Joyce McMillan: Spirit of The Arches lives on

The essential funding '“ a vital £99,000 project grant from Creative Scotland '“ has only just been announced. Yet it's all due to happen in less than six months; and artistic director Jackie Wylie is sparkling with excitement as she describes the shape of the new Glasgow festival, Take Me Somewhere, that has emerged from 16 months of hard work, creative thought and collective brainstorming across the city, since the sudden closure in May 2015 of one of Glasgow's key arts hubs, the Arches beneath Central Station.

Jackie Wylie Pic: Niall Walker
Jackie Wylie Pic: Niall Walker

Wylie had worked at the legendary club-cum-music-venue-cum-arts-centre for 11 years, first as arts programmer to its founding artistic director Andy Arnold, who opened up the space during Glasgow 1990, and then as artistic director, after Arnold moved on to the Tron in 2008. During those years the venue became a crucible for a whole new generation of playwright-performers, including Rob Drummond, Kieran Hurley, Gary McNair and Julia Taudevin, and for the development of performance artists like Nic Green, Robert Softley Gale and the late Adrian Howells, many of them now internationally acclaimed.

When the axe fell last spring, though – as Glasgow Licensing Board removed the venue’s late-night club licence, wrecking the economic and creative model that had supported the Arches through 25 remarkable years – Wylie was quick to grasp that whatever happened to the state-of-the-art building (it is still closed and unused today), it was vital to ensure that the community of artists which had seen the Arches as home could still receive the kind of support that would enable them to remain in the city, and to develop their work there.

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Armed with a research grant from Creative Scotland and Glasgow Life, she convened a group of stakeholders and partners from the city’s cultural scene. Present from the beginning were organisations including the National Theatre Of Scotland, Glasgow University and Glasgow School of Art, venues ranging from the Tron and Citizens’ Theatres to Tramway, the CCA, Platform at Easterhouse and the Glad Cafe, and individuals like the leading Glasgow director Stewart Laing; and together, they began to explore non-building-based ways to continue curating, supporting, producing and presenting new work in theatre and performance.

There was a creative element to the consultation process, too. Andy Field of the UK-wide Forest Fringe and three other artists were asked to create posters for imaginary dream arts projects around Glasgow, Rosana Cade of Buzzcut inquired into what the Arches had meant to Glasgow’s LGBT community, and playwright and director Alan McKendrick worked with secondary school teachers on ideas about deconstructed versions of familiar classics. All the former winners of the Arches’ Platform 18 award, for

the development of new work, gathered to share ideas. And what emerged, after a convulsive year, was a plan for a new Spring festival to be staged in venues across Glasgow, which would try not only to capture the range of the Arches’ work, but to go beyond that, into an exploration of new creative and theatrical possibilities across all Glasgow’s major arts venues.

“Essentially, there are ten or 11 strands of work across the festival,” says Wylie, “ranging from major international visiting companies in the main space at the Tramway – and local artists in T4 next door – to a new Adrian Howells Award, co-sponsored by Battersea Arts Centre, the NTS, Glasgow University and the Live Arts Development Agency. The children’s theatre festival Imaginate, based in Edinburgh, will be helping us to develop a project involving young people; and we’ll have a series of provocative performance events at Glasgow School of Art, a strand of new highly-politicised local work at the Tron, a new version of our Platform 18 award at the Citizens’, and a project bringing together bands and theatre-makers at Platform in Easterhouse. And much, much more.

“It’s been quite a journey, over the last year or so,” adds Wylie, who was on maternity leave at the time of the Arches closure, and now has a lively toddler in her life, as well as a bouncing new festival. “It was very painful to start with, but it has gradually become something amazing, and full of potential. When the Arches closed, there was a real fear that it could be the beginning of a talent drain from the city, after 25 amazing years as a real international centre of artistic innovation.

“Yet as soon as I began to talk to all the potential partners, and to bring them together, I could see that all that energy and goodwill was still there, not least from Creative Scotland and Glasgow Life, and that people really wanted the work to continue. It was striking how quickly other venues began to open up to people who would have been working at the Arches, with places like the Tron, Platform, the CCA, and Buzzcut at the Pearce Institute providing as much space and support as possible. And my main aim now is to create the high-profile platform than enables that work to be seen and discussed in a Scottish, UK and international context – a bit like the old Arches Behaviour festivals, but now involving the really exciting possibilities of all these different venues across the city.

“So is it a return to the spirit of Glasgow 1990, when the whole city came together to create an amazing series of arts initiatives? Maybe not quite. But I’ve learned, in this past year, that a great deal of that spirit is still around; and I hope Take Me Somewhere will become a vital focal point for theatre and performance made in Glasgow, and for the international context of that work - which was so important back in 1990, and is maybe even more important and more urgent now.” ■

The first Take Me Somewhere festival will take place in February and March 2017, in venues across Glasgow,