OPTIMISM IN A COLD CLIMATE
Now in its thirteenth year, Frome Festival should have disappeared long since. In 2006, our Arts Council [ACE]-funded consultant wrote:
“The Festival has been a great success […]. As with most successful activities of this nature which begin on a voluntary basis, the size of the event eventually outstrips the ability to organise it. […] Its current way of operating is clearly unsustainable.”
The Festival Board agreed, and adopted his whole report as a business plan and centrepiece of a bid for ACE development funding, to be supplemented by grants from councils. Though our applications – we made a second, scaled-down version – ticked all the boxes, ACE had insufficient funds to cover an award. A further setback came in 2007 when the founding director, Martin Bax [MBE, for services to the community and Frome Festival] stepped down after seven successful years.
How did we cope? On reflection – an exercise prompted by BAFA – I can see that Frome Festival has a lot going for it.
Our major asset is people. After a few weeks of gloom in the autumn of 2007, we secured the energetic services of Martin Dimery as Guest Creative Director; the first adjective of the title was soon and quietly dropped. Martin is a teacher, author, actor, musician (leader of Sergeant Pepper’s Only Dart Board Band, writer and solo performer of Shakespeare Rock & Roll), and Programme Manager of Frome’s Cheese & Grain Hall. He has the patience to work alongside volunteers.
Though we have managed to employ a part-time administrator, the greater part of the operation relies on around a hundred volunteers: the eleven trustees, including one who works long hours in the office, the treasurer, some 60 stewards, 36 distributors of our 20,000 brochures, the sponsorship team of four, and fundraisers and troubleshooters. A company limited by guarantee since 2002, we registered as a charity, after taking advice from other BAFA members, in 2007.
Frome is a market town of about 27,000, with a rural hinterland. As a former centre of woollens and weaving, it started its recessions early, and so has become resilient. Its diverse housing stock has proved attractive to artists, writers and musicians. About one-third of our 180 or so events in the ten-day Festival are by local performers, professional and amateur; last year’s Open Studios were a showcase for 67 artists in over thirty venues; and Hidden Gardens, another established feature of the Festival, gave entry to 27 private gardens. A distinctive element in the programme are the workshops in music, other performance, art, and crafts for the young or for all ages; these sessions draw heavily on local talent.
As well as the people, Frome has the venues. There are two theatres, the Memorial, managed by volunteers, and the professionally-managed Merlin, a school and community studio theatre. Alongside it is an amphitheatre surrounded by monoliths, the European Community of Stones imported 21 years ago in a europhoric, as it were, glow.
We also have three multi-purpose halls (I prefer the more elegant salles polyvalentes). The modern Assembly Rooms are attached to the Memorial Theatre, and house concerts, meetings, dinners and parties. Rook Lane Chapel, opened in 1707, is now a brilliantly remodelled hall for exhibitions, concerts and meetings. The Cheese & Grain was built in 1875 as a market hall, and now accommodates concerts, markets, meetings and shows. It can hold an audience of up to 800.
There is an art and crafts centre, with workshops, gallery, shop and ace café. A former almshouse and charity school, restored as a residential home, has a river-girt garden used for, amongst other attractions, sculpture displays. In addition to two established galleries, a third has recently opened in a sensitively-converted silk mill, which houses concerts as well as exhibitions and is set to become a creative hub. A most encouraging development is the opening of a privately (and generously) financed concert hall seating up to 70, in the grounds of a manor house on the edge of town. It was inaugurated during the 2012 Festival. Several pubs and churches run or host events in the Festival. The independent cinema usually shows a Festival charity première.
The third category of optimism is – surprisingly – money. The Festival is supported by over 60 sponsors, mostly local businesses. Though the actual sums are modest, it is reassuring that hard-pressed enterprises can support the Festival’s contribution to local economic and cultural wellbeing. There are some 100 subscribing Friends, who are thereby members of the charitable company. A healthy 75% of our cash income is from ticket sales, though the figures alone can mislead as we benefit from unquantified in-kind sponsorship as well as voluntary labour.
We want to get away from constantly precarious finances: in most years we have broken even, or done slightly better, but there have been poor outturns, notably 2011, when the losses were so great that 2012 as the final Festival was a real prospect. We avoided that only by cutting back on paid staffing, but it threw too great a burden on office helpers.
We no longer receive grants from the county and district councils. Frome Town Council has been supportive throughout, but it has decided to move the Festival from simple grant to subvention from its Town Events budget administered by the Economic Development & Regeneration Manager. Far from being a sell-out to the bean-counters, the new relationship, ‘in recognition of the importance of the Festival to the local economy’, represents a reversion to the arguments advanced initially by our founder, himself a district and town councillor, that the town needed a festival as part of its regeneration.
The present town council, elected in 2011 with an independent majority, has adopted a practical stance on localism and is committed to promoting Frome as a place to live, work and do business. We are planning a joint audience-development study, to embrace sponsorship as well as attendance at events, and we hope to benefit from BAFA’s Festivals Mean Business initiative, and its methodology. The council’s local economic intelligence will be applied to sample selection among enterprises, and our combined capacity to do research should also throw up data on in-Festival trading, such as sale of works through Open Studios and the volume of catering in food and drink at free-entry events, which last year represented almost 30% of our programme.
Partnership can easily become an empty slogan, but both parties are committed to the new relationship. We are mindful of the council’s intention that the Festival should become less dependent on grant but also be prepared to take risks. We think we know quite a lot about risks.