A project initiated by

The Lightbox

“How do you retain those community roots while being a successful and sustainable gallery?”

The Lightbox

Based in Woking, the Lightbox owes its existence to a long campaign by members of the local community who felt a museum and gallery to be essential to civic life. Its core staff of 24 full- and part-time are led by director Marilyn Scott, and supplemented by an integral team of volunteers. Its turnover is £850,000, of which 40% is derived from a service level contract with the local authority, and 60% is income generated through fundraising and the trading company which runs the shop, cafe, a consultancy business and hires out the spaces.

Mission: to balance national profile and local commitment

When Marilyn Scott became director of the Lightbox in 2001, the campaign for a dedicated museum and gallery for Woking, led by local volunteers, had been underway since 1993. The result was a flagship building, opened in 2007, showing “a range of exhibitions from local artists’ work and contemporary arts through to fairly major loan exhibitions, working with partners such as Tate and the Henry Moore Foundation”. Its national profile was quickly cemented with the winning of the Art Fund prize in 2008. This created a sense of dilemma: “How do you retain those community roots while being a successful and sustainable gallery?”

Museums go badly wrong by forgetting what their mission is, and understanding of the mission has to come from the top.”

Retaining those roots means being “very, very embedded in the local community”, not least in terms of governance. As Scott puts it: “Museums go badly wrong by forgetting what their mission is, and understanding of the mission has to come from the top. We’re very keen that our Board of Trustees has strong local community participation: all those necessary skills you need for good governance, we’ve sought locally, so they are people who live within the borough and are in touch with local business, local people and local social organisations.”

Thanks to ongoing support from the Paul Hamlyn Foundation, initially through its Our Museum funding strand, and then the strand More and Better, the Lightbox has also been able to start “various consultative groups, to ensure that the community has a role in decision making”. It also operates “the Woking Arts Hub, a network that draws in representatives from across the arts in the borough. That’s made the Lightbox a hub for the town, for anyone who really wants to be engaged in the arts, even on an individual basis.”

There is also a strong volunteer programme, with 160 members, “who are quite vocal and have a real stake in what we do.”

Long-term relationships

A principle of welcome operates at the Lightbox: all visitors are greeted on entry, “so you immediately break down those barriers that we’ve all had walking into other galleries where there’s no social interchange and you feel intimidated”. And that principle is expanded when the Lightbox works with marginalised or vulnerable groups in the community, including people with dementia, mental health issues, or experiencing homelessness.

Staff are given training to ensure that “everybody from me to the people who work in the café understand that we are very welcoming to people with all kinds of issues, from things that are really obvious to the much less obvious. We’re not a social care organisation, we can’t possibly understand all the medical and social background for all the different groups we work with, so to be able to work with them confidently, feeling we’re not doing harm, requires being led by the experts.” For instance, a representative from Dementia UK delivered “a two-hour session of this is what you will notice, this is how to deal with it, and this is not something you should be afraid of”. Similarly, the Lightbox has developed a long relationship with the York Road Project, which supports people experiencing or vulnerable to homelessness, and who have shared practical advice such as not to give alcohol to its service users, who are invited to have a free lunch in the building before their session.

“We started working with groups with mental health issues in 2008 and we have many people who are just regular visitors now and also volunteer. We make sure that they are welcomed”

The results have been overwhelmingly positive: “Some of the homeless service users have overcome a reluctance to even come into the building, and some of them feel that it’s a safe enough environment to start volunteering. Similarly, we started working with groups with mental health issues in 2008 and we have many people who are just regular visitors now and also volunteer. We make sure that they are welcomed, that there’s no cultural feeling against them, and they do develop that sense of feeling safe.”

Challenges

These experiences have shown the Lightbox that “there are a lot of lessons to be learned about how difficult real community work is”. Scott identifies three in particular:

1: It takes time

In each of the cases mentioned, Scott says it took a year of relationship-building before the project could begin – whereas the expectation from funders was that “we would spend three months bringing partners on, spend nine months on a project, then go into evaluation”. Arguable this kind of timescale relates more to working with schools; as Scott puts it: “It’s quite easy to pick two schools, work for a term with them, have a nice exhibition in the gallery that shows all the stuff that they’ve done, and say that’s community engagement. Well it isn’t, because those relationships are very transient and once you move away, that’s it, end of story. The really strong and lasting partnerships take a long time to build.”

2: The reach is small

“If you’re working with quite difficult audiences, such as people with dementia or mental health issues, you can’t work with a lot of people. A project involving 12 people doesn’t look very impressive to a funder, but you can’t do projects that are any larger than that because you need that almost one to one provision.”

3: The problem of communication

This is less a problem with funders, who “fortunately are aware of what we’re doing” and more with the general public: “It’s very difficult to publicise, for instance, work with people with acute dementia in a sensitive way. You can’t make a video of it and put it on the website. You can’t take photographs. You can write about it in academic journals, but that’s not reaching the general, local audience. It’s difficult to talk about the work in a public way without crossing the boundaries of identifying people who wouldn’t want to be identified.”

What next?

Although the Lightbox has a dedicated local audience, with 72% repeat visits among people who live within 30-minutes’ drive of the building, the majority of its visitors are aged between 45 and 95. “Predominantly a dormitory town”, Woking has a high population of people who work in London, for whom “coming to a museum on the weekend is probably not high on the agenda”. Seeking to change that, the Lightbox has begung programming evening events: “film nights, comedy nights, tapas nights in the café – all kinds of things that are not exhibition-related, but that bring you into the building and begin a relationship. That project is in its early days but the signs are that it’s beginning to work.” Scott admits that this “millennial audience” is being targeted rather than the local Muslim population, of whom she says: “We work with the Mosque very closely, and have done several projects, but that hasn’t led to general visitation.”

The Lightbox is also seeking to building on its work happening outside the gallery, for instance doing activities on the wards of local hospices. There are plans to bring its programme Conversations in the Gallery – a session in the gallery that “brings in older people, just to help with isolation, depression, and feeling that life isn’t that exciting any more” – out to day centres and care homes. As Scott says: “That kind of outreach is in a way the next stage for us, because there’s a limit to how many groups we can actually have in the building at any one time and we do get occasions where we just run out space.”

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