Monday, 25 March 2013
Artsdepot: this is not what community looks like
Trudging along in the blizzard, on the long march to North Finchley on Saturday, en route to Friern Barnet, and the People's Library, to mark the Barnet Spring, Mrs Angry observed a curious phenomenon. Fixing her eye on a certain local landmark, it seemed as if, rather like an urban, wintry inversion of a desert mirage, the building seemed never to grow any closer, but hovered perpetually on the skyline, beyond our reach, no matter how far we marched.
The skyline of North Finchley is dominated by one thing, a rather ugly thing, to be honest: a high rise building of flats squatting on top of a much argued over local arts venue: the Artsdepot.
This is the building which was supposed to provide a home for another sort of landmark: an invisible one, to be fair - the landmark library created, albeit only in his imagination, by Councillor Robert Rams, as a pretext for closing, or rather attempting to close, Friern Barnet Library, later occupied and reclaimed by the people of Friern Barnet and now re-opened as the People's Library.
Fitting, of course, that the Barnet Spring March on Saturday moved from Finchley, and the heart of local Conservatism, to Friern Barnet, the home of a former lunatic asylum, and the location of the nemesis of local Conservatism: yes, the People's Library.
Mrs Angry has often brooded, in her fanciful way, upon the presence of some sort of latent psychogeographic network which links together all the defining parts of the Barnet insurgency.
There would seem to be an especially powerful energy of some sort in Finchley, which is the source of so much of the activism, and confrontation, which has charged the uprising here in the London Borough of Broken Barnet. Perhaps this is the very fault line, the breaking point, in Broken Barnet. Did Margaret Thatcher, at the end of her own long march to Finchley, set some sort of action in motion, a mechanical movement, which is reverberating still, but is now clunking away, with a spanner thrown in the works? The birthplace of Thatcherism, and the place where it all comes apart?
One of the distinguishing features of our own home grown form of Toryism, here in Broken Barnet, is a deep suspicion and indeed an unnatural aversion to any sort of cultural or artistic activity.
When our Tory councillors announced their shameless intention to drop funding to local arts and heritage bodies, Robert Rams told the people of Broken Barnet to get on the tube and find it elsewhere.
Culture and heritage are, like the local history collection in our former museum, of no value to the philistine councillors of Tory Barnet.
The current administration has shut one museum, tried to shut the other, and then tried to close a library - and did close it, for a while, only to see it open again.
Part of the excuse for shutting this library, and trying to flog it to the highest bidder, was that the new landmark library would replace it, in the Artsdepot in North Finchley. This has been dropped, as the council and the management of the Artsdepot could not agree on the proposal.
The Artsdepot is an unloved building, conceived and built during the one and only Labour administration a few years ago.
The Tories, of course, opposed the construction of the centre, and as soon as they returned to power in 2010, withdrew the funding it received from them. They would have done this anyway, but no doubt there was an element of pleasure involved in the process.
Very early one morning a few days ago, Mrs Angry, Mr Reasonable, Mr Mustard, the Barnet Eye and a few others were present at a 'Bloggers' Breakfast' at the Artsdepot , to meet Chief Executive Tracey Cooper, and a couple of her colleagues.
None of us were sure why we had been invited, to be honest, but some had also attended a recent, disastrous meeting of the North Finchley Regeneration Fund, which is supposed to distribute Boris Johnson's outer London fund to the area, and bring some sort of life back to the high street, struggling as it is to survive in a recession, and in the aftermath of Brian Coleman's disastrous new parking policy.
The bloggers had been invited to that, in some sort of misguided attempt to secure some endorsement for the faux consultation, for funding which is widely believed to have been already allocated. The meeting ended in farce, due to a ruling that no one could mention the one issue that everyone wanted to talk about, ie parking.
Despite this unfortunate evening, the bloggers were invited back to visit the Artsdepot staff.
Mrs Angry is not an early morning person, and arrived a little late for the eight o'clock breakfast. As she arrived, she noted the awful, wind tunnel air stream which sweeps around the building, and against which you must battle to turn the corner into the godforsaken alleyway in which the Artsdepot sits, in urban isolation, opposite a sleazy pub closed last year, after years of associated drug dealing and anti-social behaviour, a bookies, and an array of empty shops.
The main entrance is hidden away from view, and there is no sign on any other side of the building, so, unless you know the Artsdepot is there, you won't find out. It seems to Mrs Angry that no one wants you to find out.
Entering the building is itself a metaphor for the self limitation of the Artsdepot: doors that appear to be accessible, but, rather bafflingly, do not open. Once inside the seemingly deserted building, however, Mrs Angry introduced herself to the solitary member of staff, and was escorted up a floor, to a lift, and to the locked door giving entry into the office area.
And there we stood, for several minutes, unable to enter. The code did not work. No one answered the phone. After an uncomfortably long wait, we were allowed in, and found the other bloggers and one or two other residents sat awkwardly around a table.
The Chief Executive, Tracy Cooper, gave us a long introduction to the history of the Artsdepot and her term of office there. She explained that the building, although owned by Barnet Council, was run by an agency, who were apparently to blame for the unlet units which add to the air of decline that characterises the area.
Funding was a real challenge, as the venue depended on grants, and although the theatre was selling a high level of tickets, it is not big enough to be commercially sustainable. Loss of council funding had been accompanied by similar cuts from other bodies,in one case with only three months notice, and Barnet College, a former tenant, had pulled out too. Then came the unsuccessful library proposal, and now there they were, struggling to survive.
Tracy Cooper then referred to last year's Olympic celebrations, and the performance in the park, which Mrs Angry remembers all too well, being liable to post traumatic flashbacks of portly men in dresses and wings and far too much make up, dressed as angels, swinging from a crane, and distributing fairy dust on the onlookers in Victoria Park, including our Tory councillors.
Ms Cooper was of the opinion that these angels had brought the Artsdepot good luck, because as if by magic, the London Studios Centre appeared from nowhere and took up a tenancy which was awfully useful, and saved them all from financial crisis.
So why is it, asked Mrs Angry, who was getting rather restless by now, that you are evicting Community Focus from the building?
And, added Reema Patel, a local lawyer and activist involved in the People's Library campaign, why, if you were upset to be given only three months notice of a loss of grant, have you given only three months notice to this group that they must quit the building?
And here was the reason we had been invited to the Artsdepot, it seemed. To be given their version of events, in a story that had huge potential for further negative publicity for the body.
Community Focus is a long established body, based in the Artsdepot, that offers a wide ranging, inclusive programme of arts activities to residents with all sorts of abilities and needs. They had discovered, almost by accident, that they are to be forced to leave their home and obliged to find a new venue, at very short notice.
The explanation for this removal was that the space given to this community group was now needed for other purposes. The London Studios Centre, which is a college of dance, wanted to expand and take another hundred students. It emerged that, rather astonishingly, this new proposal, keenly supported by Ms Cooper and her colleagues, will take over 50% of the building's footprint.
But surely, said Mrs Angry,: you must see that this situation looks appalling: an arts centre meant to serve the local community evicting a community based group working with disabled residents?
Yes, they saw that, but they argued that they had no choice, as without the extra revenue, they might not be able to continue.
It seemed madness, to Mrs Angry, to argue that in order for a community centre to survive, it must stop being a community centre, and become a commercial landlord for a dance college with no connection to the community.
Ms Cooper said last week, in an article in the local Times here that this 'partnership' with the London Studios Centre will enable Artsdepot to survive. In fact it is difficult to see exactly what will emerge from this new venture, but it will not be Artsdepot, so much as a new dance college, benefiting from the use of our community arts centre.
We asked if the Artsdepot management ever engaged with the wider community by, say, oh dear the word of the moment, consulting residents as to what they wanted from their arts centre. No, it appeared not. Had they tried to enlarge the theatre, and make it more commercially viable? No. Why did they not make the venue better known and more identifiable in its location with, say, oh, maybe a sign on the building? Thought about for a long time, apparently. Still thinking.
It was clear, in fact, that the management team of this arts centre were not, ironically, used to creative thought processes, lateral thinking, or imaginative approaches to problem solving. As we left the building, Mrs Angry could not help but think the inward facing architecture and inaccessibility of the Artsdepot is a reflection of the deeper problems contained within the structure itself: a community resource that has forgotten the function for which it was intended.
A few days later, Mrs Angry had the opportunity to hear the other side of the story, meeting representatives of Community Focus. Their long established arts based enterprise aims at a high level of challenge and achievement for those attending, offering experience in using all forms of media for artistic therapy, and enabling residents of all ages and backgrounds to explore their creativity. There is also an outreach programme which uses memory techniques to unlock the isolation of elderly residents with dementia, and a new programme forged in liason with the threatened Barnet Museum, using their collection of local history items.
Community Focus told Mrs Angry that the eviction of their organisation had followed a long history of difficult relations between Artsdepot and their own venture. It was clear that they felt unwelcome in the building, and that there was a real failure of communication between the two bodies. It emerged that the space they were being told to leave, where the various arts activities were run, was wanted not for the newly expanded dance college itself, but as administrative offices for Artsdepot management.
It is of course clearly a very upsetting and deeply worrying prospect for vulnerable residents with disabilities, including visual impairment, and learning difficulties, to learn that an activity which is central to their happiness and well being is being moved, with so little warning, and no information as to the location of a new home. Continuity is of vital importance for many people living with learning difficulties, and many users are already very distressed by this news.
The continuing uncertainty can only deepen such anxiety. Community Focus has nowhere to go, and they claim they have invested large sums of money - up to £100,000 - in making their accommodation at the Artsdepot suitable for disabled users, and in order to adapt the rooms for the activities in which they engage.
How can they afford to move, even if they can find a suitable property in time, and how will such a move affect their clients, many of whom are referrals from bodies such as Norwood, Mind, Mencap and similar? The eviction of this group from its home in the Artsdepot will also have an impact on future funding, as charitable bodies and other potential sources of backing are reluctant, and indeed in some cases unable, to give grants when a recipient has no security of tenure.
Mrs Angry understands that the Tory leader of Barnet Council, Richard Cornelius, is not happy at the threatened eviction of Community Focus, and has expressed his views to the Artsdepot management. Of course Barnet Tories are strongly inclined to jump at any opportunity to criticise the Artsdepot, but the truth is that it is not the building itself which is the problem, rather the way in which it is managed and funded. Cutting 100% of the council's budget does not entitle Cornelius to take a high moral stance with the management strategy, and he will surely not dare to ignore the fact that the Tory Big Society concept is laid bare by the horrible truth, an unavoidable truth, that the frenzy of cuts unleashed on voluntary bodies undermines their ability to do the work they have traditionally carried out, let alone take up the burden of responsibilities dumped by local and central government.
On level four of the Artsdepot there is a roof area, watched over by a sculpture: a man made of pebbles, sitting still, his hands placed carefully on his knees, caught forever in a moment, immobile, turning his back on the view. And so stands our Artsdepot, in not so very splendid isolation: a building meant for culture, art and performance, and meant for the use of the community, abandoned by Tory funding, and pimped for rent money to a commercial client, divesting itself of the one purpose which gives it credibility and a role within the community, the inclusion of our most vulnerable residents in the process of creativity and artistic expression.
It is the perfect symbol of the broken spirit of Broken Barnet.
Let's sort this out, shall we?
Mrs Angry has now looked at the Artsdepot details on the Charity Commission website here. The trustees are listed as follows:
Samuel Lewis Jacobs
Martin Laurence Hughes Norwood
Mrs Angry has never heard of any of them before, frankly, and is not certain that this board is in any way representative of the diverse and differently abled community that we have in this borough. Does that matter? Yes, pretty evidently.
After the departure this month of Sue Wyatt, who is, interestingly, a former CEO of Ballet Rambert, and has much experience in dance management, the interim Chair of Artsdepot has just been announced as Jamie Lester, who works in dispute resolution for Hunters.
An apt choice, one might think, in the circumstances.