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Education Culture & Sport
Highland Council - Caithness
Vision of Caithness
4.2 The Needs of the Community
4.2.1 The needs of the community can be identified by analysis of the number of people in the resident population and of the research and consultation conducted for this Arts Development Study. They are addressed more fully in Section 6: Developing the Vision.
4.2.2 The people of Caithness are enthusiastic amateur participants in the arts, with a wide range of theatre groups, art societies, bands, choirs and music-making organisations. Many people refer to attendance at weekly arts activities and the variety of opportunities to participate. All these people have specific needs to enable them to participate, create and present. Long term, a balance needs to be struck between the provision in the community - in the villages - and provision accessible to the whole district, probably located in Wick and Thurso. In fact there is evidence from the list of venues identified by respondents in Appendix 3 to this report that smaller venues are widely used despite their limited resources. As will be seen, the major issue raised relates to the nature and quality of venues available in Thurso and Wick. This does not, however, mitigate the need for adequate facilities in all the communities.
4.2.3 A significant community of professional artists lives in Caithness. Some of these live and work in the area; others work from the area. These artists also have specific needs to pursue their work for the benefit of the wider community. Lack of facilities can certainly mean that artists starting their careers, even when born in the area, are likely to move out in order to seek development opportunities elsewhere. There is a burgeoning talent base in Caithness and this should be nurtured. The creative industries are a valuable part of the economic equation in creating healthy communities.
4.2.4 The research process therefore looked at what people in Caithness wanted, at what it should have, and finally at what Caithness could have. Audiences made clear their desire to see better provision in Caithness. Many people and groups expressed considerable frustration about the lack of suitable facilities, and there was evidence of a perceived frustration with the Highland Council. The reasons for this perceived frustration, when there are arguably many venues, are addressed in a later section. It was, however, complemented by a clear desire by officers and members of Highland Council met during the process of the Study to support the arts in Caithness. For reasons, which will be addressed later, it does not always seem that the most effective communication of ideas and intentions between individuals and groups in Caithness, both between themselves and with the Council have been achieved. A major issue that has seemed to arise is that of finding the optimal means of achieving shared objectives. In this process better understanding of the position of others in a dialogue is required, as is the willingness to compromise on detail to achieve the greater good.
4.3 Interviews and Focus Groups
4.3.1 From the quantitative research survey and the qualitative research, including focus groups, a clear understanding of local needs and perceptions was obtained. People in Caithness currently attended arts and entertainment events frequently, in a large number of disparate venues/locations. 53 different venues were named, only a handful recognised as being even barely adequately equipped. This was clearly reflected in that the most requested improvement was ‘more comfortable venues’ by over 59%. 82% of respondents were frequent attenders, attending at least once every two or three months, with 60% attending at least once a month.
4.3.2 Under 13% attended events outside Caithness at similar frequencies. They were clear that for most people the longer journeys to provision in Inverness and beyond would be only for special occasions or to meet special needs, perhaps once a year or less often. They were concerned that this disadvantaged young people, those without cars, the elderly and disabled people. This meant that, for most people, everywhere except Caithness was out of reach, and that, for some, provision in Wick was inaccessible from Thurso, and vice versa.
4.3.3 The major concerns expressed about provision and facilities, fell into three areas:
· finding out about What’s On and buying tickets
· the scale and character of available venues
· the scale and quality of events and classes and workshops
It is unusual for over 59% to say they want it to be easier to find out about What’s On as they said across Caithness, and 12.8% to want it to be easier to buy tickets, including provision over the Internet. In the focus groups, this was expanded upon, and reflects the lack of any full-time organisation or agency either to promote or to present events and the lack of any co-ordinated basis for ticket sales – a ‘one-stop-shop’ for ticket purchase. Caithness Arts with its newly developing newsletter clearly seeks to meet this need, and the Website Caithness.org also provides a highly effective means of local communication with 4000 visitors per day (and a high international profile with hits from 110 countries per month). Yet, neither is fully geared up to providing regular and comprehensive What’s On information. Indeed, the organiser of the Caithness Arts newsletter gave evidence of finding great difficulty in obtaining timely information of forthcoming events from local organisers in order to include that information in the newsletter. The capacity of Caithness Arts to act as an information dissemination agency clearly still has much potential to develop alongside the role of the organisation. As Caithness Arts does develop further, it is even possible that its Board might welcome access to one of the various board member development schemes now in place. Beside this potential, it is noteworthy that part of the successful Lottery application of Lyth Arts Centre talked of the Centre’s potential to develop as an arts agency for Caithness. Clearly, it is time now for this potential to be developed, in tandem with that of Caithness Arts.
4.3.4 Most venues were described as inadequate for many arts activities and uncomfortable for audiences. Chapels and churches and other village and community halls are regularly used for events and activities. All suffer to various degrees from problems of temperature, uncomfortable seating, poor sight lines, less than ideal staging and acoustics, and limited front-of-house facilities, including poor and often inaccessible toilet facilities. 59% wanted ‘more comfortable venues’ and 45% ‘bigger venues’. The following facilities were specifically requested during the research and consultation:
· An art gallery for contemporary exhibitions by Caithness artists and crafts people
· Artists' studios and workshops, including spaces for educational classes
· Provision for dance, both participation and performance
· Rehearsal rooms and spaces for performing arts classes and workshops
· Better facilities in the communities to enable local rehearsals and some performances, especially for young people
· ‘Bigger venues’ with an acoustic for live music and larger scale theatre (though often referred to as a 300 seater)
· ‘Better venues’, especially in terms of comfort
· More facilities for exhibiting film and video
In the focus groups in Wick and Thurso, the venue needs were more clearly focussed: ‘A 250 to 300 seat venue was needed, flexible in form and use, with a separate permanent art gallery space, catering facilities, community use rooms and workshop spaces’. They debated whether this should be provided in either Wick or Thurso but concluded that each needed one. There were strong views in Wick that ‘The Assembly Rooms have deteriorated and were not being properly maintained, and were no longer fit-for-purpose’. Clearly, the ideal venue being outlined might raise operational problems given that the variety of uses envisaged for it are likely to have conflicting requirements for access and usage. Nonetheless, the aspiration outlined offers a helpful broad-brush picture of what is seen locally as being required. As will be seen, there are a number of possible developments that, while not precisely developing in the terms outlined here, may respond constructively to this expressed need.
4.3.5 Clearly part of the issue of the need perceived by Caithnessians for better venue provision can be understood in terms of what is meant by a ‘venue’. If a venue is simply a space of a certain size, then there are many such venues in schools, hotels, church and village halls throughout the area. A ‘venue’ may be understood, however, as a performing arts space fit for purpose with modern equipment, seating of a reasonable, but not luxurious, standard, and a well-designed stage space with lighting and amplification. By this definition, arguably none, including Wick Assembly Rooms and the larger venue in Thurso, the High School Hall, currently meets contemporary standards. This is not to reflect on their present managers, who have in the past done much to maintain provision in Caithness. It is chastening to understand, however, that, were they in Wales, at least one of these, and perhaps both, would not be of adequate standard, under Arts Council of Wales criteria, to attract Arts Council of Wales support for work presented in them. The imminent opening of the refurbished Lyth Arts Centre offers some amelioration of this situation, but, with a capacity of only seventy-five, it would not pretend to be the answer to the problem. This issue will be addressed again later in this report.
4.3.6 While a high proportion of survey respondents referred to facilities, overall a larger proportion wanted more events (47.7%), more activities (32.6%), more classes and workshops (51.2%), more arts events (44.2%) ‘near where they live’. It may, of course, be that some of this sense of needing more may result from the absence of an authoritative What’s On publication, resulting in those who want more doing so because they miss some of what already exists. If this is the case, then it is possible that comprehensive advertising of events and classes could reduce the perception of under-provision. Nonetheless, the enthusiasm for more arts provision is consistent with other findings of the Study. Enthusiasm for art-forms was fairly even, with over 80% expressing interest in music (under a wide definition) and equally large numbers expressing interest in what could be described as ‘any performance in a theatre’ (again under a wide definition). 51% were interested in art and craft exhibitions of all kinds but only about 25% in cinema (low, given the All Star Factory in Thurso with its two auditoria, one holding 152 and the other 88). Overall, the attendance levels quoted in Caithness were higher than the average for Scotland. Plainly this reflects a survey of current attenders which will always include a majority of more frequent attenders.