The Art of Programming

As arts venues across the country ready themselves for the start of their Autumn seasons, Annabel Turpin, Chief Executive of ARC, Stockton shares some of the challenges  and opportunities of programming a multi-artform venue.

As far as I know, there is no such thing as ‘programming school’. Unlike directing or curating, you can’t go to college and learn how to programme a multi-artform venue. Consequently, it’s rarely recognised as a form of artistic practice.

Arts centre programmers, who often double as directors/chief executives, have usually arrived in their positions through learning on the job, working their way up through marketing, programme administration, operations or other similar routes. They programme across – or at least, oversee – multiple artforms, developing an innate sense of what feels right for their venue, for their audiences, whether that’s theatre, dance, comedy, spoken word, music, circus or interdisciplinary work. Some also cover film and visual arts, and more recently ‘digital’ arts has become a new area of knowledge to develop. Many are programming work for all ages, from early years to adult, and some for very targeted groups, developing specialist knowledge of work aimed at, for example, LGBTQ or learning disabled audiences.

Maintaining a working knowledge, let alone an in-depth one, of so many artforms is a challenge, and in my experience, programming solo is less than satisfactory. At ARC, our cinema programme is a vital part of our overall offer and yet I’ve delegated programming of the cinema to our marketing manager, who works with a freelance programmer. Likewise, our music programme is co-promoted with a local music promoter, and our comedy club is also programmed by a third party.

This doesn’t mean I am not interested in those areas of our programme – I scrutinise proposals, approve deals, have final say over the schedule and participate in regular discussions around the ‘do you think it will work’ question – but the difference is, I’m not driving them.

In fact, increasingly I am not driving the programme in areas that I would consider my areas of expertise – theatre, spoken word, dance – as we move away from buying in finished, touring work, and shift towards a more collaborative model of working with artists and audiences.

David Edmunds at Dep Arts Ltd calls it ‘the difference between shopping and growing’. I’m still making decisions about who to work with, but how we work with them is arrived at through discussions with our marketing, creative learning and programming staff, as well as with the artists and companies themselves. We work with artists from the earliest stages of their idea, supporting them to develop work and to consider audiences during their creative process. This enables us to bring artists and audiences together as different points, for talks, workshops, sharings, installations or other forms of creative encounter, which means our audience development work can take place alongside the development of the work itself. It also means we can be more confident that the work will resonate with our audiences, as often their voices have helped shape and influence the work along the way.

This way of working requires a very different approach to programming – far from the ‘catalogue booking’ that many people imagine the programming process to be (someone honestly did once ask me if there was a big book that listed all the shows available). When I go and see work, I’m less interested in the show itself and more interested in the creative team behind the show. When I’m approached by artists and companies, I’m less interested in how successful their last show was, or how many awards they have won, and more interested in the themes of their work and what their creative process looks like. I’m looking for artists who want to build a genuine relationship with ARC and our audiences (both existing and potential); and who have something relevant to say or explore.

This approach is common across arts centres, as the breadth of our programme and audiences, coupled with our business models, enables us to work in this way. It gives us and our audiences much greater ownership over our programme, and provides a far deeper and more interesting experience for artists working with us.

The downside is, it’s got even harder to answer the ‘how do you choose what you book?’ question that non-arts friends and relatives inevitably ask when they find out what you do…

Annabel Turpin, Chief Executive, ARC Stockton