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Martin Sutherland: Why I am leaving Royal & Derngate and how the arts can save Northampton…

Over the past year a regiment of big hitters has left Northampton: chief executives, head coaches, MPs and council leaders.

And just when you thought no more pieces could be up in the air Martin Sutherland, the Chief Executive of Royal & Derngate, announced he was leaving to lead Coventry’s City of Culture project.

It was another big moment for Northampton except the difference this time was that Martin had been headhunted for his new role and leaves behind him not an organisation in crisis but one that is arguably stronger than it has ever been.

By his own admission he can’t act (“for toffees”), has poor technical stage management skills but his record of making things happen shows he knows how to make showbusiness work – and that is gold dust.

The spread of interests governed by Northamptonshire Arts Management Trust (which runs Royal & Derngate) includes The Corby Cube and the Errol Flynn cinemas in Daventry and Northampton and it is that network that is at the heart of Martin’s great achievement in the county.

While our councils were talking about but failing to share backroom services and find new sources of revenue, NAMT was doing it, leaving it in a less precarious place than the local authorities which now face imminent reorganisation.

The cinemas bring in new money while The Cube and Royal & Derngate share admin and support functions: the ‘more for less’ nirvana of the austerity era.

The only downside for Northampton is that Martin’s talent has been noticed and he has been offered the kind of opportunity you cannot refuse.

Martin Sutherland_photo by John Roan (1)

“It is a big shift for me and for the organisation but if there is any time to do it, it is right now,” said Martin.

“There is a business plan, secure arts council funding, secure local authority funding, the team is well established. I’m leaving it in a good place.

“There’s plans and there are people who know how to deliver those plans. Whoever is lucky enough to step in is not going to have to invent everything, they might want to adapt and change things but they are not going to have to rescue or salvage anything.

“So I guess I am leaving at a time when it’s as stable as it could be because arts organisations are always risky, but my excuse for leaving is it feels like a good time. I also had a good opportunity: one that kind of felt like a really good positive step for me, building on everything I’ve done here.”

Martin will be leading Coventry’s project team for their year as City of Culture in 2021. The wider community role particularly appealed.

He said: “I’ve always viewed Royal & Derngate is not just about the three spaces where people come at 7.45pm. Theatre always has to be a bit more about the town and this job in Coventry allows me to make sure that art is part of the wider city plan. It’s the next natural step for me, terrifying next natural step, big jump, big expectations. It’s about the right time for me to move on. I will have been here 11 years which is a long tenure in an arts organisation.”

So what are the nuts and bolts of the new job?

“The big difference is I am not going to be running a building. I will be working out of a building but it is much less about being one organisation delivering arts. I am joining a charitable trust formed by the councils and the universities which needs to deliver the vision for the city of culture programme.

“It’s kind of like the organising committee of the Olympic games. Partly it is about delivering a whole programme of great events in 2021 but it is also about in the next couple of years, how do we strengthen the arts organisations that are there already, how do we encourage graduates to stay, how do you create a culture of entrepreneurism so people are equipped to deliver events in ’21 but most importantly that they stick around and they are viable from ’22 onwards.

“So there will be big showpiece events across the city throughout the year but I see my job as strengthening the arts infrastructure, delivering training, providing capacity, getting organisations behind it (and they all already are)  and throwing the spotlight on the city in the way it has never had before. It’s a big marketing job. The city is the project.

“There is an international perception. Peace and reconciliation is a big thing for culture, clearly linked to the war and rebuilding itself after the war. The exciting thing for me is this amazing contemporary cathedral alongside the ruin. The highest quality art is in there. That’s what we want to do. We can make really positive change but bloody good art too.”

Coventry has some exciting times ahead but where does that leave Northampton? The heady days of announcing plans for a new culturally focused Royal & Derngate school in the town seem a long way off now. It was a plan that stalled when the Government went away and rethought its prospectus for potential new schools – the goalposts moved in effect – but Martin said that if the new boss wants to dust it off it could still happen.

But he is clear that the Chief Executive who follows him faces a new kind of challenge – one that is likely to attract some good candidates.

“I’ve been passionate about the town being as good as it can be and shouting loudly about it, but having been involved in drafting the job description for the next person that comes in and it’s really different from what I was recruited to,” he explained.

“There is definitely an expectation on the next person who comes in about our place in the town and playing a part in a bigger agenda. We’re not looking for an old school theatre manager we are looking for someone who can help the town as well and that is what is going to be attractive to someone coming in.

“If they feel like they can play a part in making some change that is not just about making changes in this building. I am confident they are going to get someone who is as interested but who also will have to form new relationships with other partners I have not formed relationships with. My goodness this town is in flux and theatre is going to have to play a part in ensuring that cultural and creative industries is part of the new Northampton.”

So we could see an even more outward looking Royal & Derngate and it is going to have to shape its role carefully alongside other groups.

“The theatre needs to be generous with its artists and resources to encourage the next generation of artists as well. That’s maybe something we haven’t been able to do as much as I would have liked to have done because we have had to keep our own ship steady.

“Some of the growth we have done such as the cinemas has been about mitigating the cuts we have had from some of our funders. Going forward arts organisations are going to need a wider range of arts organisations working together and perhaps in opposition to what Royal and Derngate are doing.

“If we are serious about being a future city of culture – which is what the borough council is aspiring to – there is going to have to be support for a rich number of arts organisations and artists, and make it possible for people to work and earn a living in this sector and Royal & Derngate will not be mopping up all the resources but sharing the resources.

“We have access to audiences, to artists, we should be looking to co-create, co-produce, community led programming, some of which we have started doing. As the organisation is more stable and if there is more expectation is that it is going to be at the centre of regeneration then its going to have think about it’s business again. What’s the fear in thinking that? We are already thinking that here but the local authorities need to continue to support and they need to build a vision for it and not expect the one theatre in the town centre to fix it all.”

The upcoming creation of two unitary council authorities running East and West Northamptonshire will be a pivotal moment. There will be people on the new authorities who are not used to supporting the arts with funding and will need convincing of the benefits.

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The annihilation of Northamptonshire County Council’s arts budget has been one of the measures of the crisis is currently finds itself in.

“The county council cut our funding by 100 per cent so there is no funding at all left which is terrible,” said Martin. “Of course they cut it because of other pressures they are under but still the fact is there is no arts subsidy whatsoever from a major county council authority is pretty terrible.

“We were warned long enough in advance to make some changes and generate other income sources but it doesn’t say a lot for the county that it is not investing in arts.

“The challenge is for the new unitary authorities who so far have not been investing in arts and culture need to be convinced to do so. Northampton Borough Council has remained committed and makes it possible for us to be here. They have maintained their grants, they are still our landlords and it is a really good relationship.

“Hopefully they can inspire the other authorities, Daventry and South Northants, about the value of ongoing arts subsidy. The new chief executive at the borough seems very approachable and very clear that arts, culture and leisure is going to be the future of this town.

“And I wouldn’t want to suggest the county council has been difficult, they have been brilliant partners when times were good. When times were bad they have had to back away for a multitude of reasons.

Both unitaries are going to have to get to grips with the fact that culture and creative industries are the fastest growing sectors and my successor is going to have to make that argument again and again.”

Martin’s route into showbusiness was via a politics and theatre degree from Lancaster University.

He laughs self-deprecatingly at the unlikely combination of subjects but the course included a year in California studying the entertainment business and Martin returned sure that was what he wanted.

He got into RADA studying the technical side of stage management but when it became clear that was not where his natural talent lay they helped him find work experience seeing how producers went about their business.

This led to Martin forming a theatre company when he left RADA and he began making many of the connections that still crop up today. It was during this period that Martin first encountered the Spy Monkey theatre group who regularly collaborate with Royal & Derngate productions.

As the first in his family to go the university Martin felt an unspoken pressure to achieve something with his degree and so got himself a job running Newbury Corn Exchange. He then went on the create an arts centre on the site of the former US missile base at Greenham Common. After that came Royal & Derngate.

If it is Northampton’s long term plan to follow in Coventry’s footsteps as a City of Culture is there a chance he could return to work in Northampton in a role like that?

“I love this county. I love this town. I will be be keeping an eye on what’s happening here. It’s brilliant, the town is great, the people are fantastic and I have been given the freedom to try some stuff out here. It has been the happiest part of my career here. This is pretty exceptional. It would only have been an opportunity like Coventry that took me away from it…”

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