A project initiated by

Sage Gateshead

“What we’ve been doing over the past few months is going to community centres and libraries through Gateshead, and not charging for this work. Even though music may be played and people might listen, that's probably not the only thing that happens. A sense of the artists talking to people locally is important.”

Sage Gateshead

Open since 2004, Sage Gateshead has been led since May 2015 by managing director Abigail Pogson. Unusually, its staff of roughly 250 FTE includes a full-time orchestra, the Royal Northern Sinfonia. It has a turnover of approximately £15m, and operates a mixed-funding model, significantly boosted by ticket sales: 60% of its income is earned, 20% comes from public funds (the bulk from Arts Council England, with additional local authority funds), 10% is traded and 10% fundraised.

Mission: Making change through community, culture and place

For its first decade, Sage Gateshead’s mission was “enriching life through music”. Under Abigail Pogson – and following internal and external consultation, with audiences, non-attendees with whom the organisation hoped to connect, and other local institutions – it has shifted to: “making change through community, culture and place”. Pogson identifies this change as being “from something individual to more of a civic focus on the collective and the wider sense of culture”.

This change has been prompted by Pogson’s own experience: prior to joining Sage Gateshead, she ran Spitalfields Music, a non-building-based organisation, presenting two festivals in venues across east London, but also running an education programme across local schools and a partnership with the local hospital. The ethos was one of “working from community organising and community organisers upwards. So I know that that stacks up to something, and we need to be overt about this and express it, rather than it being the sixteenth thing that we mention.”

The change was also required by the stage Sage Gateshead has reached in its own existence: now that the building is established, “the question that you then need to ask is, to what purpose? What is the role of our artists and the work that we make in engaging people and provoking debate, and encouraging improved levels of education and cultural engagement? Providing an international-quality experience in music is a really important factor in Sage Gateshead’s civic role, but if you don’t follow that through with the other things that support wider engagement and connections then that ownership will be limited.

Developing audience relationships

The size of Sage Gateshead offers it an opportunity to appeal to audiences across a breadth of interests: as Pogson puts it, “Although we only present one genre, music, we have more of an arts-centre ethos.” It is home to the Royal Northern Sinfonia, but also to Folkworks, as well as programming jazz and pop. Plus it has “a wide public engagement programme with courses and classes, a specialism in working with children and young people, from working with the most vulnerable and in need to those who are pursuing a high level of musical study, and a commitment to supporting the next generation of musicians”.

When Pogson talks about the ways in which the organisation is shifting its approach to audience relationships, two key strands that emerge relate to the orchestra specifically. Sections of its work are already delivered around the region, and Pogson is interested in “dialling up” activities already in place, by:

1: Creating two-way relationships

In its engagement with community partners, Sage Gateshead seeks to work in dialogue and partnership. For instance, if working in a community centre with elders, “allowing them to dictate the terms and what’s happening. So it’s not just about going and giving a performance, but saying, here is a creative resource, what should we do?” Another example Pogson offers is a collaboration with the children’s teams in the Royal Victoria Infirmary, supporting young people and their families who are in early stages of autism through a singing project. This is typical of projects that have been “co-devised as a very specific response to a need”.

2: Public dialogue

“Previously the orchestra would tour to a church or a venue that could position itself as a chamber music venue, and somebody would have to consider themselves wanting to hear classical music to buy a ticket and come. What we’ve been doing over the past few months is going to community centres and libraries through Gateshead, and not charging for this work. Even though music may be played and people might listen, that’s probably not the only thing that happens. A sense of the artists talking to people locally is important.”

Although these changes are still new, Pogson already senses a positive impact: a stronger sense of connection between the people of Gateshead and the orchestra, and a stronger sense of ownership. Importantly, the benefits are mutual:

“It’s giving us a greater level of dialogue and understanding about what those people might want, how we might engage with them. I describe it as being porous: we are owned by the people that we are engaging with and we adapt to what we hear.”

A space for public gathering

How Sage Gateshead conceives its role within its community is being further impacted by changes in the external environment: what Pogson describes as “the breakdown of the more paternal role of local authorities”, and a lessening of support for charitable activity. As a public space that is free to enter and is open between 8am and 11pm, potentially Sage Gateshead serves the role previously occupied by libraries that are now being closed. However, Pogson also wants to consider the ways in which open does and doesn’t equate to accessible. She emphasises the need to appeal to a wider breadth of the population, “so that we can be really clear that a) anybody can come in and b) that there are things to do when you’re around, you can buy a ticket and hear a gig or go to a singing class”.

She also highlights a less visible way in which Sage Gateshead acts as a gathering space: its use as a conference and events venue creates opportunities for the organisation to engineer a convening of the local arts sector with business. This “puts us in currency with those people and ensures that there’s a cultural voice around the table”. The cultural industries are already seen as significant to the success of Newcastle-Gateshead in recent years; the possibility now is for culture to shape creative solutions or approaches to public issues: for instance, Sage Gateshead is working with Well North on a pathfinder project thinking about the arts in health.

What next?

As well as developing the role of the orchestra and its artists outside the building, Pogson intends to develop the building itself. She is seeking investment to reconfigure the public spaces and build up partnerships in the region, and now has a staff member dedicated to programming the public space in the building, in the hopes of attracting others to use it to present their activity. One example she gives is of “a local social-investment festival: we know that they would really like to use that space, so what can we do to support them building that festival?” But another is the network of ten Newcastle-Gateshead cultural venues collaborating on a joint project to create opportunities for children and young people over a 20-year period. This could be seen in terms of education, but it’s also typical of the two-way dialogue she is seeking to foster: “It’s affecting our programming and how we think about how young people might start to engage as audience members.”

Primarily she wants to develop that sense of porosity: “I want to feel that we are in dialogue and it’s feeding into the way that we programme and how we programme with communities around the region.”

And what does she need to put this in place? “Money, time to fail, an ability to notice what’s happening, and expertise. Not a lot!”

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