Heritage & Culture

Why doesn’t Peterborough have an arts centre?

Jumped Up Theatre’s Kate Hall poses the question of Peterborough's lack of an arts centre

It has three theatres, one cinema (another on its way), a city museum and art gallery. But that’s it for purpose-built spaces. And one of the theatres was built as a sports hall – another one as a cinema. The museum used to be a private home and then a hospital, though the gallery space was purpose-built. We do have numerous community centres, some thriving, some clinging on, which welcome arts events with open arms. A number of churches host arts events, from the Cathedral and St John’s in the city centre, to the Church of the Holy Spirit in Bretton. There are also spaces adapted to show visual art, from the tiny 62 Gladstone Street (which was a video shop) to the light and airy Norman Cross Gallery (which were outbuildings). And there are lots of pubs, bars and cafes which host poetry and music nights. We also have a theatre and street-art studio in empty retail space in the form of The Undercroft in Hampton, and I have written before how we have a wealth of street and public art, some official and some not, scattered across the city.

What’s great about many of these community venues and events that pop-up all over the city is that they can, sometimes, take art and culture right into communities, landing opportunities and inspiration on the doorsteps of people who might not otherwise engage. But what’s not so great is that these locations are often severely compromised, affecting how audiences and participants experience the arts and culture offer. They also lack visibility and can seem closed off to people who don’t already belong to those settings.

The compromise on locations starts with practical considerations, from being cold and uncomfortable, to being inaccessible to wheelchair users or people without cars, or having inadequate car parking, or even no toilets. The compromise also affects the quality of experience, such as sound from outside bleeding in, no blackouts or performers getting changed in toilets. I saw a show recently where my full-priced seat faced an empty void and a lighting rack. I won’t be back in that venue for a while. This compromise doesn’t affect all shows and exhibitions. Some are robust enough to cope with being presented in what is known as ‘non-traditional spaces’.

But it does limit what can be offered, and therefore narrows the cultural experiences of the city. These limitations might be expected on rural touring circuits and small seaside towns, but not in a city of the size and growth of Peterborough. Where is the space to display, and sell, local visual arts and craft? RIP Art In The Heart. Where is the fully accessible music venue (i.e. no stairs) where it is possible to have a dance, as well as stand or sit at the back and tap your foot? The Brewery Tap is probably the closest to this, but it needs a music promoter that brings acts other than tribute and cover bands. Where is the space for young performers to grow and develop their work and audiences?

Metal and The Undercroft do this to a certain degree but the ideal location, the studio space at The Key Theatre, has financial constraints on its use and no staff to support artist development. The lack of a purpose-built art space also has a significant impact on the profile of arts and culture in the city – it needs a visible, physical anchor, reminding audiences of the option of enriching lives with entertainment and creativity. An arts centre also offers the possibility of different art-forms rubbing alongside each other, growing audiences for the arts, creating a more sustainable scene for all the venues and organisations in the city. An arts centre also has the welcoming vibe of a community centre, so is perfect for new audiences and to support community cohesion. In a city with a young population, low incomes and so many different communities, isn’t this a vibe it would be great to have? But those who seek it aren’t being provided for. We may have lost the mill on Fletton Quays to luxury flats, but where’s the Plan B? If the council thought this was a good idea, what’s the alternative? I may not have provided the answer to the question of why Peterborough hasn’t got an arts centre, but we do know what it’s missing out on by not having one.

Kate Hall, Creative Producer, Jumped Up Theatre @jumpeduptheatre @Platform8PBO

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