Jani-finally-went-off-the-deep-end-about-Southampton yesterday

Yesterday, Jani saw a post following what sounded like a great event at the new Tiger Yard, talking about what kind of city Southampton would be.  In it, the post-er of the post said The Art House was great but that we need a Gantry-like space in Southampton.  A grassroots arts centre, not just a big shiny one like the proposed new arts complex being fitted out at the moment.  We have heard this many, many times.  The Art House is great, but it’s not the Gantry.

We agree.  We set up, in a smaller premises, with the aim of trying out a way of running a grassroots arts space free from Council or other funding.  You can read more about our business model here, if you want.

The post and indeed the poster yesterday was well-intentioned, expressing a view we’d heard many times, and indeed mainly expressing nostalgia for a lost venue that we all miss, but for some reason it made something go ‘snap’ in Jani.

If you don’t know, The Gantry was a community-run, part-Council-funded arts centre which was absolutely lovely and which was closed very suddenly.

We try to stay positive.  The rule is, never admit you’re struggling, never say anything negative or controversial, but this is Jani’s take on the Gantry, and us, and why we don’t have another bigger arts centre yet.  It’s not gentle:

Confirmed by some conversations with people who saw the post, here are some realities:

The mythologically fab Gantry we’re supposedly not as quite good as and that people would go to if it was still open/replicated, struggled to get people to come to things all the time.

Struggled to make enough to survive or even keep the roof from leaking. Was 50% Council funded making it vulnerable to the plug being pulled – which is what happened.

This direct from people who were actually involved. If they’d felt massively supported, then when they lost their building they’d have started again somewhere else. Those poor folks probably felt as worn out and fed up as we often do with this city of sofa-sitting.

Why *should* Council tax revenue fund a space which won’t be fully used? So folks can sit home and feel pleased we have a ‘proper’ arts centre?

Our new arts complex will be shiny, posh, privately owned and possibly quite highbrow because those building it know that will attract a paying audience. The chains beneath it will open a year before the art happens because that’s where they know people will spend money.  Money is a reality in this situation.

Like many funded places, it’s likely to have a far sparser programme than a place which relies on being busy to stay open. Our crammed programme outstrips and outshines every ‘proper art centre’ out there.  We think that need to be busy is a strength of an unfunded space.

(To be clear:  We’re super excited about the new arts complex, we think shiny and posh has it’s place too in a local scene.  We’re excited despite the only thing being open there right now being a Nandos – but that’s a whole other blog post.)

What people are saying, quite rightly, is that the new complex appears to be heading in a less grassrootsy direction than we’d hoped.  It will not be a replacement for the Gantry, not at all.

This is Bik. This is what his face does when a gig sells out. We do not see this face often enough!

This is Bik. This is what his face does when a gig sells out. We do not see this face often enough!

So.  If we want a groovy, community sized, affordable space we are going to have to build it ourselves.

Grassroots art has to be funded by local people, by it’s very definition. It is not the Council’s job to create culture, it’s our job to make it and use it.

Here’s the rub.  We’re already doing it, on a smaller scale, and have been since 2008.  We are not at capacity, not even close.

If there was enough support for such a place, The Art House would be heaving all the time.  Our gigs would sell out, our groups would be full, our classes packed.  We’d be making a surplus right now…. guess what we’d do with that?

We’d have a nest egg growing to purchase or lease a building in a few years and create something still small but with studio space, separate workshop spaces, a garden, a 100 seater performance/film space and more for this community.

That was our big dream. Southampton didn’t have to wait for funding. Southampton don’t have to wait at all. The spirit of the Gantry is alive and well with us and it was from day 1.

Instead, when our lease runs out in just over three years, if we are making a slight loss as we did last year (and a few others years) or just breaking even as we are this year, we may not even be able to stay as we are or where we are – especially not if our rent increases.

We don’t want to close.  We have no plans to close.  But we can only stay open if people need us.  Really – as in coming out and using the space – need us.  

Not sitting at home thinking we’re great need us.  That doesn’t work.

We set ourselves a target for 300 people to support us regularly to help with the up and down income which causes us to struggle each summer. 130 people have generously signed up – we’re so grateful and happy they have!  Some of those folks are folks who genuinely can’t get out – we have Patrons who are disabled, single parents, ill, carers or just live too far away.

But despite baring our souls, sharing our finances and even discussing our private family situation to fully explain the need for this support the remaining 170 have failed to appear. So when Bik’s Dad gets sicker, which he eventually will, or when some other slump or crisis hits, we’ll still be at risk.

We’re the lucky ones – many haven’t even made it this far and breaking even is a triumph compared to many places we’ve lost. The Bent Brief being one recent and notable loss, it’s windows boarded up and it’s dedicated landlord and lady left with not a penny for the 15 years they ran that lovely music venue.  That’s not OK, Southampton.

So we are lucky and we know we are.

But we certainly cannot dream of buying somewhere with no capital and a very up-and-down audience base, many of whom who vanish every time the weather’s a bit warm or there’s something good on telly, or whenever something new pops up elsewhere.

We can’t grow our dream on Facebook likes.

This. This is how you do it - walk through the doors!

This. This is how you do it – walk through the doors!

We can’t grow it on ‘I keep meaning to come in’ and ‘I would but I’m hardly ever in town’ (if I had a penny for every time I heard that, we’d pay the rent easily each quarter!)

Our place is amazing. Use it.

Maybe it’s not quite what you’d want?  Cool.

If you want it to be different, volunteer – our volunteers shape our future plans directly.

If you want to see something happening here, come in and run it.  If you want better art on the walls or different music, point artists in our direction.

We’re responsive to our community, we’re not some fixed edifice.  Sure, we have values (strong ones) and won’t change completely to suit ‘the masses’, but we’re open to local artists and active citizens getting stuck in to making us what we will be next year, and the one after that.

We have a gorgeous base of regulars who we appreciate more than words can say, and to build our dream we need many more of the same.

This city is blessed with many heroes creating art – Southampton Chamber of Arts, aspace Arts Gods House Tower Project, unit11 studios, SoCo MusicProject, Red Hot Press, K6 gallery, Tiger Yard, Art Asia …. to name but a handful (if we’ve left you out it’s because there are too many of you to list here, not because we value you any less that the ones we listed – please pop yourself in the comments).

Not to mention the music venues we are privileged to have.

Every time you say ‘this city is devoid of culture’ you snub the efforts of all those people.

Rude! Go out and support them instead.

If you’re living in Southampton and reading this then yes, I do mean you. Once every three to six months is not often enough to come out. Not if you really want to change this city. Don’t know what’s on? If you are on the Book of Face, check out our Hubbub What’s On guide which we will try and keep as up to date as possible.

Consistent support.  Leave the flippin’ house.  Often.

Lose your fascination with shiny new things, lose your nostalgia for things past, switch Netflix OFF, stop spending all your weekends at festivals and in other cities and give your energy, money and time to what exists now. Regularly.

So – I no longer want to hear how great the Gantry was or how great a fictitious new space would be from people who hardly ever come to us, hardly ever visit any other local venues and probably hardly ever went there, either.

Southampton will get exactly the arts centre it deserves, in my opinion.  It’s kind of up to you.

Signed with a loving kick up the jacksy,


A tired Art House Director

About janifranck

Artist, activist, founding director of The Art House in Southampton.
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