What is the Fairfield for?

By - Wednesday 16th December, 2015

The South Bank of south London? As the announcement of its two-year closure for renovation is debated, Anna Arthur considers possible futures for the Fairfield Halls

Fairfield Halls has been the topic of much debate in recent years. It seems that anyone and everyone has an opinion on what it does and whom it’s for. It undoubtedly holds a special place in the hearts of many, especially those that grew up in the borough and got to perform on the stage of the concert hall. All my three children have at some point sung and played instruments to a packed house of proud parents, and very lucky I thought they were too.

The current proposals to close the halls from June 2016 for two years to complete extensive refurbishments have reignited the debate over its role in our community. It’s a few years since discussion over these plans and how money was being raised to enable them (i.e. the sell-off of parts of the Riesco porcelain collection) caused considerable controversy and became a catalyst for the founding of Croydon Arts Network. CAN now seeks to provide a platform for local artists and a focal point for information.

Recent comments by Chief Executive Simon Thomsett over whether the halls should close completely for two years for renovation or whether a phased redevelopment should be implemented reveal disagreement between the management of Fairfield and the council which owns the building. It’s not the first time that the council has been accused of being heavy handed in its dealings with the venue. However this process is managed, my interest is in what happens when the halls re-open. (Let’s hope that talk of them never re-opening is a glass-half-empty prediction.)

Croydon’s arts ecology is a fragile one

What will take place in the re-opened halls is of paramount importance to discuss now, because that will dictate how the redevelopment pans out. For example, if the focus is to work more closely with artists, then the development should include state-of-the-art rehearsal rooms with technical facilities built in, sound studios, editing suites and space to build sets. Or if the organisations wants to increase its ability to present touring works, then what’s missing in Croydon is a 250 seat black box studio. Which leads me nicely onto this…

Croydon’s arts ecology is a fragile one. There is very little Arts Council England money in the borough and a gaping chasm between our small venues (the Spread Eagle pub theatre, Theatre Utopia at Matthews Yard) that seat forty to sixty people and the five hundred plus seats at the Ashcroft Theatre. (If I learnt anything recently from producing the recent CroydoNites theatre festival in Croydon, it’s that we lack well equipped small performance spaces.) This gap, once filled by the Warehouse Theatre and the cultural programme at the Clocktower, means that a massive swathe of work cannot visit Croydon because there simply isn’t a suitable venue. Personally I think that a borough as big as ours can sustain a number of venues and would welcome the re-emergence of the Warehouse theatre to fill this gap, or a flexible performance space at Fairfield.

But let’s not kid ourselves here. Running a venue like Fairfield would be hard anywhere in the country, let alone on the outskirts of London. It gets no Arts Council funding and one consequence is that it cannot offer tickets at a reduced premium, a luxury that the South Bank can afford. Word of mouth testifies that the Fairfield Halls have a loyal audience of older patrons who enjoy music in one of the best auditoriums in the country, but amongst my peers I know few who regularly visit and I’m sure that there is plenty of work to be done to attract a broader and younger audience.

Fill the building with artists, musicians and theatre makers

Key to this are artists.

Fill the building with artists, musicians and theatre makers. Offer them residencies, rehearsal and production facilities and help with administration and marketing. In turn they can work with local community groups and schools. Let’s have a theatre company based at Fairfield Halls that we can watch develop and grow, that we can invest in emotionally, that we can be proud of. Let’s be more adventurous and contemporary in the choice of works; we are a borough that’s hungry for new ideas and we don’t always want to get on the train to central London to experience them.

By now I’m sure that many of you are shouting: “So where’s the money going to come from?”. The good news is that in the recent government spending review, the Arts Council had its grant protected and the kind of activity that I’ve described is ripe for some public subsidy. On the other hand, I believe that we need to get serious about our priorities for health and wellbeing. Reams of evidence connect the arts to health benefits and doctors tell their patients to take up a craft or go to the theatre in order to improve their lives. So when politicians tell us that we can have either an arts programme or more nurses, it’s disingenuous (and lazy).

I have big hopes for Fairfield. It plays an important role at the top of the cultural tree. However, we should demand that the whole arts ecology in Croydon will benefit from the huge regeneration that’s coming to the borough. The arts bring our town alive, and right now there are scores of grass root arts activities surviving on sheer will and self-financing. Man (and woman) cannot live by retail alone.

A petition has now been started to keep the Halls open during the process of renovation. Click here to find out more.

Anna Arthur

Anna Arthur

Anna Arthur is a mum of three, dog owner and director of Croydonites Festival of New Theatre. Born in the north-east, she grew up just outside of Portsmouth but London and Croydon have been her home for over 20 years. She also works in contemporary dance, but don’t hold that against her.

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