Kate Lynch, co-Director of Highlights Rural Touring and a trustee of Kirkby Stephen Community Arts, asks if the arts matter in rural areas
I HAVE long believed in the importance of arts for all. And not just the ‘all’ who are found in cities and urban areas.
Brought up in a small village in rural Cheshire, I lived and worked in the arts in London and Cardiff before relocating to the Eden Valley with my young family in 2014.
Nestled between the Yorkshire Dales National Park, the North Pennines Area of Outstanding Beauty and the Lake District, the Eden Valley is surrounded by stunning scenery. But in Kirkby Stephen, the market town to which we moved, easy access to arts and culture is limited – something which is mirrored in many towns and villages across the county.
A recent Arts Council England report showed that, despite 18 per cent of the country’s population living in rural areas, less than three per cent of the £1.6bn provided to the main arts organisations is spent in these areas. And there’s a double whammy - local authority spending on arts and culture in rural areas has been cut by a third compared to just a quarter in towns and cities.
But across Cumbria there are grassroots community groups working tirelessly to provide meaningful, artistic engagement to people of all ages. From The Heron Theatre in Milnthorpe to Kirkby Stephen Community Arts, from The Watson Institute in Castle Carrock to Dent Music and Beer Festival - these are just a handful of the many organisations presenting professional artists and companies, working with little or no public subsidy and often staffed entirely by volunteers.
Over the last ten days I have helped at a Fun Palace, a day celebrating local people and sharing skills, with Kirkby Stephen Community Arts and attended another Fun Palace at the Brewery Arts Centre in Kendal. I danced my socks off at a ceilidh at the Old School Hall in Armathwaite. I hosted a physical theatre piece about competing in a tetra-decathlon. I enjoyed a Canadian A Capella duo at Casterton Village Hall and I watched a one-woman show about a girl who grew up in communist Bulgaria at Grizebeck Community Hall
I set up a remote cinema screening of Fisherman’s Friends, I took my family to the local church for a Kirkby Stephen Silver Band concert and I joined a packed house at Appleby to watch an extraordinary piece of dance.
But it’s not just about the performances. I spent quality time with my family and friends, I visited new places, I met new people, I joined fascinating conversations and I supported the local economy.
And all of these activities are sustained by an army of volunteers, dedicated to providing high-quality arts and events in the places that they have made their home.
I help run Highlights Rural Touring. It, along with its sister organisation Arts Out West, put performances into more than 50 venues across Cumbria – funded in part by the Arts Council of England.
Village halls, schools and community centres are lit up with professional music, dance, theatre and storytelling. These events bring local people and curious visitors together, reducing social isolation, breaking down age barriers and developing community cohesion.
We are among 30 similar schemes throughout the UK, programming and promoting professional arts in more than 1,000 community venues and supported by the National Rural Touring Forum.
Access to local, high-quality arts experiences contributes to a healthy, happy and vibrant rural life. Some GPs are now prescribing getting involved in the arts as a way of making people feel better about themselves.
But it needs sustained support –from the Arts Council, from local authorities, from businesses and from us, the audiences.
Take a look at your parish magazine, community Facebook pages or the posters on your village noticeboard - try something a bit different and play a part in bringing your village or community hall to life.