Wish You Were Here: The Relationship Between Arts Centres and Tourism

As the summer heat settles in, and holiday season begins, Richard Foster, Chief Executive of Lake District-based venue Brewery Arts, reflects on the relationship between arts centres and tourism. 

For many rural locations the local art centre is “the arts.” Without a variety of art form specific venues the arts centre is the only and a vital component of arts provision across many rural areas of   the country. In the case of the Brewery, on the edge of the Lake District in Cumbria, we are the only venue programming regular theatre, dance, and comedy performances. We are the town’s only cinema, offering commercial cinema seven nights each week and specialist cinema three nights a week. We are also the only venue within a 20 mile radius hosting spoken word events, a weekly programme of art classes for young people and a diverse live music programme, ranging from world music to prog-rock. And we aren’t unique – venues from the Courtyard in Hereford to Eden Court in Inverness provide a similar offer for their own rural hinterlands.

Although the Brewery’s core audience is overwhelmingly a local one, we have over the last four years sought to develop our audience from outside Cumbria and north Lancashire. This increases our resilience, extends the range of work we offer and broadens our audience base. Visitors are attracted by several international festivals and year round high profile and innovative programming in an amazing setting “familiar things made extraordinary by the landscape. For over a decade significant festivals in Kendal, made possible in no small part by the venues and technical support on offer from the Brewery, have raised the profile of culture in the southern Lakes and generated an economic impact on the town of more than £5m per annum. Festivals are consciously scheduled for “shoulder periods” outside the popular school holidays, to ensure the accommodation sector can take advantage of the influx of visitors and restaurants and pubs can extend their season with new customers.

We argue that the Lake District was the UK’s first “cultural destination.” The rise of the picturesque movement in the visual arts and the work of the Romantic poets ensured the Lakes had become a destination for tourists by the 1790’s. The ambition of our current Arts Council funded Cultural Destinations project is to restore Cumbria’s reputation as the UK’s leading rural cultural tourism destination, by celebrating a long-established model to create innovative and often revolutionary art in small and intimate places; work rooted in the Lake District landscape. Today tourism plays its part in supporting significant arts organisations in Lakeland and South Lakeland District council has established a funding programme around Strategic Cultural Organisations. They see arts and culture as having a significant part to play in the health and wellbeing of residents but also as a driver for economic development through the visitor economy and the relocation of business to the district. As a result this small district council has maintained and in some cases increased it’s funding to the Strategic Cultural Organisations over the past four years.

The destination management organisation for the Lake District, Cumbria Tourism, has for a number of years focused on culture as one of its three thematic marketing stands, along with outdoor adventure and food and drink. However there is still a good deal of work to be done to advocate strategically for culture to be emended in the strategies of key organisation within the county. Additionally we need to convince grass roots tourism businesses that culture has a role to play in attracting new visitors to their doors and to encourage them to include messages about culture in customer-facing communications. We are also wrestling with a definition of the extent of culture in the region (are dry-stone walls and historic house gardens significant to an Arts Council funded tourism project for example?) and how to express the uniqueness and significance of Lakeland culture and how it gains significance from its context. All issues Cultural Destinations projects across England will be contending with, I’m sure.

Richard Foster, Chief Executive, Brewery Arts Centre