[Editor’s note: part of the series of posts which illustrate how the new Arts Council National Portfolio Organisations are planning their programmes. Krystal Vittles writes about Suffolk libraries and their plans]
Six library services became NPOs in April this year, but Suffolk Libraries’ journey began almost two years previously when we discovered that libraries would be invited into the portfolio. We spent a long time considering if applying would be right for us as a library service and what would it mean for Suffolk. Libraries have long been embedded in the cultural ecology and the arts are supported in our spaces but we’d never been the generators of artistic content. Becoming an NPO would be a significant step-change.
We were clear from the start that the philosophy of the library would run through the proposed work as the golden thread. Quite deliberately we drafted a bid in which words, literature, storytelling, information, etc. would be reflected in what is created. Beyond this, we would use the USP of our vast network to share this content to others in the communities we serve. And not forgetting how our rural profile can be used to bring the arts to communities which are woefully underserved.
A focus on young people
We shaped our bid to enable more young people to discover the rich opportunities the library offers. Working with schools we knew that libraries still had an image problem so we are aiming for our NPO programme to be that exciting springboard to change that. Additionally, we want to address some of the most important issues for young people in Suffolk including skills, wellbeing and resilience and so these have been built into the programme intentions. All arts activities will present opportunities to build digital and information skills, wellbeing and resilience strategies.
We also want this to be truly authentic for young people. They have driven our NPO branding and led on all aspects of the design with the artists and designers. This will be completely and intentionally beyond the aesthetic and branding you’d expect from a library. Over these four years they will be telling us what they want from libraries, not just in an arts context. This will be steered by our young people’s board who will take an important organisational governance role. This will, without doubt, change us as an organisation but this is about addition, not dilution.
Working with a partner
We were honest from the beginning and acknowledged we lacked some core skills, so we made the choice to join up with an established NPO for year one. Our partner is METAL, based in Southend-on-Sea, Liverpool and Peterborough, who have a strong track record for excellence with young people in the arts. METAL, specifically Colette Bailey (their CEO) has been our guide and critical friend for a year now and with their help we feel confident in our ability to deliver something really dynamic for Suffolk. The appointment of our Arts Programmes Coordinator, Melissa Matthews (who we shamelessly enticed away from another NPO!) has not only increased our capacity but also brought a raft of new skills and experiences into the organisation.
It was tempting to run at this full tilt but we were careful to keep our staff front and centre in our minds as they will be delivering on the ground. They need to feel skilled, confident and supported so we kickstarted our programme by focusing on them. With METAL we have created the Arts Leadership Programme; three dedicated days for a core group of front line staff to work with artists and inspirational speakers to grow their confidence and spark ideas. The programme was also created to establish a new peer support network to keep the energy high throughout the programme.
The core programme in year one will focus on establishing our major hubs (Ipswich, Lowestoft and Bury St. Edmunds) with other libraries rolling on board in years two and three. Pace of development has seen more libraries come on board sooner which illustrates that we have ambitious, geared-up staff who are pushing to be part of this work for their communities. All libraries have been positive, although naturally this has come with lots of questions so we have dedicated a space on our new intranet for rolling Q&As alongside our dedicated NPO space on SharePoint.
Plans for the future
What will young people see? We don’t precisely know yet - which is intentional. After the staff development programme, we will host a Culture Lab with 10 artists in residence who will learn from libraries, communities and lots of young people and then develop a menu of artistic ideas for libraries to use. The condition is that these ideas will encompass our intentions around young people, digital, skills, place and wellbeing. As time goes on, our continuing conversations with young people will ensure that they steer the future direction and work with artists to generate content. Running in the background of all of this will also be our Arts Award programme for all levels.
Since last year we have more firmly embedded ourselves in Suffolk’s arts and cultural landscape. Arts organisations, including other NPOs, are recognising our value and potential in being that first, non-threatening gateway to high quality arts. This will be brought into sharp focus for those young people who don’t come from families or communities who are plugged into the arts.
Beyond this? We want to be a blueprint for other library services, leading from the front in new and innovative ways to inspire and engage young people in their community!
Please note, this is a guest blog. Views expressed here do not necessarily represent the views of DCMS or the Libraries Taskforce