Connecting European Rural Communities with the Creative Arts: An Interview with Ralph Lister
This is part of our special feature on Rurality in Europe.
Ralph Lister is a man with a passion: to bring creative Europe beyond its usual metropolitan frontiers and to highlight rural areas as dynamic and exciting places for the contemporary arts. For decades, his pursuit has been to make culture visible and accessible to village dwellers in the UK and to foster opportunities for artists wanting to stimulate their creative energies through the discovery of new publics and new possibilities. More recently, he has been committed to translating his experience in the UK to make it relevant and applicable to other contexts, collaborating with organizations and artists in various countries in Europe and encouraging cross-pollination, especially on rural touring projects. He spoke with me about his work as the Executive Director of Take Art, an organization with multiple roles in reaching and working with local rural communities in Somerset County in Southwest England to propose to them the best of the performing arts, from collective or immersive dance theater to circus companies. Listening to Ralph Lister and the many fascinating stories and anecdotes he generously shares about his work, background, and experiences can only draw you into his dual enthusiasm for art and community. Further discussing here his vision on the place of culture and that of the rural within cultural agendas in UK and wider European policy, he shows that through touring and other community-centered projects, Take Art exemplifies an efficient model of practice. The organization demonstrates that the arts not only and importantly bring people together, but that culture can also be agent of change in rural Europe, having a definite part to play in political affairs.
—Hélène Ducros for EuropeNow
EuropeNow Could you describe Take Art and the motivation driving the organization?
Ralph Lister Take Art is a not-for-profit peripatetic organization that is supported by the Arts Council of England, the main non-governmental body that distributes funding for the arts. We are part of the portfolio of around 600 organizations in the country that are designated as “national portfolio organizations,” which means that we are part of the national infrastructure that delivers the arts policy strategy of the Arts Council. We have an office in the south west of England in a beautiful bucolic location. It’s in a converted barn on a farm in the middle of the countryside. We serve the area of Somerset, a rural county with a population of about 500,000 people, of which half live in rural settlements of less than 10,000 people. There are three main small towns in the county and roughly three-hundred villages, but it remains rather invisible because most people drive through without stopping when they head to Cornwall, which is a beautiful coastal area where many go on holiday. Somerset is famous for its apple orchards, cider, and cheese. It’s also the site for the biggest music festival in the world: Glastonbury. This is a massive annual five-day performing arts event. Most attendees don’t really know that Glastonbury takes place in Somerset county. It’s a sort of pilgrimage, a rite of passage for young people especially. People come from all over the world for the experience that is like stepping out of the everyday world. It’s totally different from what Take Art does.
Somerset is middle of the road economically, but there are pockets of deprivation. In a 2017 government report published by the Social Mobility Commission, West Somerset was described as the area in the UK with the worst social mobility, which is about the population’s lack of aspirations and lack of opportunity. In that respect, Somerset is typical of many rural areas in the UK. Having said that, the social demographic has changed over the last thirty years. In the UK, the rural population is actually growing. Until twenty years ago or so, farming was an important section of the local economy, now it comprises around three percent of the local economy with a much more developed service and manufacturing business ecology. Today, many people―such as the retired―have moved from cities to rural areas for quality of life. Families with small children have decided to move to the countryside to access better choice in their selection of schools and shorter commuting times to their place of work However, in the last ten years, under the government’s austerity measures, there has been a widening of social inequality. And the transport system and road network within Somerset has become difficult to navigate, with public transport being severely reduced because provider companies are private and it’s not the most financially viable area in which to operate.
EuropeNow What are the main facets of your work in promoting the performing arts in rural areas in England? Why operate in the “rural” specifically?
Ralph Lister Since 1987, we have developed five areas of work. We first started as a rural touring agency. We offer opportunities for professional performing arts companies―often successful artists on the national and international stage―to take their shows to rural areas and rural audiences. For the artists, the uniqueness of rural touring is the intimacy with the audience. The artists also often stay with local families overnight after the performance. There is a strong social connection component. We have worked with villages in Somerset to bring high quality performing arts companies in village communities, working with volunteers there for each performance. It’s especially important that the shows we bring are high quality and that there is nothing second rate or suboptimal about them. It is our job to find the best and the most fitting of the performing arts. It’s a unique and highly valued niche. Rather than trying to be high profile, we are very grassroot oriented and foster a deep connection with local communities, especially through a network of local volunteer promoters living in their home village and with whom we work on each tour. We want to build strong ties with the local communities we work with, so that the projects delivered have the greatest impact possible. Take Art has a core staff of nine people, of which six are part-time. We run about twenty projects a year, recruiting artists and project workers to deliver them. Our budget is about 500,000 pounds a year. We can be flexible and efficient because we work in other people’s buildings―often village halls―and that way avoid high overhead costs. This set-up allows us to build strong relationships with volunteers, the public and education sectors, as well as the artistic community.
Rural touring is only one among our five areas of specialization. The second and third facets of our work are theater and dance development. For each of those, we have a professional staff team with appropriate skill sets to commission and produce works, and provide guidance and advice. We support professional arts centers and develop projects that enhance access to theater and dance within communities. For example, we have a project where we work through dance with older people with dementia or other mental health issues; in the realm of health we work alongside the National Health Service. And in theater, we run a spoken word project that is a recent incarnation of poetry. Fourth, we work with children under five and their families, for example in nurseries and pre-schools, because we think that the capacity to learn when you are young is immense. It’s essential to us to offer cultural opportunity during this formative time. We also intervene informally in enriching the curriculum through a cultural offer. Lastly, we lead a program of participatory music tailored to young people at risk. We specifically work one-to-one with youth who have behavioral or mental health issues and can no longer take part in mainstream education. We raise two-thirds of our budget through project funding and trusts and foundations. So, we have to be alert to changing policy and guidelines. We are a comparatively small agency and need to raise project funds, so partnership and collaboration are necessarily part of our DNA.
We essentially believe in bringing the best that can be produced creatively. We want to support artists to make the best possible art, but we also want to make the arts accessible and provide opportunities for everybody to take part in culture and make people in rural areas feel that the arts have something to offer them. Our concerns are also grounded in what is going on in society. We are looking to develop projects around issues of climate change and cultural diversity. The Black Life Matters context is important because our work, through the funding we receive, fits in an artistic policy programming that must be a reflection of UK society as a whole, not only of the local Somerset population, which is predominantly white. We are convinced that we must bring to village communities works by black artists, and that we should also work with people with disabilities for example, to show people in Somerset that we live in a society with a rich variety of people.
EuropeNow How do you select villages and who chooses the performances that come to the villages? Can you tell me about the process and the people involved?
Ralph Lister We have a system that developed over the years. In the early days, I worked with the Community Council for Somerset, which is part of Action with Communities in Rural England (ACRE). ACRE is part of a robust national infrastructure in England and has branches in every county in the country. They are a voice for rural communities. We contacted them and they have publicized the opportunity for villages to put on shows in their own halls. We also operate out of churches, for concerts for example, or schools if the space is fitting. In the UK, the village hall is often owned by the village and is source of pride and a sense of identity. It is a very busy place, as it is used for weddings, nursery sessions, badminton, or lunch clubs. We also place articles and press releases in the local press. But most marketing happens through word of mouth, village shops, and increasingly social media. These are local events for local people, so the social capital existing in the local community is integral in promotion. Over twenty years, we built up the network to about eighty volunteer promoter groups in eighty communities in Somerset County. We hold a party once a year where we take the promoters through a menu of about twenty-five acts. They can make three choices from the menu. There are discussions about the menu with the village hall committee and people in the village who are interested in culture. The menu allows people to feel included. They choose, we don’t impose.
The promoters―who all live in their communities and are not professional cultural curators―then have the hardest job: they sell the tickets. When people attend a performance, they do so for cultural, creative, and artistic motives, but also for social reasons. We average around seventy people per performance. These performances create a social arena where incomers new to the village can mix with people who have been there a long time. It creates a neutral social environment, because there can be tension in rural communities when there are social demographic changes. That is outside our control, but we can create opportunities for different local groups to come together. The artists are also visitors and village guests, and we try to push the boundaries there, inviting artists to stay with local families if they want to. The social element outside the performances is also very important. We have lovely personal stories of artists staying in families and participating in cultural shared experiences, like playing music together. In the early days of rural touring, some artists were quite patronizing or would make assumptions about rural communities and what they would be interested in. Now they get to know them. We assess that between one-fifth and one-third of the audience that comes to rural touring does not go anywhere else to see a performance but the village hall. That means that two-thirds to four-fifths seek out culture in other places too. Rural audiences can be very exciting for the artists. In a current national contemporary dance rural touring project (Rural Touring Dance Initiative), one choreographer said that he is not interested in habitual contemporary dance audiences; he wants to reach new audiences. We asked an audience research organization to compare the typical dance audience with rural touring audience, by collecting postcodes and categorizing people from high to low consumers of culture, and dance in particular. The rural touring audience is different from the contemporary dance audience. So, this project is creating new audiences by taking dance to the rural audience.
EuropeNow Can you share one of your favorite projects?
Ralph Lister We have many current projects. But there is one from a long time ago about which I am particularly proud. It was called the River Parrett Trail. The fifty-six-mile-long River Parrett goes through Somerset from its source in Dorset to the Severn estuary, and I wanted to create a collaboration between tourism, culture, community, and countryside. I commissioned a feasibility study to devise a project along the river and what came out was an inventive holistic project involving twenty partners. There were artworks commissioned, bridges built, artists in residence, and the communities living along the trail were included as well. This was an interesting project because it showed how to integrate many cultural aspects into the trail project.
EuropeNow I am particularly interested in how you have linked with stakeholders in other countries in Europe. Can you tell us how that started and how you’ve been received outside the UK?
Ralph Lister We are partners in two European projects: Creative Europe, a funding program that is run by the European Commission, has supported “Supporting and Promoting Arts in Rural Settlements of Europe” (SPARSE). Take Art is the lead partner and we work with organizations in Italy, Lithuania, Estonia, and Romania, to create a rural touring network in these countries. We also have associates in Norway and Sweden. It’s very exciting that we are also in conversation with interested partners in Spain, the Czech Republic, Poland, and Hungary. We would like to create a European rural touring network. The first goal of the project is to support the creation of rural touring networks within those countries and then have them come together in an international network. There has to be a minimum of five villages in each country to start the process. We created a mentoring program for the four partner countries. Over the next three years, each partner will run a tour once a year with domestic companies. Just like in Somerset, we use the menu as the foundation for villages to choose performances. This choosing process encourages a sense of ownership over the selection decisions. We brought all the promoters from villages in partner countries to England. It was amazing to have a Romanian promoter realize they were thinking the same thing as an Estonian promoter and to see friendships take shape across countries. Eventually, I’d like to see companies from different countries touring and performing in other countries, including England, so everyone can see them. Ultimately, what we want is to create a new European advocate organization, because within the European cultural domain right now the rural is quite invisible. It’s really sad because the work there is so interesting.
Take Art is also one of thirty-eight partners in RURITAGE, an initiative funded through the EU’s Horizon 2020 Programme and coordinated by the University of Bologna. They are interested in replicating successful rural regeneration experiences through six Systemic Innovation Areas (SIA) including Arts and Festivals. They had made a call for role models and came across Take Art as a result of SPARSE. Take Art has become a role model sitting inside their Arts and Festivals SIA. We are developing a new local initiative linking food (also one of the SIAs) and culture, where we think there are many possible connections around localism and sustainability. Our role model focus champions contemporary cultural and creative practices, making new customs and traditions to which rural residents of all ages can relate. We share our good practices with other role models and replicators (all organizations operating in the rural field), the idea being that the latter learn and enact best practices in the creation of their own programs. RURITAGE is an ambitious project and includes fourteen universities and knowledge repositories leading the theoretical modelling. The four remaining SIAs are pilgrimage, resilience, migration, and landscape. Its cross sectoral nature makes it a rich learning opportunity.
EuropeNow What is “rural” for you? What do you find rural areas in other places in Europe share with rural places in the UK and what do you think may differ?
Ralph Lister I use the UK Government Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (DEFRA) rural definition and statistics that identifies that seventeen percent of England’s population live in a rural area. For me, statistics are important. Data, documentation, and research are crucial because if you don’t write about something or record it, it does not exist in the policymaking or political world. I use this data to highlight that out of the Arts Council of England core funding, only 2.6 percent goes to organizations located in rural settlements, which represent seventeen percent of the population. So, there is a disconnect, even though the new Arts Council’s strategy is focused on place-making, place identity, and local communities. The reality is that many cultural organizations do not serve rural areas. Some of the rural-based cultural organizations that receive great amounts of funding have a rural postcode because they have an office in a rural area, but they do not work for their rural areas.
Across Europe, I think the rural population in individual countries have more in common with each other than not. People in rural areas everywhere share a sense of alienation from the center and a feeling of being second-class citizens because political agendas are driven by metropolitan perspectives. They experience a lack of resources, lack or recognition, lack of money, and a general sense of being on the periphery. But they also have a strong sense of helping each other. “Community” is a word that is used a lot, but in a rural situation it actually has meaning and currency. Right now, with COVID-19, we see that local promoters often do the shopping for people in the village, for example. They informally connect people.
In the UK, after a time of depopulation twenty five to thirty years ago, the rural population is growing. It’s a small trend, but a significant change. In other European countries, it’s the opposite in many cases, with a continuing exodus from the rural to the urban. I would also suggest that the demographic mix is greater in the UK’s rural areas compared to other countries. That’s partly because we are densely populated. The UK is a highly urbanized, post- industrial society where you have many small businesses now working out of the countryside in villages. On the other hand, in Spain there are villages with just a handful of inhabitants. The idea of “Empty Spain” is being written about. It’s hard to revive a village if it goes beyond a certain point, or it would take a long time.
EuropeNow What are the main challenges that your organization encounters? How can they be overcome?
Ralph Lister One obstacle is the place of culture in society. There is often an obsession with economic and material policy around housing, employment, health, and education, which are very important, but culture struggles to have a place. And within the world of culture, the difficulty is around the place of the rural. Within the world of culture, there is often a focus on high art and a dominance of metropolitan cultural identity. Power is concentrated in the center and there is hierarchy that feeds itself. So, the notion of rural is not a high priority because it’s not the city center and not where the biggest companies are. Getting the media to cover a rural subject is difficult because it’s time-consuming and means driving or getting on a train.
I am also part of a national Rural Stakeholder Group that helps the Arts Council do its best for rural areas. Part of this is about data collection, because statistics are useful from a political point of view. The Arts Council has produced two reports in collaboration with the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (DEFRA) that include a definition and classification of urban-rural areas. The ingredients required to address the rural cultural challenge of visibility include research, data collection, documentation, resources, and advocacy. I see the work of the European rural touring network as important as a long-term idea. Even though the UK is leaving the European Union, we will keep an interest. Europe is a rich and fascinating continent historically. It’s a beautiful place where culture meets regular ordinary people and where magic happens in the crucible of that connection.
In Europe, there is an obsession about rural heritage when it pertains to buildings ―cathedrals, castles― but Europe is weak in valuing intangible assets. In my work, I am mostly interested in the intangible. For me, people are more important than buildings. There is something ephemeral about people and the lived experience, but ultimately that is where the richness lies and in particular it’s the way to connect with younger people and contemporary concerns. I hope that through our collaborations with other organizations, we can influence European policy with regard to culture at the intersection of rural.
EuropeNow Your work sounds so fascinating and you so committed. Personally, how did you get involved in Take Art? Can you tell us about your professional trajectory?
Ralph Lister I was born in a market town and my parents were working class, a plumber and a hairdresser. My mum was Austrian by birth and upbringing—she came to the UK after the war after meeting my dad. They were interested in culture and, when I was a child, we would go to the nearest city to the theater. That’s part of the story. To me, culture is the nearest thing to spirituality because you can have a transcendental experience that allows you to go beyond yourself. I think that it is something that has value for all and belongs to all, not to a small group only. But I did not really get into it until my twenties when I moved to London and worked in a fringe theater and then a community theater, which had a political dimension. When I left London, Take Art had just started the rural touring and the trustees were interested in my experience in running community arts projects. I love seeing the magic that happens through workshops and performances, but I am also interested in policy and strategy and very committed to social justice. Culture is something to be enjoyed for its own sake, for stimulation of the imagination, to better understand ourselves, and to relate to each other, but I think it also has a social function. There’s an old argument about the value of the intrinsic and the instrumental. When you have a conservative government, you tend to talk more about the intrinsic, and with a labor government you talk about how culture can be used in social situations. For me there is no division, just like there is no division between culture and sports, or between the arts and sciences. The disciplines have different trajectories and origins, but if you are a curious human being, you can see connections across all these things.
Ralph Lister has been the Executive Director of Take Art since 1989. Currently, his passion is the continuing development of European partnerships and the development of a rural touring new circus initiative. Ralph can be contacted here.
Hélène B. Ducros is a human geographer with a wide array of research interests. She holds a JD and PhD from the University of North Carolina-Chapel Hill, where her dissertation focused on rural development, heritage preservation schemes in rural settings, and rural place-making. Her latest publication “« Glocal village » et transruralité” examines the creation of transnational networks of rural communities through place-based labelization and appears in Les labels dans le domaine du patrimoine culturel et naturel (Presses Universitaires de Rennes, 2020).
 Rural Touring Dance Initiative https://takeart.org/rural-touring-dance-initiative and SPARSE – https://www.sparse.eu/en/
Published on November 10, 2020.