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By working in partnership and refusing to patronise audiences, Lyth Arts Centre in Caithness has attracted record numbers, says Charlotte Mountford.

Lyth Family Festival

Lyth Arts Centre

Situated in the heart of the Highland county of Caithness, Lyth Arts Centre (LAC) is the UK’s most northerly mainland arts centre. Caithness – home to the famous John O’Groats – is a sparsely populated area which in the last census recorded a population of just over 26,000 spread out over 712 square miles of the triangular tip of Scotland.

Lyth sits between Caithness’ two main towns of Wick and Thurso, but is scarcely more than a hamlet itself. People who visit comment on how surprising it is to find this little hub of cultural activity seemingly in the ‘middle of nowhere’. The arts centre, established in 1977, is a former Victorian school converted into a purpose-built studio theatre, café bar and artists accommodation. The next nearest venue is Eden Court in Inverness, a 200-mile round trip away. On all counts, LAC is a rural organisation playing to rural audiences. But since taking over in 2017, I and my Co-Director Tom Barnes have been working to challenge and interrogate what this really means – if indeed it means anything at all.

Too often, solutions are created to be flown in by outsiders

Starting out in our new roles, we decided to dream big. Rural doesn’t have mean small, in scale or ambition. The team set about implementing a new artistic policy that seeks to establish LAC as a nationally and internationally recognised, industry-leading small arts centre where local audiences can access high quality, life changing performances and visual art. But what did this look like in practice? One drawback to rural life can be isolation – whether socially or simply through working in silos. So we reached out to local groups, businesses and organisations to ensure this didn’t happen. Soon we found ourselves working with partners ranging from gin distilleries to heritage centres. Suddenly, things don’t feel so isolated when you’re surrounded by advocates and allies.

Tour de force

Thinking locally is important, but LAC also provides a vital stop for touring companies and artists, playing a crucial role in the touring ecology of Scotland. We also understand the value of the creative retreat LAC can provide for artists looking to get away from city skylines and create under our ever-expanding horizon and light nights. Consequently, we set about connecting with organisations across the country and internationally, looking for shared opportunities to grow and develop. This has also led to diversified income streams as new projects develop.

Developing partnerships has meant diversifying our programme and challenging preconceptions about what ‘rural audiences’ want. They are after all audiences – and audiences want to be entertained and enlightened, not patronised. Our audiences are just as likely to take risks as an urban group. Contemporary feminist circus? We sold out three shows. New writing and early career musicians are always popular and welcomed by a supportive crowd. Late night openings on a Thursday (we pinched the idea from every gallery down south) with added pizza are always at full capacity. And the team have worked with the community to develop new events, including hosting our first performance for audiences with profound and multiple learning difficulties. The landscape we live in informs everything we do, but that doesn’t mean we don’t want to see beyond it and have the same opportunities to experience things folk in cities can.

The population across Caithness and the Highlands and Islands of Scotland is ageing. However, there are young people and young families in the county whose access to arts and culture is markedly low in comparison to their urban counterparts – as highlighted in the Scottish Index of Multiple Deprivation. So a crucial and growing part of the LAC programme is our work with children. With 7000 people under the age of 14 in Caithness, that’s a lot of potential future arts attenders – and they and their families present an opportunity to build a sustainable audience base.

Record attendance

At the end of our Spring 2019 season, LAC reported a record number of visitors to its events, gigs and performances. As well as the deep engagement of the last 18 months, we can also attribute some of this to a rebrand. This saw the launch of a new website and a bright pink brochure, which was delivered to every household in Caithness. This level of door-to-door marketing simply wouldn’t have possible or affordable in an urban area – but it’s one small luxury we can and definitely should invest in.

Between March and June 2019, LAC had 2,209 visitors – over double the amount for the same period in 2018. This might seem small fry to a large city centre arts organisation, but for us it’s almost 10% of the whole population of the county. As well as hundreds of new first time visitors, the organisation hosted twenty sold-out performances from theatre companies and bands from across Scotland and the world. The turnover of LAC has trebled from £110,000 in 2017 to £350,000 in 2019, even though we took the decision to absorb all booking fees and reduce ticket prices across the board.

Little representation

But of course, there are always challenges. Touring is difficult in Scotland, and this has an impact on our small margins. Getting a van full of cast, crew and equipment to the far north is expensive. The recent introduction of Creative Scotland’s touring fund has helped here, opening up many opportunities for us to programme shows we could never have afforded otherwise, and encouraging artists to think deeply about who their audiences might be outside urban centres.

Bringing artists from across the world into our creative hub is great, but above all we must be able to support home-grown talent and the incredible stories that come from that. Building and sustaining a creative community in Caithness is ultimately what LAC aims to do – and this isn’t always straightforward in an area where many artists struggle to make a living. Commissions, opportunities, training and networking are too often focused in Scotland’s central belt, which is costly to reach and can take 2 (unpaid) days out of the week. More nearby, Inverness is a fast-growing city and with significant local authority investment, has an expanding artistic offer – but it cannot be expected to serve the cultural needs of an area the size of Belgium with diverse histories, cultures and languages across its hugely varying landscape.

The problem isn’t that rural areas in Scotland are forgotten by funders – we are amply provided with schemes and initiatives. Too often, though, it feels these conversations are happening with little rural representation, and solutions are created to be flown in by outsiders. I wonder if people are just over-thinking it. Yes, we and artists face challenges in being rurally-based, but ultimately we all want the same thing. As Creative Scotland prepares for the next round of applications from organisations to join its Regularly Funded Portfolio, consultation has taken place across the country. Hopefully this will inform thinking about how Creative Scotland and other funders – including local authorities – can recognise the strength and expertise of arts and culture in Scotland’s rural communities.

Charlotte Mountford is Co-Director at Lyth Arts Centre

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