Michaela Butter

The Director's Blog

Michaela Butter is the Director Attenborough Arts Centre and has years of experience working in the arts sector. Her insight and expertise has helped to shape our centre and has big plans for the future. Here she talks about her strategy, goals, and whatever she she’s passionate about.
Gallery Three with chairs and tables

October 2020 - Always Learning

October has arrived and we are delighted to welcome people back into our building after six months.  Early feedback from audiences is encouraging –being back in our welcoming space, to meet friends, and being able to see and make art. But we must also thank DCMS and Arts Council England for our recovery grant as part of the Cultural Relief fund.

Since my last blog we have had welcome news from Arts Council England that our Creative Diversity programme has been rated STRONG with helpful suggestions about how we could move to OUTSTANDING by strengthening the evidence of the clear impact of our work on emerging artists and disabled young people.  The team are now gathering powerful stories from those we have worked with which I will share with you in the future.

Normally I would have been up in Edinburgh in August discovering the latest talent and trends in contemporary theatre and dance, which always invigorates my own creativity.  Sadly this year due to the pandemic, I have instead been participating in some interesting webinars to get my fix.

One of the most fascinating was a discussion about Programming with Diversity in Mind organised by the Edinburgh Fringe. This was in important and timely intervention in the debates around Black Lives Matter as venues up and down the country challenge themselves to recognise that change is long overdue and I thought it would make an interesting topic for my blog this month, particularly as we move into Black History month.

The webinar was expertly chaired by Leicester based Pawlet Brookes, who runs the Lets Dance Festival and Black History season, with other speakers included Skinder Hundal from New Arts Exchange, Sharon Watson from Northern School of Contemporary Dance  and Stella Kanu from the International Lift Festival held in London.

It was inspirational to hear from Stella Kanu about how she is breaking down barriers of what she called “containment” – taking black work out to non-black spaces, using local expertise to inform and create work with community curators and stop thinking of Black work as “risky” in terms of commerciality. If we programme stories that relate and themes that bring about change we will attract audiences.

The following words really resonated with me and how Attenborough Arts Centre could support change

“Diversity is less about the gaze of white audiences and programmers – and as venues we need to create space and time, where people of colour can have their own conversations with others with similar experiences such as Windrush, hostile living conditions, everyday racism and then perhaps share with white audiences enabling them to understand more about the barriers and challenges. “ Stella asked for more time “for us” to understand ourselves, celebrate and understand our own hidden and common experiences and move away from the focus on trauma.

An important topic that is reflected in wider conversations across Universities such as our own at the University of Leicester is the need to de-colonise our programme, being aware of language, challenging accepted historic perspectives and looking for new voice, perspectives and source material.  If we shift language we also shift power by recognising “people of colour are not minorities but the global majority”.

With most arts organisations still failing to adequately reflect their local communities in the ethnic makeup of their staff, there was a strong recommendation to diversify teams to benefit from the richness of different cultural backgrounds and experiences working together.  Our traineeship programme aims to contribute to this diversification but we know we still have a long way to go.

The webinar ended with some practical suggestions that we will certainly be taking on board as we begin to plan for the coming year, which we will be using to shape our programming going forward.

We live in a disposable world – and we need to enable audiences to make their own choices not tell them what they are going to like.  Audiences are communities that create culture and we need to understand the psychology at play – pick and choose options are still valid and the shift to Digital consumption increases our chances for audience engagement as they can now pick the time to watch something in the comfort of their own homes.  We now have a great opportunity to build on new COVID audiences for cultural content

COVID has allowed for some important learning – importance demonstrated by audience demand for local cultural activity that could be shared such as people singing from balconies and dancing in the street. People now understand different forms culture takes and may be more prepared to take risks.  We can and should build on the thirst to be together again in social space but theatres need to shift to meet this more informal demand.  We need to invest in artists to increase their skills and knowledge about working in new ways that not only are socially engaged but socially distanced – also to build on evidence that collaborations can be developed quickly using new technology in ways not previously imagined.

The webinar ended with the following simple but dynamic recommendations which I loved. We need to be brave, take risks, and innovate. But above all, the Attenborough arts centre, along with the arts as whole, needs to have a clear future vision of change.

a silhouette sat in front of a martian landscape

September 2020 - Welcome to the Director's Blog

Welcome to the AAC’s new website which we hope will provide a more dynamic and interactive experience to our customers. As part of this new format, I’ve been invited to contribute a regular Director’s blog drawing on my experience of over 40 years in the arts and my past 10 years working at Attenborough Arts Centre.

Welcome to the AAC’s new website which we hope will provide a more dynamic and interactive experience to our customers. As part of this new format, I’ve been invited to contribute a regular Director’s blog drawing on my experience of over 40 years in the arts and my past 10 years working at Attenborough Arts Centre.

Part of the challenge for me, as the Director of such a special arts centre, is to reveal the wealth of activity that takes place behind the public programme of ticketed events, creative learning and exhibitions.  Much of what we do involves working directly with community and educational groups to foster confidence and break down barriers to access. This includes our weekly Tea Dance (a disco for those who have a learning disability and their support) and collaborations with community groups such as Brightsparks (arts in mental health) and Beacon Voices (Leics children in care choir). Our long term partnerships and projects with charities, schools and families are at the heart of what we provide to the community, and we are lucky to continue this work with the support of external funders like Children in Need and the Paul Hamlyn Foundation who have helped us launch ground-breaking new projects like SENsory Atelier.

Through writing a regular blog and inviting others to contribute, I hope you will build up a deeper understanding of the scope and impact of our work. I want to use this blog in a variety of different ways. To celebrate and share news about exciting new projects, to foster debate or raise awareness on particular issues linked to inclusion, disability or mental health or simply to share my passion about the importance the arts can play in wider health and well-being, within Universities and wider communities.

It has been a very busy four months for AAC, from closing down the arts centre and public programme in March, to planning our safe return.

 In the week leading up to the closing of our building, our Education and Outreach team prepared and posted 300 art packs to school children who have English as an additional language. This was part of the START project, which supports the delivery of a wide range of services designed to develop children’s learning skills. For the past 4 months, alongside this work, they have commissioned a new creative curriculum and sensory resources for nine Leicestershire schools partnered on our SENsory Atelier project. Our Next Gen Creatives group (made up of 14-18 year olds) have also been working with commissioned artists to co-create new work and a new blogsite.

During lockdown, over half of our staff team went on furlough, this left a small core team to carry forward the research and logistics planning of how we can re-open AAC safely and with fewer visitors. With this in mind, we will be aiming to re-open with a full public programme of performances and exhibitions in January 2021. Despite the cancellation of our public programme our Education and Outreach projects, artist rehearsals and commissions and student welfare will continue behind closed doors.

To support our wider regular audiences we are launching ‘Studio Attenborough’ with the aim to increase our digital presence, not only to engage some of our existing vulnerable audiences, but also to extend our reach to new audiences who have been engaging with arts content online during lockdown. We are aiming to reach out to customers who might be interested in seeing exciting small-scale theatre, dance and spoken word events produced by local artists from the comfort of their own home. We will also be offering some of our artist commissioning funds to create new content.

We will be launching ‘ Studio Attenborough’ to offer a digital platform for our Creative Learning programme. Offering a range of classes across many art disciplines, this will increase accessibility whilst still focusing on social connectivity through reduced capacity masterclasses or ‘click and collect’ options to create work at home.

We have lived through one of the most frightening and devastating challenges I can ever remember facing but I am hoping that we can remain as a safe and welcoming hub for cultural activity that everyone can enjoy.

Michaela Butter MBE


July 2020