TAITMAIL Who is Surrey, what is she?

How can your neighbourhood’s ambitions for a cultural presence be realised, with the conventional sources of help - local authorities facing bankruptcy and central government turning a blind eye - unavailable?

Do it yourself.

“Surprising Surrey” includes the unsuspected deep poverty in the likes of Sheerwater and the Park Barn Estate as well as the grandeur of Grange Park Opera near Leatherhead, and the well-appointed dormitory towns that feed London. It also has the largest vineyard in the country.  

And it’s the title of a ten-year cultural strategy launched this week devised to give the county its profile.  “Surrey is often thought of as just ‘the bit near London’” says one of the architects if the strategy, Gavin Stride, CEO of the Farnham Maltings arts centre until a 2022. “We want to define ourselves by where we are rather than where we’re not”.  

The strategy is the creation of the two-year-old Surrey Cultural Partnership (SCP), a collective of people working in the arts and culture in the county, with representatives from business, education, health, criminal justice and local government, co-chaired by Stride and Perdita Hunt, the former director of the Watts Gallery near Guildford.

As local authorities around England pore over their responsibilities to see what can be cut as they confront bankruptcy - with the non-statutory arts and culture often leaping first to the culling knife - the arts and culture of this county have decided to ignore that particular angst and address the generation-long problem (as identified by Stride) of using arts, culture and creativity to improve well-being and sense of place in Surrey.

In what seems wholly appropriate for Surrey, the whole thing began with the Lord Lieutenant of the county, Michael More-Molyneux, who in June 2021 called a zoom conference to discuss how individuals and organisations could help each other recover from the social effects of Covid and lockdown. Perdita Hunt, who also happens to be Surrey’s Deputy Lieutenant, and Stride saw this self-help approach as the way to make culture the key to a better tomorrow.  In January 2022 they founded the SCP whose first act was to commission Marilyn Scott, former director of the award-winning Lightbox in Woking, to write a report from which has come the strategy.

She went through the county’s assets and failings with a fine-tooth comb, visited other borough and county cultural projects (she was particularly impressed by Kent, Sussex and Manchester) and found basic failings for culture in the local government model. Arts and culture don’t get definition in most policies, sitting quietly in silos hidden within other social/community offices, and cultural organisations of all sizes have been working in isolation. In the absence of realistic council funding, trusts and foundations have become vital sources of grants, but few small arts organisations have any idea of how to apply or develop a fundraising programme that would impress a funder, and there was nowhere in the county/borough set-up to get advice. It’s not that councils are anti-culture; they just don’t know its potential or how to deal with it.

Although there is a new culture fund embedded in the Surprising Surrey strategy, Stride insists that “it’s not about money at all. It’s about moving forwards with collaboration and co-operation as much as it is about investment”. 

Actually it is about money, in that Surrey has been way down the list for funding agencies like the National Lottery and the Arts Council. ACE’s per capita spend in Surrey is the lowest against Kent, Sussex, Hampshire, Bedfordshire and Buckinghamshire, and Surrey has six National Portfolio Organisations compared with 21 in Kent, 28 in Sussex and 23 in Hampshire, as well as the lowest National Lottery Heritage Fund investment. The cultural spend of the county itself is unclear because whatever spend there is gets spread across different departments. But it’s not useful to sulk about that: you have to find out why and fix it.

Among the partners the SCP has chummed up with is the Community Foundation for Surrey, and Hunt is working closely with its CEO Rebecca Bowden. “Our research into the current funding landscape for Surrey makes sobering reading” Bowden says. “It is clear that for too long our county has been overlooked by a number of national funders. What is also clear, though, is the huge variety and vibrancy of the arts and culture sector in Surrey and we believe that there is therefore huge potential to come together to develop a new fund – by and for the sector.”

The SCP’s mission statement is simple:
*To improve quality of life and wellbeing by reducing barriers to creative experiences
*To use culture to raise the conditions, capacities and ambition of us all
*To provide support for creative practitioners and groups
*To attract visitors
*To attract new investment to fund more creative activity and access to culture

The SCP believes engaging with culture can develop people’s confidence, improve their emotional health and wellbeing by providing activities, develop their skills, create economic benefits by developing cultural tourism and creative industries, give people a sense of their collective past, grow aspirations, develop partnerships and joint learning.

As a dynamo for change it sounds elusive, but the strategy has already swung into action. The SCP is actively creating partnerships and drawing organisations together to develop projects.  This includes how to apply for grants and to whom (the successful Watts Gallery has a module on how to do this), making a marketing /PR advocacy plan, encouraging an awards programme, creating a skills/volunteer bank (too many small organisations can’t afford to hire the talent they need to grow), build a year-round cultural programme, and so on. Open networking meetings have already begun.

“We will raise the profile of Surrey as a creatively vibrant set of towns and villages” the SCP declares in the strategy. “We will show the value of culture more effectively and widely – recognising its contribution to health and wellbeing, social care, healthy communities, social justice, social prescribing and empowering disadvantaged young people.”

Surrey is a place of perceived affluence and privilege, but it has unexpected areas of deprivation, marginalisation, disenfranchisement and disconnection – Woking has already declared itself bankrupt and other councils in difficulty include Runnymede, Surrey Heath, Spelthorne and Guildford itself, the county town.  Yet it is also rich in history, culture and the arts, whose sometimes famous assets such as Pinewood Studios and Brooklands sit side-by-side with Stopgap Dance Co and Music in Hospitals & Care but, until now, unconnected.

There are other cultural plans in other regions and counties, but this one has come from ground zero to full flight in two years largely through a process of talking to itself. “It is a rallying cry to all those who believe in the power and the impact of the arts in changing lives in our county” says Hunt. 

Will central government take notice and give support, like maybe Levelling Up money? Maybe. I gather that the culture minister, Lord Parkinson, has asked for a copy of Surprising Surrey, and the MP for the now marginal seat of South West Surrey will be aware. He is a certain former culture secretary who happens to be Chancellor of the Exchequer.

Image shows Optohedron by Will Nash, credit John Miller and Surrey Hills Arts

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