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Community / Public space

Car parks, cathedrals and canvas: Turning Salisbury into a festival stage

Toby Smith, director, Ageas Salisbury International Arts Festival on the city as canvas for festival programming and the challenges of juxtaposing historic mediaeval buildings with 60s urban sprawl.

“Great Art For Everyone”: to the hundreds of organisations the Arts Council England funds nationwide, that simple statement of intent is a call to artistic arms.

In programming a multi-arts festival in the beautiful, oh-so-English city of Salisbury, nestled in the heart of Wessex, delivering on the first half of that statement is relatively easy. Right now the UK is packed full of innovative artists, ensembles and companies ripe and ready to be programmed – and that’s before one even considers the wealth of brilliant, inspiring work that is being made overseas.

But it is the second half of that aim – the “For Everyone” – on which I focus the majority of my thought. It’s easy to “buy in” a programme of tried and tested art that will deliver time and again. And to some extent, the funding situation right now is such that most, including this festival, have to work in that way, at least in part. And it’s not as if it doesn’t work.

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But in the end extending the reach of the arts, building audiences and creating a collective sense of ownership, is all about place. The city-as-stimulus, or the city-as-canvas – they are the simple keys that unlock the door to rich artistic delights that, here at least, are shared by many.


Manchester International Festival finds inspiration in the city’s “original modern” brand, with its commission-driven programme; Glastonbury quite literally grows from the earth in which it embeds itself. So what am I to do with the mediaeval City of Salisbury with its ancient Market Place, 14th century Poultry Cross, the majestic Cathedral and its mystic surrounds?

etting out from our Market Square, visitors can wander through the lanes and streets, encountering each other and artistic surprises along the way. There is nothing quite like street theatre to bring people together, a place of accidental meeting and connection.

Beyond the rules of indoor theatre, noise, playfulness and audience participation are what brings the city to life and we are blessed that Salisbury is brilliantly constructed for this – providing numerous spaces ripe for shared entertainment.  People will be stopped in their tracks – this year we have urban astronauts, lost carousel horses, a massive jenga tower and an interactive phone box – and some will stay a while, many for some time. It’s funny how people linger over something when they are given the freedom to walk away.

And, when you eavesdrop on what they say and watch how they react – from the euphoria of live, up-close outdoor experience, to an urgent questioning to which they will return for days to come – you come to realise the value of these transactions. We count and survey them copiously – the joy of metrics – but it is the qualitative stuff that really tells us that it’s not just our carefully constructed programme, but the living breathing influence of the city itself that is making a difference.

Perhaps even more care is needed to thread ticketed shows into the city’s fabric. These are often the next stage on the journey of turning the person who runs into an astronaut in the Market Square into a occasional (and eventually seasoned) Festival goer. I’m always looking for new and interesting ways to connect our programme with what the City has to offer. This year, for example we are reliving the life-story of one couple on the dance floor of the Chapel Nightclub, and hanging birdboxes buzzing with morse code and birdsong in the trees of the Military Rifles Museum.

The narratives of the city – its stories as well as its layout – always play a big role in shaping the programme and we work very closely with all our major venues – Salisbury Cathedral, the Playhouse, Art Centre and City Hall, and venues further afield like Old Wardour Castle – to make the most of those narratives. Animating the city in this way provides a particular kind of intimacy, and visitors often leave feeling that they have really got to know Salisbury and its nooks and crannies by the time they leave.

Beautiful as it is, like all cities, Salisbury has its clangers. 1960s carparks, considered by many to be among the city’s most aesthetically challenging buildings, have been incredible venues for us, with both dark subterranean levels and open roofed top floors providing us with a vast spaces ripe for performance – last year an operatic crime scene, this year an arena for the spectacular dance piece Of Riders and Running Horses.

We use this city, and its histories and geographies, to create a sense of shared ownership by a growing audience. The Festival can do this, not least because the city has plenty of stories and places to offer up.

That’s a good job, really. The challenge of “Great Art For Everyone” (sounds good, doesn’t it?) is hard work. It needs such nourishment to feed a job that is never done.

Toby Smith is director of the Salisbury International Arts Festival
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