Milton Keynes - international festival city

Written on .

AI PROFILE: Monica Ferguson, chief executive and artistic director of The Stables, Milton Keynes

The sun will shine on Milton Keynes’s IF festival,it usually does, but there is a cloud on its horizon. The Stables, which produces the festival, is the music venue set up by John Dankworth and Cleo Laine in the grounds of their home at Wavendon near Milton Keynes in 1970, is the hub of the IF, but if planning permission is granted to a proposed building plan to its west it may have to close before it can celebrate its half century

It will be a tragedy both for Dame Cleo, the centre’s president who at 90 still gives an annual children’s concert at the venue, and its chief executive Monica Ferguson, who rescued it from bankruptcy when she arrived 15 years ago. 

“It’s a headache” she says “but we have had fantastic support, and we're hoping that by the time of the planning hearing (expected in September) an alternative scheme will have been devised”. In the last couple of weeks Milton Keynes Council has had over 2,000 letters objecting to the current plan for new housing directly in front of The Stables’ entrance. 

The Stables was set up in their barn by Sir John, who died in 2010, and Dame Cleo as a music venue that hosted the likes of Dave Brubeck, Courteney Pine, Nigel Kennedy and James Galway. In 2000 it had a major lottery grant to rebuild it, with a 398 seat auditorium, a studio and a foyer, and in 2007 there was a major upgrade creating stage2 and a café/bar.

But in 2003 it was near to going broke, when Monica Ferguson arrived as the new chief executive. Born into a farming family in Kirkaldy, Fife, where Gordon Brown’s father was their minister, she had a difficult childhood having been born with a mis-shapen hip and shoulder that took operations and physiotherapy to correct, at least enough to continue a normal childhood, although her right arm is still three inches shorter than her left, making it a challenge to play her accordion (at university she started her own ceilidh). “You learn to deal with it” she says simply.

Teachers told her she wasn’t good enough to follow her dream, a career in music, but she persevered and left the University of Aberdeen with a music degree. She became the sales manager of a local music shop and played at weddings, but though she was a singer at university she felt uncomfortable as a performer and looked for a place behind the artistic scenes. She was accepted by City University in London to do an arts management diploma.

After a spell in arts marketing she became executive director of Youth & Music, the charity that offered discounts to art events for the under-25s, through the Stage Pass scheme, before it was closed down. Then she did the really hard yards, first as principal arts officer for Bedford Borough Council. “I led the development of a cultural strategy and supported the development of Bedford Community Arts widening the engagement opportunities with professional artists. It was very interesting strategically, learning how local authorities work and getting to understand the politics of why decisions are made and how to navigate around complex systems and processes. It bored the living daylights out of me, the pace was so slow compared to working in a venue”. 

Then she ran the Watersmeet Theatre at Rickmansworth which she got refurbished only for the local authority to make cuts and plan to close it down. The decision brought a demonstration by “The Ladies of Rickmansworth” discreetly prompted by Ferguson, that overturned the closure plans and it's still open today.

“Working in small scale venues at the start of my career was a great training ground. It meant you had to learn everything from opening the doors to locking up at night, turning your hand to things like operating the projector if someone didn’t turn up for a shift. That hands-on experience helps me to understand what problems the wider team might be facing. It was completely invaluable” Ferguson says. “There have been tough times, but mostly there have been good enough bits along the journey to keep you motivated.

“The biggest rewards are watching the audience at the end of the day, the impact you make on an individual, how the artist engages with an audience, and how the audience responds is what keeps me going.”

In 2003 the ad appeared for the vacant CEO post at The Stables, and Ferguson jumped into a new challenge. The venue had a large capital debt from the new building and was losing £100,000 a year. She had to make most of the staff redundant. “The business plan had been far too ambitious, and we couldn't even pay bills” she says. “We had to restructure, the Arts Council were very helpful, and by the end of 2004 we were breaking even”.  

The Stables was, and remains, an ACE NPO, and part of the rescue plan was to finish the development, with a new lottery award that brought the second space into play with more hires and events. She raised the 120 gigs a year of 2003 to 400, and building a £2m reserve to support on-going maintenance and the development of the venue’s artistic vision. And the temporary finance director she brought in at the start, Kirsti Roberts, has remained a vital part of the team, taking on the additional role of deputy CEO.

One of the key tasks was to cement a firm partnership with the local authority, and other organisations in the borough - including the football club MK Dons which grew out of a music residency in Milton Keynes’s bid to be a host city for the World Cup.

One of The Stables’ significant contributions to Milton Keynes – nearly a city with a population of 250,000 - has been the biennial festival, the first of which took place, slightly hesitantly, in 2010 and the 5fth edition comes next month with the kind of ambitious programme over ten days that goes with having an audience of approaching a quarter of a million in 2016 and an audacious bid to be European Capital of Culture in 2023. The Stables team expands to deliver the festival and Ferguson credits the vastly experienced independent producer Bill Gee  for playing a major role in its development.

For a venue invented by two giants of jazz music, there is precious little jazz in the programme - the planning of which began when Milton Keynes was expecting to bid to be the 2023 European Capital of Culture – but there is almost everything else: folk music, dance, theatre, comedy, circus, puppetry, acrobatics.

It has a pronounced European feel, with a parade of giant spiders through the boulevards, a circus hub in the centre:mk’s Middleton Hall, a sound and light installation, For The Birds in Linford Park Wood, and the Spiegfeltent in Campbell Park. And for the first time Milton Keynes Theatre will be part of the programme, presenting an extraordinary wordless but musical performance engaging the audience by the Dutch Scheigman& with Slagwerk Den Haag. There’ll be more drama in a shipping container, and even concerts at The Stables,

But the highlight is likely to be another Ditch theatre maker, Dries Verhoeven with Phobiaramawith a truly scary ghost train ride.

“We want to take the festival audience on the next part of their journey, and I felt it was important to add more significant artists to Milton Keynes” says Ferguson. “Many of the events are free, and there are digital platforms with worldwide audience opportunities people from elsewhere are joining online. But IF: Milton Keynes International Festival is rooted in the foundations of The Stables, the landscape and the people of Milton Keynes.”









Posted in Features