An Interview with Sarah Robertson, Director of Communications and Special Projects at Colston Hall

TB Agent Hannah Nicholls interviews Sarah Robertson, the Director of Communications and Special Projects at Colston Hall, about the role and the relationship between the venue and its audience.

Whilst I was at the People, Place, Power conference at a Theatre Bristol Agent I attended a talk entitled: ‘Building reciprocal relationships: venues and the connection with their communities.’ Sarah read a case study looking at the current re-naming of Bristol’s main music venue Colston Hall. It was a fascinating insight into an arts organisation with a small team under pressure to communicate effectively with its audiences. I think everyone in the room felt like they had experienced something similar, the resounding feeling that we are just humans trying to do the right thing. We had a good chat afterwards and Sarah kindly agreed to be interviewed. So reflecting on the conference more generally I asked her some questions around the themes of power, collaboration, ownership, relevance and place within the arts in Bristol.

Can you tell us a bit about what working in the arts in Bristol means to you?

I feel like I’m really lucky to be able to have a challenging, changing and creative career in the arts in Bristol. Bristol is rightly seen as a creative place and a hub for artists, but it isn’t a city like Manchester or Liverpool, which attracts significant amounts of funding or investment. Those working in the arts in Bristol have to work that little bit harder to get projects off the ground, but that means there’s a real sense of collaboration and collective ambition here.

Can you describe one artwork or project created in Bristol that was particularly powerful and why?

It’s an organisation more than a project, but I am constantly in awe of the creativity of Bristol producers MAYK, and in particular their festival of contemporary theatre Mayfest. They are a tight team who bring the best in national and international theatre to the city which is wonderful in itself, but they also carefully curate a Bristol centred programme, highlighting the best work happening in the city. I didn’t see enough of their shows this year, but I was impressed by the ambition of Unlimited’s commission with The Paraorchestra and Friends, The Nature of Why and PALMYRA, which had my brain ticking over on so many levels on my walk home.

Are there any projects coming up at Colston Hall that look at the placement and distribution of power?

Colston Hall is in a strange situation at the moment because we have closed our main hall and Lantern buildings for a two-year transformation project. This means we are doing fewer shows than in previous years, and our focus has shifted to making sure that we have the right organisational set up to run our building and programme post 2020. This is a liberating moment for us, and we are using this opportunity to really think about what kind of arts organisation our audiences want us to be and how we make this happen. This work will absolutely incorporate issues of power – who holds it within arts organisations and who should hold it. We are really thinking about issues of inclusion and diversity in the organisation and have various initiatives in the pipeline – diversifying our workforce and board and commissioning diverse artistic perspectives for our opening programme for example.

At the conference you talked about the relationship between audiences and venues, can you talk about how Colston Hall aims to empower its audience?

The concert hall model is an interesting one, because by its nature many of its audiences just come to see their favourite artist at the venue once a year. So the way in which we can work to gain closer relationships with audiences is a bit different than in other spaces such as theatres.

One of the main ways we can empower audiences is by listening to them. When we announced the decision to change our name, many of the people who got in touch with us were from Bristol’s older audiences, some of whom feel that their voices aren’t being heard above the prevalent opinions of the liberal mainstream. As our programme has developed over the past 5 years we are seeing less of the artists who used to play at the Hall visiting us, and perhaps those audience members are feeling less engaged and involved with the venue. Our thinking around our mission, vision and values will involve a huge amount of public consultation, and we are making sure that we listen to a variety of voices in this process, including those who don’t feel as close to us as they would like.

What would you say are the main challenges for arts venues trying to connect with new audiences?

Again, as a one night venue we have a particular situation and take on new audiences. Because we attract some of the biggest names in rock and pop we don’t have trouble getting new audiences into our venue. The issue for us is making sure there is a pathway through our programme so they can a) see another of their favourite artists here and that b) we can encourage them to trust us and try something different. As we don’t have an orchestra or theatre company internally making this work, we have to work closely with our partner organisations and promoters to ensure that they are bringing us concerts that fit as part of the programme and addresses our audience’s specific requirements. Partnerships and collaborations are key for venues like ours.

A number of organisations in Bristol including Colston Hall are going through big changes are the moment. How would you say they are addressing the question of ownership when thinking about their futures?

I’d say that issues of ownership and power are issues that many of Bristol’s arts organisations are addressing. Arnolfini have literally opened up their building directly to customers with their front room and by asking audiences directly what they need the organisation to be in their new world. Bristol Old Vic are making great strides in talking to more diverse audiences with new work such as The Meaning of Zong in the autumn and by going directly into communities to listen to their views with the City Conversations. And our consortium partner St George’s Bristol are working closely with Ujima and Chineke! to develop really interesting projects such as their Diversity in Music conference and their Sisters With Voices concerts. As well as the consultation work with new audiences Colston Hall is working with community leaders to make our foyer space available for groups to use, and we are really pioneering work with young musicians with special educational needs and disabilities in our new National Centre for Inclusive Excellence.

As a city we’re all thinking more widely about whose voices are not heard more loudly in the cultural sector. What would you say are the three most important things that make an arts venue and its programme relevant both to the local community and the wider world?

a. Having a balanced but dual focus on quality and audiences – i.e. what our audiences want from us might mean that we have to stretch our wider view of artistic quality. The best organisations have a strong artistic vision but also have room for wider views.

b. Having a strong learning and engagement programmes that link the practical and local with the wider programme.

c. Collaboration and partnership working – by making sure we’re working with local arts organisations and artists we can ensure that the best and most ambitious local artists are represented on our stages and have a chance to develop.

What are your main challenges as Communications and Special Projects Director at Colston Hall, and what has been your best moment in the role?

I’m a huge music lover so I could talk endlessly the about the incredible concerts I’ve been to since working here. So obviously the music is a huge positive for me. Away from our stages, our name change is simultaneously the best and most challenging moment in the role. We absolutely did the right thing in making the change and our being brave in tackling the situation makes me really proud. That’s not to say it was easy to deal with. The days after our announcement when we were under extreme scrutiny were some of the hardest in my professional career. It’s been a huge learning curve and has made me a better arts leader, but it was very hard.

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