The beating heart
The Exchange in Sturminster Newton is more than an arts centre, it is a metaphor for the town’s recent resurgence, reports Sam Fraser
Published in January ’11
‘Live a more eventful life’ reads the motto of The Exchange, Sturminster Newton’s arts and community centre, which opened in 2007. A brief glance at the notice boards in the foyer suggests that this compact town – population at the last census under 4000 – is more eventful than most: singing classes, belly-dance lessons and French conversation sessions vie for advertising space alongside the short mat bowls club, pop-up cinema screenings and live gigs from household names.
One should not perhaps be surprised at the high levels of community enterprise represented within the building, for it is precisely because of the dynamism and imagination of the local townsfolk that the centre exists at all. The Exchange is testimony to the struggle of a rural town to redefine itself in modern times.
In 1997 the cattle market at Stur, a weekly feature for centuries, was closed down and, with it, the town lost its identity as a hub of dairy agriculture, a draw which had been essential to local traders and service providers. What had been the largest calf market in Europe disappeared overnight leaving a gaping seven acre hole at the centre of the town. A further blow to the local economy came with the closure, in 2000, of the Creamery, which was originally founded as a farmers’ cooperative in 1913.
Facing the prospect of life in a town with no distinctive purpose and no heart, a number of interested parties came together, determined that the interests of the local community should be central to the re-development of the site. Robert Cowley was part of the action group and is now a trustee of what was to become the Sturminster Newton Community Building Trust. ‘We were very keen to have a say in what came next for the site,’ he says, ‘and began a long process of community consultation, feasibility studies and planning, which was all very well, but we didn’t own the site, didn’t know who did and didn’t have the cash to buy it anyway!’ Fortunately, the group found a powerful partner.
The Charles Higgins Partnership, which incorporated award-winning Shaftesbury architects, Proctor Watts Cole Rutter, had already been approached to develop a new medical centre for the town and therefore had an interest in the site. ‘We persuaded the partnership to work with us,’ explains Robert. ‘A deal was struck whereby the partnership was prepared to buy the site and develop it according to the community’s wishes if we were able to get planning permission with full support from the community. By that time, several interest groups, from the community hall committee to eco-enthusiasts, had come together to form SturQuest. The SturQuest partnership united the town’s disparate groups, and dedicated itself to the development of community facilities for the future. Thus began several years of consultation with the townspeople to ensure the final plan fairly represented their diverse needs.’
What they ended up with, nearly a decade after the first meetings were held, is an impressive, multi-functional facility incorporating the Stour Hall – a performance space with a stage and seating for more than three hundred – a suite of community function rooms, a café/bar, atrium and offices. ‘Initially, I think many people just imagined replacing the old village hall, which had been declared unfit for purpose around the same time, with something similar,’ says Robert. ‘They didn’t realise the potential and the influence a united community might be able to wield.’ Describing the finished centre as the result of a ‘huge leap of faith’, he explains that the building, which cost £2.7 million, was paid for in full following ten years of fund raising.
There was no debt attached to the project. ‘We have been, and continue to be, entirely self-funding,’ Robert explains. ‘No small feat for a rural town of this size. Demand has been so huge that we’ve been able to increase our full-time paid staff from one manager in the first instance to a team of three, supported by our indispensable and enthusiastic volunteers.’
The Exchange makes its money through lettings to local groups, business occupiers and cultural events. Assistant Manager Sharon Clifton explains that the Trust is at the beginning of a very exciting programme of development: ‘We hit the ground running once the centre opened, providing spaces for established local community organisations from SNADS (Sturminster Newton Amateur Dramatics Society) to the Cheeky Monkeys toddler group, the Garden Club and the WI, but in a very short period of time we had over thirty clubs and societies operating from the building. We’re now developing our business as a receiving house, booking household names.’
Amongst those household names are singer Elkie Brooks, jazz vocalist Jacqui Dankworth, folk singer and political activist Billy Bragg, and guitarist John Williams. Manager Isabelle Allison adds proudly: ‘John played here a while ago and so loved the venue for its intimacy and its acoustics that he specifically asked to end his world tour here next May. It’s a lovely compliment. As the venue becomes known on the commercial circuit, we’ll be able to bring more big acts to the town.’
Isabelle’s background includes community arts management at the Liverpool Lighthouse and at other venues in the South. ‘The Exchange is unique in as much as it is an arts venue,’ she says, ‘but the community is at the very heart of its operation. The relationship that exists between The Exchange and its patrons is crucial to its functioning in a way that is unique in my experience.’
Walk along the town’s narrow streets and peer into its shop windows for evidence of the relationship of which she speaks. Local retailers advertise forthcoming events and, in many cases, play a part in staging or sponsoring them. The venue’s first sell-out event, a charity fashion show hosted by the SERO fundraising group in aid of Julia’s House Children’s Hospice, was perhaps an indicator of how enthused by the new resource the community was. Clothes supplied by local retailers were modelled by their clients and other trades and service providers contributed to goody bags for guests. The shop assistants from the town’s much-loved family store, Harts of Stur, staged their own ‘Full Monty’ routine with clothing and hardware from the shop floor, to tumultuous applause. ‘People are still talking about that show three years on’, laughs Sharon.
Such publicity is good for The Exchange and good for local business. It is a fervent hope of the Trust that the venue plays a part in wealth and job creation for local people. ‘We launched an indoor market in the Atrium on Saturday mornings to provide local producers with a place to meet and sell,’ explains Isabelle, ‘we’re hosting the Dorset Screen Bites food and film festival finale, again providing a forum for artisan food producers, and the 2011 Taste of Dorset awards will be held here.’
Off the Atrium is an IT suite and Community Learning Centre in which SturQuest operate a weekly jobs club from which the team are hoping to develop an education and training programme for people of the town seeking to improve their chances in the jobs market. ‘There really is something for everyone’, says Isabelle. ‘The Trust’s mission is to improve the quality of life for local people and to provide an attraction for visitors from out of town, thereby creating a sustainable local economy.’
If David Cameron needed evidence of a community helping itself, he’d find plenty of it in Stur. ‘The Exchange relies on its volunteers,’ says Sharon, whose own relationship with the centre began as a volunteer three years ago. ‘Before the Exchange opened, the steering group showed interested parties around the building,’ she explains, ‘and I found myself offering to serve teas and assist with bookings. That may not sound too onerous, but back then, we had no computer system, so it was all paperwork and Post-It notes, which was much more time-consuming. It’s very different now. I’ve just confirmed the space for an exhibition of paintings by an American artist in 2012 in a matter of mouse clicks!’
Currently, the centre has the goodwill of around forty volunteers but the team is always looking for more. ‘A lot of the events are attracting big numbers of visitors.’ says Isabelle, adding: ‘We recently staged our first wedding fayre for tradespeople and were really pleased with the response. But our success relies entirely on the time our workers are prepared to give up for free to help out.’
It is clear that the town has embraced The Exchange. Opposite the reception, signage from the old cattle market is installed alongside the market’s bell. ‘The bell has so much of the vibrancy of Stur’s life associated with it,’ says Sharon, ‘and we continue to ring it to alert guests to the start of performances in the Stour Hall. On sadder occasions, we’ve rung it at the wakes of local farmers that have been held here. It is nice to feel that there is at least that continuity from the old to the new.’
Stur in 2010 may look very different from the market town remembered by older townsfolk, but the construction of The Exchange has provided it with a new heart and a modern, sustainable identity. Recognition of the huge effort made by local people in this achievement has come from the highest quarters; for his contribution to the local community, Robert Cowley was awarded an MBE in the Queen’s Birthday Honours in June.