Mumpreneur, a word newly recognised by the Oxford Dictionary, is a good example of two words combined to make a new one which nicely expresses some novel aspect of the way we live. Such new words and phrases are being invented all the time but I am still waiting for someone to come up with an alternative to ‘arts centre’. It’s an ungainly and unimaginative description applied to places which deserve more linguistic distinction than to be lumped in with ‘shopping centre’, ‘medical centre’ or ‘Ministry of Transport Vehicle Testing Centre’. Personally, I would prefer a phrase with less of an institutional ring and more of an evocative one such as, say, ‘amusement arcade’. Could someone, please, at least come up with a description that omits the word ‘centre’?
Arts centres may all have the same unfortunate name but (and this is partly to the point) they don’t all offer the same thing. One Monday evening I travelled about three miles to a slightly-out-of-town arts centre. The place is a huge, purpose-built regeneration project, a pioneer, “destination” building on a former brownfield site. Having miscalculated the travelling time via the tram I arrived with half an hour to spare and struggled to find a profitable way to spend it. The galleries were closed so I headed for the large, open-plan bar. There were four adults and an assortment of toddlers occupying a couple of sofas on one side of the space and, on the other side, a man and woman in ardent conversation. The solitary staff member was leaning behind the bar, arms folded and face blank. I imagine she was anticipating the end of her shift. I chose a seat in the neutral space between the other customers and proceeded to read every word on the stack of flyers I had collected from the front desk. There are three theatre spaces at this venue but, that evening, they were all dark and the fringe event I was attending had attracted around 50 people. When it was over we trickled through the vast foyer and out into the desolate, windswept piazza to walk either to the tram stop or the multi-storey car park. There was nothing else.
The following afternoon, on a whim, I walked to an arts centre in the city centre. It occupies a couple of old buildings next to a mainline rail station and at the intersection of two main roads - one of which is reputed to be Europe’s busiest bus route. The place was buzzing – as it usually is – not only because it’s a good arts centre but also because it is an ideally situated meeting place. The prominent location and the volume of “passing trade” ensure that its bar and cafe benefit from the constant presence of that vital ingredient - people. It is not a place, like a stadium, where people only come and go with the staging of events; it is a convenient, familiar venue moulded by constant human interaction into a lively hub of creative interests.
This will be gone in a couple of years. The planners have decided it should be relocated to a purpose-built complex on a brownfield site half a mile away – a geographically obscure place which will have no passing trade. Yes, the glittering new building will have bigger and better facilities; yes there will be ample and convenient parking and yes, there is a possibility it might eventually regenerate that dead corner of the city. No doubt there will be a lot of new signage to help the lost and bewildered but, if and when they get there, they will find a very different kind of facility. They will surely note the difference between the original, unique, organically grown, human-scale, interactive space and that which replaces it - the aptly named, arts centre.