Culture Growth in Southwest

It’s on a dismal April morning that I find myself sitting at the desk with hundreds of jobs on the list but with no motivation to do them. I feel much more inspired to write an article that may be of interest to avid arts lovers. 

The Southwest used to be unknown as a region of culture. How often did I hear, …’Oh, nothing happens in Devon’ – with particular emphasis on the northern reaches of the county. Two decades ago, this was true and even more so, when the Two Moors Festival began in 2001 when everyone will remember the horrors that arose as a result of the devastation caused by Foot and Mouth. It was this that gave rise to the festival the aim of which was to restore faith in the region, bring people back to the area and to regenerate much lost local business.

Up until then, the culture that was available was, in the main, to be found in the Theatre Royal, Plymouth; Northcott theatre, Exeter (which had to be bailed out by the Arts council), Queen’s Theatre Barnstaple (also and more recently, in fear of closure); Dartington; the then rather jaded museum in Exeter and a sprinkling of art galleries. Choral societies were always in evidence but of varying standard. Many people felt they ‘ought to support’ rather than, ‘Let’s go’.

This isn’t to say that there weren’t a myriad other organisations that existed and successfully, to put on exhibitions, talks and to bring theatre to outlying regions. There were a few extremely good music clubs. Live Music, Now ran a very positive programme of music in retirement homes. Music in schools was not high priority as is still the case today. Bournemouth Symphony Orchestra did manage to satisfy those who were hungry for a large-scale concert.

But what a change – and what’s more, the Festival has kick-started a lot of this by bringing music of the highest possible quality to remote villages on Dartmoor and Exmoor. As the network of supporters has widened (now attracting many visitors from overseas), so other arts events have managed to piggy back.

People never believed me when I say it was quite possible to attend an arts event, in any genre, seven days a week. It was often the attitude that was wrong. Now the perception is very different – thanks largely to the Two Moors Festival.

All kinds of arts events have sprung up like mushrooms; festivals such as at Budleigh Salterton are relatively new; Exeter’s museum was redeveloped in 2011 and to such a standard that it won The Art Fund Prize for Museum of the Year in 2012. Literary festivals are now proving to be a great success. Concerts in the West (supporting young professionals), brings concerts of high standard to outlying villages. The Beaford Centre’s focus on the visual arts is well known and the attendance at films and visiting theatre companies has never been higher.

Exeter’s Cathedral has always had plenty to offer but the number of choral events as well as high-powered concerts is proving to be so great that it is becoming ever harder to find a date in which to put on a performance.

So where does this leave The Festival? It leaps ahead with success year on year. People know that whatever they attend is going to be of superlative quality. Indeed, as one supporter put it, …’it doesn’t matter whether you recognise the name of the musicians giving the recital, you know it’s going to be good’… Visitors come from all over the country to make a holiday of the event. They may clock up as many as eight concerts within a week. They stay in cosy B&Bs, enjoy cream teas and go for bracing moorland walks.

With one year to go before the Festival’s milestone twentieth anniversary celebration, the pace is hardly likely to slacken.

Let’s hope the surge continues with all the other arts organisations that exist in Devon. All power to its cultural elbow!

Penny Adie

April 2019

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