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3 Things We Can Learn From The Battersea Arts Centre Fire

The BAC's Grand Hall before the fire. Photo credit: Morely Von Sternberg

If you’re connected to the arts (and we’re assuming you are if you’re reading our blog!), you were probably glued to your phones on Friday 13th March when the tragic news came through that the Battersea Arts Centre had been partially destroyed by a fire. You may have even been one of the many hundreds of people who showed their support for BAC by donating, tweeting and offering a helping hand. Sadly, the 120 year-old building’s Grand Hall and offices were lost in the fire and the effect on the community who came to know and love the centre was huge. The response of the community and the actions of the staff at BAC are great examples of how best to deal with unexpected tragedies and there’s a lot to learn from the team at the centre. We’ve put together just a couple of points that we think are worth remembering to make sure your organisation is prepared for the unexpected.

Value your audience and they will value you

BAC’s beautiful Grade-2 listed building has been an important part of the local area for generations. As an arts centre, it’s been in business for the last 35 years, and in addition to its vital part in London theatre history, it has always been important to local life. Luckily for the staff at BAC, the fire brought together the community of Battersea to rally around them and give them much needed support at an incredibly trying time. The massive impact the centre had on not just the local people but the arts community at large, meant that there was no hesitation from anyone to offer a helping hand. Anne Wareing, the development manager at BAC, discussed with us the support they received for their audience following the fire.

“I believe it’s the kind of response we would have hoped for, but I don’t think we could have imagined the scale and impact of it. We were continually bowled over by the warmth and generosity and goodwill of people who reached out, who shared their fond memories of the Grand Hall, who donated to the Phoenix Fund, who offered all kinds of support. It really kept everyone going when we were feeling overwhelmed. We literally wallpapered our makeshift office with the words of love and encouragement we received – and they kept coming.”

Persevere in tough times!

After such shocking events, it would have been easy for the staff of BAC to withdraw to lick their wounds and mend in private. But the arts is all about getting stuck in and by being honest with their audience about the help they needed (via David Jubb’s updates on the BAC blog) they were able to make the case for supporting them more effectively. The team’s perseverance and ultimately their love of the arts meant they were able to open their doors for a performance only twenty-seven hours after the fire. We’d say that’s the definition of the saying ‘the show must go on’! Anne believes that their positive outlook and making the best of a bad situation spurred them on at a very difficult time.

“I think we can all agree that the ‘beating heart’ of organisations is something less tangible than the bricks and mortar that make up a building. And that’s why being positive, even in the wake of something really sad like losing this gorgeous part of our building, feels right: people’s memories and their love for BAC and their support are the real foundation of whatever comes next. The building is the vessel for that.”

Get involved in your community

One of the most important things you can do as an arts organisation is to get involved in your community any way you can. You will get back what you put out there, as the team at the BAC found in the generous outpouring of support from their community, from local businesses offering a helping hand to support from people who had used the centre and had fond memories of being there. Anne talked about the lasted memories created at the centre and how they affected the response of the community.

“It was the most heart-rendering phenomenon, really – all these generous people.  And then you think about how many people have come through the building over the years and it makes perfect sense – we know how special this place is, and it was so affirming to be reminded of that.  People who got married in the Grand Hall, artists who did their first big gigs there, former staff, local neighbours, dedicated audiences, people across generations and from all over the world have feelings about this building – it actually proved what we’d always hoped, which was that BAC was a home for everyone who’d ever come through its doors.  And that feeling, as David highlighted in his early blog, is particularly crucial to mention, because civic spaces like this are dwindling nowadays.”

In the months following the fire, the support the centre received was more than anyone would have expected. Support ranged from local schools having bake sales, other theatres offering space and support, local businesses offering access to computers and equipments in the days following the fire, government donations, and individual donations of over £70,000 through The Phoenix Fund. The staff were overwhelmed at the kindness shown and the passion of everyone who wanted to get the organisation back on their feet. As Lyn Gardner said in her tribute to the centre, “A theatre is not just a building. It is all the people who pass through it, and who – for however brief a time, a few days or weeks or years – call it home.”

To hear more from Anne Wareing from BAC, make sure you check out our seminar at the Arts Marketing Association Conference in Birmingham on 22nd July at 11:30am-12:45pm. Anne, alongside Caroline McCormick, founder and director of Achates Philanthropy. They will be discussing ‘Fundraising in the Face of Disaster’, to help you make sure you can be successfully prepared if the worst does happen and make changes after a major setback. Anne will also discuss the Battersea Arts Centre campaign in more detail. To find out more click here.