What next? Culture for Eastbourne

At Associates we are conscious that when we take on consultancy work we could easily fall into the ‘here today, gone tomorrow’ trap consultants across all sectors have to negotiate. Appearing at the behest of the head of an organisation, conducting some interviews, holding some meetings … observing … and then going away and writing a report goes so far, but it inevitably raises a big question – What next?

Our work with Eastbourne County Council to develop a cultural framework for the area provides a great example of how we tried to avoid this trap – while also delivering the traditional consultancy work that was expected.

When we arrived in Eastbourne, we found a creative sector essentially working in silos – there was little joined-up thinking, and as a result there were almost no efforts to unite and address in an effective way the challenges of a seaside town with diminishing resources for the arts.

Our first idea was to create a narrative for arts and culture across the town – one that described Eastbourne and the surrounding area as a place not just that people retired to, but one that was attracting young people from an ever more expensive London. In particular, families were arriving, seeking reasonably priced accommodation – a point of difference from other seaside towns within reach of the capital, such as Margate and Folkestone, which seemed to have attracted more individuals.

And that’s where we could have left our work: develop an arts and culture programme for a changing demographic. But we realised that in our wake would hover that big question: What next?

So we addressed the question directly and set up a ‘What Next?’ group: a chapter who could lobby together about arts policy, and in which everyone in the town could have a voice.

What really made a difference to this model, though, was that we brought in artist Jim Byford, not only to host this group, but to stay in Eastbourne long after we, the consultants, had left.

Jim, a virtual reality artist who builds collaborative working into his own practice, was the ideal choice for the What Next? group in Eastbourne, working with the area’s artists, its long-term residents and newcomers to the town to work out how they could support each other to ensure cultural life in the area continued as local authority support waned. Jim also led a working group, made up not of arts leaders in the town, but of active arts practitioners – who could work together to seek out and apply for funding and resources from national pots and programmes.

So what did happen next, after we left Eastbourne in the hands of its community and its artists? Creatives in the town are still struggling – in company with much of the sector across the country – but Jim is still there, working with social enterprises and the Devonshire Collective of artists to maintain sector-wide relationships, share space and develop new initiatives. And the town is home to the Blue Monkey Network – a membership organisation through which the area’s artists can support each other.

So … what next? you might ask. We can’t say, but we do know that Eastbourne’s creatives can face it together.