more inclusive and richer mix of community life.

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We have one very excellent Arts Festival, to be re-kindled, that has potential when all other sectors are in place, to have an international ambition.  There is a successful drama group in Stretton Players and opportunity to engage young people in a life-time love of theatre.  It also offers the prospect of a partnership with schools and be a training ground for young actors of the future.The Arts Festival makes provision for the many artist groups in the area to show their creations in an Arts and Craft exhibition that might consider having a section where young artists can display their subjects too.  

There can be more than one festival, and of a different kind.  There is room for a festival that really is owned and led by a younger generation who would bring a new energy to our cultural life.  The Friday Night at the Horne is a well-established and valued part of the cultural offer bringing artists from different genres into the town on a regular basis.

The Music Fest could be an annual event reflecting a different mix of cultures, not necessarily what is found locally.  If people are choosing to live in rural areas then diversity will be needed to sustain a more mixed population.


PARTNERSHIP AND ECONOMY
The Covid pandemic has taught us, perhaps for the first time in this generation, of the capacity there is in people to double down and help out in a crisis and to be inventive.  The joining of businesses and social care has been impressive.  There is a model here for the recovery.  The pandemic has been devastating for the Hospitality business including restaurants as well as on the Arts.  Partnerships of mutual interests are going to be even more important.


A burgeoning Arts sector can have the capacity to increase the footfall within the town.  It becomes one of the ‘must see’ places where there is a lot to see and to do.  It can help persuade investors to have a hotel there; encourage restaurants to raise their offer.  If we were able to attract national and even international artists, writers, poets etc. we could aspire towards places such as Hay-on-Wye, a much smaller place than the Strettons.  The environment and physical architecture in the town favours such an aspiration.   


The next decade will be about more than the UK recovery from the pandemic.  It will also be about re-positioning ourselves as a global partner and maintaining the qualities that the world admires, of which the heritage and creativity of the Arts is our stock.  The partnerships between business and the Arts will become even more important in creating a sustainable economy.


LINKING THINGS TOGETHER:
South Shropshire is the most rural area in Shropshire, though its population within and around the major market towns of Bridgenorth, Ludlow, Craven Arms, Bishops Castle and Church Stretton is comparable to a small city, not much less than Shrewsbury. Living in large towns and cities people are able to draw upon a diverse range of cultural experiences, in many different buildings and performance spaces.  The rural area is not so well endowed with suitable venues, variety, or transport, particularly in the evenings.

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PERFORMANCE VENUESOne of the challenges that is constantly facing Church Stretton is the lack of an indoor performance space that is suitable, comfortable and safe for an audience of say 250 plus which would provide a good financial return.  I don’t know whether Concord College is open to re-enter negotiation on its availability, even though it is well out of town.  Venues - needs to be a subject that should be high on our list of priorities.

AN INTEGRATED STRATEGY FOR SOUTH SHROPSHIRE
Many of the problems that affect delivery of cultural events in the rural area could be solved within a joined up partnership across the area.  By working together across the 5 main towns a strategic plan could be developed for the Arts in this rural area. It should be one that would respect the uniqueness of each town; discover what venues and facilities were needed to carry this in each place; a common marketing and ticketing system; and a variety of events available to residents in any of the towns. The opportunity for winning substantial funding from the Arts Council would be greater in the wider area.  A strong case can be made for the ‘levelling up’ of the provision and the business: delivering cultural events and learning appropriate to the size of the population.  It is debateable whether one large centre such as the Severn theatre would work in a rural area.  Though, it would offer the focus for the really big cultural events, choir festivals, rehearsal work, workshops and be a dynamic in expanding the education in the creative industries of Arts and Technology.


TRANSPORT
In the next decade it appears that subsidised public transport may become the main means of connecting people to events; a service that can be integrated into the area plan. If we can now run a coach service to Birmingham for symphony hall concerts, it should be possible to design a bus service that can connect people to anywhere in south Shropshire, as required.


VOLUNTEERING AND EMPLOYMENT
The Arts bring special gifts to community-building and sustaining.  The last year has given us an opportunity to revaluate what those gifts are and to ensure that they are restored and passed on to following generations.  If anything like the above is to give us direction for the next two decades, it will need to be led and supported.  Yes, we do need the right balance of professionals who are paid and volunteers.  It would certainly need a full-time facilitator with an Arts background and more of an entrepreneur than administrator to enable Church Stretton to develop its potential.  


Volunteering should move more towards, a training and preparation of young people, learning skills in every aspect of running events; a work experience; an opportunity to gain awards for excellence; part of their preparation for life. It should be part of education in the Arts and inspire schools to give them the priority needed towards a more hopeful future.  There are moments when we need the courage to believe in the people we live among and to imagine a different kind of future that can inspire a whole community.


Noel Beattie
January 2021


RECOMMENDATIONS FOLLOWING THE FORUM MEETING OF 30TH NOVEMBER 2020 :
DEVELOPING A STRATEGY


1    A submission to the Shropshire County Arts Strategy consultation was made before Christmas and has been warmly received.  There is a recommendation from the County Arts development officer, Alexa Pugh that we should join the Shropshire Consortium.

2    Education and the Arts: An outcome from the November 30th meeting was the proposal to open a conversation with the Church Stretton School about students participation in the community Arts.  Alan Fox, Bill Ross and Alan Stockbridge put their heads together to plan a way forward.  I think it is perhaps too soon at this time to proceed with talks until we have moved on from the present critical phase of Covid.  But, there could be a conversation with the Head of Arts in the school.  We would need to convince the Academy Trust as well that the educational benefits are sound.  There will be researched evidence nationally to back involvement of students. So, we need to be well prepared before a formal approach is made.

3    Discussions with hospitality, tourism and restaurant businesses: may be a useful to start when we have an opportunity for face-to-face meeting and the Arts begins to open up again.  The subject would be how canboth sectors be mutually supportive.

4    Shropshire Arts Consortium: Explore the benefits and opportunities of joining the Shropshire Arts Consortium particularly for South Shropshire. Claire Featherstone leads on the County link with Culture, Leisure and Education.
Culture Consortium Shropshire (CCS) is a Local Cultural Education Partnership.
The consortium is supported by Arts Connect (the Arts Council England funded Bridge organisation for the West Midlands) and is a network of organisations across arts, culture and heritage, festivals, education sector, Music Service and Music Hub, libraries, museums, local authority and other relevant organisations.
​Through CCS, organisations are working collectively to improve access to arts and cultural offers for children and young people living in Shropshire.  CCS aim to facilitate cross sector approaches and strengthen partnership working, collaboration and joined up networks in order to connect and share good practice.    

5    Venues:  In the first instance we should do a full review of all our venues and possible venues, their availability, capacity and adaptability for a variety of performance events, indoor and outdoor.

6    Museum:  It would be good to look at opportunities for a building that might be suitable for a museum, should anything come on the market.

7    Grand Piano: During the end of last year a Beckstein grand piano has been offered to the town and Richard Walker and Gill Styles have concluded it is a fine piano.  Although 100 years old this year, after some restorative work should make a good addition to the Arts scene.  We are negotiating a home for the piano which would also provide an excellent performance venue for small concerts etc.  The logistics of ownership and responsibilities are currently being discussed as is the raising of funds around £6000 for its purchase and essential works.

8    Arts Facilitator: We need to explore how we can raise the funds to employ a facilitator to direct the development of the Arts vision and delivery within the CLP 2021-41 plan.  This might be in partnership with other market towns of South Shropshire.

9    Arts Forum:  To establish a Forum that brings together the key Arts and Culture bodies in the town to develop a strategy and plan for the Strettons and can encourage: the kind of partnerships above; apply for funding; its responsiveness to the diversity of the population and how it can contribute to the social and health needs of the whole community.