When are the arts not the arts? When there’s no option.

All the way back in July I wrote a blog about proposals to significantly upgrade the existing Desborough Suite in Maidenhead Town Hall and turn it into a multi-function arts centre. Of course, by ‘arts’, all attention is turned to the needs and requirements of performers – music, theatre and, of course, *cough* musical theatre. But I’ll swear my way through that subject in a minute…

Over a period of time these proposals became less of a concept and a solid document of proposals was drafted, distributed, read and became the subject of an ‘interesting’ amateur PR campaign that included cracking it out for discussion at tourism meetings, MaDAC get-togethers and more council meetings than you could shake the proverbial stick at. Working, perhaps, on the principle of ‘there’s nothing so absurd that if you repeat it often enough people will believe it’.

This lengthy and, frankly, over-excitable set of ideas somehow managed to be progressed and at great public expense consultants were appointed to ‘appraise’ the options available for the Desborough Suite.

‘Options’ suggests that there are alternatives. That there may be a selection of routes that could be taken. That there is flexibility. And the very purpose of appointing of a consultant to make that appraisal is to have an independent assessment of the viability of a selection of Options and make recommendations that are likely to be the most workable, based on research and expert knowledge. In short, they are there to make sure that over-enthusiasm doesn’t fuck everything up for the rest of us.

Sadly, the appointed consultants were not presented with a selection of options. Only one. The original plan that would see the theatre capacity increased, a second small theatre built etc etc etc. The idea being that it would be a community arts facility for the use of residents. But no matter how often you cut and paste the word ‘community’ into your proposals, the facts remain:

We already have a two-theatre art centre in Maidenhead.

A second art centre of the nature proposed would cost a bloody fortune to put in place.

These costs would have to be justified by ensuring that the new centre was self-supporting and potentially profit-making.

This means charging a realistic rate for its use.

This will, in all likelihood, be a much higher rate than at present.

The community groups it is purported to exist for will be out priced.

New Centre sits empty.

Then naturally the centre will have no choice but to turn to a professional programme, sinking Norden Farm Centre for the Arts in the process. Anyone with half a fucking brain and a loose grasp of The Cost Of Stuff will be able to work out, as DCA did, that if you have a fixed amount of people spending money on A Thing Over There and suddenly they are presented with A Thing Over Here, the chances are that a significant quantity of the fixed amount of people will find the Thing Over Here more convenient to them. It’s why Tesco fucking Express exists FFS. And fuckers they may be, but they’re seriously clever money-making fuckers.

Obviously the consultants explained this in a far less sweary and infinitely more professional manner than I, but the end result is the same: less for everyone, largely unpopular and highly risky. Which obviously means that instead of saying ‘ahhh…back to the drawing board’, they are going to plough on regardless and invest seventy five thousand pounds in a ‘feasibility study’. They should chuck the money at me, I’d have a fuck off great party for the whole town and then present the council with a sheet of A4 paper saying ‘Peeling the skin off my arse and firing it at the moon makes more sense than this ridiculous proposal. Please send more money, we’ve run out of WKD. Regards, Maidenhead’.

All these HUMUNGOUS flaws (and my constant desire for a colossal piss-up) aside and pretending for a second that Norden Farm is not even a consideration, I was also thoroughly piss-boilingly angry to note that at some point in the proceedings somebody must have raised their hand sheepishly and said “erm…we should probably have a gallery shouldn’t we? Those painters and whatnot are getting rather shouty these days.”

And so the most perfunctory nod was given to visual arts by tacking on a bit of space in which to hang work. Given that the original proposal drafted by Councillor Claire Stretton goes into some detail about the technical improvements required by the theatre, there is nary a sniff of a mention of any professional hanging specifications, lighting, provision of a technician, curation or any of the other considerations that come along with the installation of a gallery. Give the annoying bastards some walls. That’ll keep them happy.

To be fair, one mustn’t look a gift horse in the mouth and a gallery is always a nice thing to have, afterthought or not, but artists are bloody resourceful on the whole and have proven time and again that they can chuck together a show using an empty fag packet and a roll of gaffer tape. What is sorely lacking in Maidenhead is adequate working space for artists. Studios.

Now this is the point at which I start to get really tetchy.

Artists need studios like musicians and actors need rehearsal space. It is the place in which all practise their art. It is where 90% of the work of being an artist is achieved.

So why in the Desborough Suite Proposals are only the performing artists afforded this working space? Where is the provision for artists’ studios? DCA give the idea a cursory line or two, but it’s not being tabled as a given. It’s utterly, gobfuckingly, astounding and totally shitting astonishing that on the one hand (as happened today, in fact) Art on the Street’s 43,000 footfall gets everyone’s drawers damp with joy and whacking on endlessly about it being proof of Maidenhead’s ‘Arts USP’ (fucksake), yet when it comes down to investing cold hard cash visual artists are almost completely sidelined in favour of Hello fucking Dolly and the cunting Mikado.

I’ve been banging on like a faulty cat flap for months about what the amazing opportunity that’s being missed here. There is room for everyone at the Desborough Suite. It doesn’t have to be a passive facility relying on ticket sales, marketing budgets and footfall. It can be a place to work, 24 hours a day. It can provide support to communities, education, outreach, collaborative working, integrated approaches and a partridge in a fucking pear tree. The beauty of this approach is that it requires little up front investment and has the potential to pay for itself.

Because, let’s face it, there’s only so many £75,000 bills for poxy feasibility studies that the tax payer is willing to foot before they feel like they’re being taken for a mug.

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