Arts for the Isle

The arts are not just for big cities, but for everyone regardless of where they live. And former Epworth woman Sarah Maxfield heads an organisation that aims to bring drama, artwork and music right in to our communities.

As Area Director for the north, for Arts Council England, Sarah is keen to see more take-up of the arts in places such as the Isle.

And despite recession-related cuts in funding, Arts Council cash is directed by North Lincolnshire Council and others to promote theatre, music and dance to far-out places.

“I’m not from a city family, being brought up in Epworth, and not an arty one either” explained Sarah. “My dad and grandad were butchers in High Street, and my dad made furniture in his spare time. My mum was in amateur dramatics though and I do remember going places such as the Grand in Leeds to see the ballet.”

She had performer friends at Oxford University and remembers stage managing for them at the Edinburgh Fringe Festival. “Many people who work in arts organistions have been stage managers at some time,” laughed Sarah, who initially wanted to be a researcher for the South Bank Show.

Her first job was with Hull Council’s arts department, and she has come full circle to work with her former boss on its UK City of Culture programme for 2017.

Sarah, 52, has worked all over the country and also became heavily involved in arts and festivals in Sydney, Australia, when she took time out to travel. “It re-awakened my interest and when I returned I became head of arts with Kent County Council,” she said.

A later post in Oxfordshire gave the opportunity to create a much publicised ‘street of fire’ with a French street theatre company, with burning chandeliers seen by thousands in the centre of the city.

She became Area Director for the North for the Arts Council two years ago, overseeing three regions with a population of 15 million people.

“It’s a big responsibility, but exciting,” said Sarah as she bubbled about Leeds’ specialism in dance that makes it a dance capital and growing competitor against London for events of national interest.

It’s been hard for local authorities to maintain investment in the arts with the squeeze on public funding and much of her time is focused on helping arts bodies to find ways of funding themselves.

She was impressed by Scunthorpe’s Cycle Opera – essentially musical theatre on bicycles that was helped financially by the Arts Council’s open grants programme. Community groups and theatres can apply for up to £100,000 of available cash for projects, and details of this can be found on the Arts Council website.

“We have a team of people who will go out and explain our grants system, or run advice sessions,” added Sarah.

She is keen to encourage areas such as Doncaster, that were shown to have low levels of engagement with the arts. The opening of CAST has proved very positive, and the Arts Council supports DARTS with funding for creative advancement.

“There’s been a re-awakening in Doncaster and CAST has done well to get networked nationally,” she said.

Schemes such as the Northern Ballet bringing their innovative workshop ‘Three Little Pigs’ to schools, as in the Isle only recently, are yielding great results, and more artists and performers will expand work with schools in the future.

Art ventures and the people who run them can be very determined and resourceful, added Sarah. “I know of one arts organisation that runs a pub to finance itself, and another has a bed and breakfast sideline to keep afloat. The award-winning Yorkshire Sculpture Park makes money from its very large car park.”

The Olympic opening ceremony was entirely an arts event devised mainly by people with backgrounds in arts and theatre including director Danny Boyle who hails fromthe north, said Sarah. “People realised then what we are proud of in this country and how essential a part of us the arts really are.”

The 20-21 Visual Arts Centre in Scunthorpe is one of the Arts Council’s national portfolio of organisations, and was recently allocated funding of £224,235.000 for the years 2015-2018. A capital grant of £489,988 will also help it to upgrade facilities.