Rural touring is not a participatory art, but it is participatory culture. Why the distinction? Because in rural touring participation occurs not in the creation of art but in its management – and that, in its way, can be just as important to cultural democracy.
I first heard of rural touring 15 years ago, when Ralph Lister (of Take Art in Somerset) and Ian Scott (then running Artreach in Dorset) asked me if I’d be interested in undertaking some research for the National Rural Touring Forum. NRTF brings together independent arts organisations working across the UK to support live professional performances in rural areas. There are about 35 of them, some small, some large, working with communities from Cornwall to Scotland. In 2014, they helped 278,000 people see theatre, dance, music and other art in 2,400 different villages and rural towns.
The shows, which happen in local halls, churches, pubs and schools, are always good, often powerful and sometimes extraordinary. That’s partly because the small scale suits certain kinds of performer – experienced companies making work specifically for rural audiences, young artists with fresh ideas and seasoned ones with their own following. There are also NRTF commissions (recently in contemporary dance) that extend that offer. But seeing a show in a village hall is also about community. The audience is small, and people tend to know one another, This intimacy can be risky – it’s painfully obvious if the show isn’t working. But the experience can also be very intense, and many performances that stay in my mind today I saw in these rural venues.
What has this to do with cultural democracy or participation? It’s about how the shows are put on. The rural touring schemes have invented an approach to promoting that gives local communities real power over what they want to see. The shows are programmed by volunteers – often village hall committees, sometimes informal groups – who also choose the venue, publicise the performance, sell tickets and host the artists and audience on the night. They share the financial risk and keep any surplus to invest in the next event. Most promoters – and there are about 2,400 in the UK now – put on two to six shows a year. They choose what they think the community will enjoy from a menu selected by the touring scheme, which handles the contracts with the companies and other practicalities. The result is a local arts programme that is valued in the communities where it happens because they make the important decisions about it.
Between 2004 and 2014, rural touring audiences, promoters and performances all grew by about 45%, despite cuts in public funding. Today, rural touring managers, voluntary promoters and artists gather in Nottingham for their annual conference, which takes its theme from Robert Frost: ‘Freedom lies in being bold’. One mark of that boldness is the launch of the Rural Touring Awards, which recognise the dedication of just some of the thousands who make the arts part of everyday life in rural Britain.
Not participatory art then, but a genuinely participatory culture and one more strand in democratic social life.
To read my past work on rural touring, please click on the links below:
- Only Connect, Arts Touring and Rural Communities (2004, PDF 5.2mb)
- A Wider Horizon, Creative Arts East and Rural Touring (2005, PDF 5mb)
All the images on this page are by Rosie Redzia and taken from ‘A Wider Horizon’.