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.
4 silhouetted figures in front of a red martian landscape

February 2021 - 5 years of our Gallery

Hard to believe that it is just five years since we welcomed David and Michael Attenborough at the Attenborough Arts Centre to officially open our new galleries with an exhibition by internationally acclaimed artists and environmentalist champions, Jorge and Lucy Orta.

When I came to Leicester it was just as the wonderful City Gallery was closing, leaving Leicester with very limited spaces to see contemporary visual arts. When I talked about this with the University I was told that if I could raise the funding the University would be happy to offer the land to build a new creative hub for Visual Arts for the City, capable of hosting and creating high quality exhibitions of local, national and international artists with inclusivity at its core.

Receiving a grant of £600,000 from Arts Council England was the catalyst that initiated an energetic fundraising campaign that saw over 1000 people donate towards our dream and in a record four years we realised the project within a modest budget of £1.6 million.

The new galleries created the largest space in Leicester for exhibiting contemporary art with the environmental infrastructure to host museum quality exhibitions within a set of four, very flexible indoor and outdoor spaces, building on my teams’ experience of working on a range of Capital projects across the East Midlands and through the generosity of advice from architects, artists and technicians.

Our vision was to show exciting and high quality work that would promote disabled artists within the context of a mainstream gallery as well as well as tackling important issue based themes to build on our role of championing inclusion and challenging prejudice. Looking back over the range of shows we have offered I think we have done this.

We have now hosted over 20 shows that has included over 200 artists in a mix of solo and group exhibitions which have been visited by over 143,000 visitors. We wanted to introduce audiences to early and mid-career artists or those that we felt had not had the recognition they deserved.  Over half of those who have exhibited with us were disabled and a third were ethnically diverse demonstrating in promoting inclusion and diversity within our Multi cultural city .

The new galleries has enabled us to collaborate with national partners the Arts Council Collection, Hayward Touring, New Arts Exchange, Dash  and Shape as well as international galleries such as Stephen Friedman Gallery, Cynthia Corbett Gallery and Flowers Gallery.

There are too many exhibition to be able to review all of them so I am claiming Director’s privilege to highlight some particular memorable moments for me.  Tony Heaton’s disability car swinging precariously above the then Chair of Arts Council England, Sir Peter Bazelgette.  Ryan Gander’s little Degas ballet dancer curled up asleep on the floor of the Arts Council touring show Night in the Museum, work by our talented tutors celebrating the Industrial history of Leicester, and the superb solo shows that highlighted a man in a yellow long coat and no shirt, with chain mail trousers holding 3 dogs' leadswork of exceptional artists that were perhaps less familiar to audiences including American portrait photographer Laura Swanson, sculptor and film maker Amartey Golding’s powerful anti-knife crime work, colourist painters Sargy Mann and Lucy Jones and the performance artist, Aaron Williamson with his first major retrospective re-imagining a museum.

I am also very proud of our ambitious and impactful De Stress festival curated by guest curator, Gurdeep Sian, with the powerful installation about the experience of Manic Depression by Dave Parkin and other artist with lived experience of mental health challenges.

Finally, and by no means last the privilege of working with the Arts Council Collection to commission Yinka Shonibare to bring together a wonderful group show, Criminal Ornamentation, including new work by him that has led to him becoming a Patron alongside Grayson Perry whose portrait we commissioned from Lucy Jones.

a young girl and her mum looking at a marble statueI have been particularly excited to see how our education and outreach team has been able to blossom using the gallery content as creative stimulus for sessions with community groups, young people and their families.  Over 5 years over 10,000 Children and Young people have accessed our exhibitions with some award winning and ground breaking support put in place from our Sensory Suitcases to technology to enable young people without speech to create poetry about the work on display with funding from Max Literacy Project!  Our weekend family workshop programme has grown from strength to strength alongside provision of tailored educational packs, masterclasses and children creating their very own exhibitions in response to the art work and artists they have met.

A woman breakdancing in the galleryIt has been wonderful to be able to commission new work by artists of the calibre of the Ortas, John Newling and Lucy Jones as well as support other creatives to use the spaces as their blank canvas from dancers like Lewys Holt and Katherine Hall to Live Artists like Priya Mistry and a range of comedians as well as host multi-faceted arts events through our free Gallery Late programme that was building new and younger audiences for the AAC until lock down happened.  Now during COVID we are using the galleries to record events to reach you at home with Podcasts, Music and performances.

I had hoped to talk about exciting new developments for our galleries this year but will save that for another blog when we know when we can physically welcome you back into the building!

MB 3

January 2021 - A New Year

A Happy New Year to all of you and a fervent wish that we will see an end to the current challenges over this coming year so we can welcome you back to our building – we are missing all of our regular customers so much!

AAC will have to remain closed for at least the next two months and we are reviewing how we can further promote access to our artistic content and although we are currently unable to open our gallery doors, our visual arts team are working with artists to take our visual art programme online. Tim Neath’s solo exhibition ‘Cowboys Invaded’ will now take place digitally, and will feature the video piece that AAC commissioned especially for his planned show.

The AAC education and outreach team continue to provide ground breaking and innovative approaches to their work with schools, families and young People. Alongside ongoing commitments such as Wheelchair dancing, Bronze Art Award and training and development opportunities for local teachers there are some very exciting projects underway.

Key highlights for January include

Little Inventors is a City Wide initiative being led by local artist producers, Inspirate, Little Inventors and AAC funded by the UK Space Agency and match form our Paul Hamlyn Funded SENSory Atelier programme.  The project seeks to stimulate children’s imagination, connecting science and the arts in a new way, and treating children’s ideas seriously.  With Leicester’s growing reputation for space research and innovation and the opening of the University’s new Space Park, the Little Inventors project invites children to create an invention that helps, or makes life more fun, for an astronaut aboard the International Space Station.

Tim peake and the little inventors AAC is taking the lead in ensuring 3 of our SEN school partners are actively engaged in this project by developing tailored educational packs for young people with special educational needs and disabilities. We were particularly proud and pleased to have secured the support of astronaut Tim Peake who agreed to be interviewed for an interactive resource using the young people’s own questions about life in space.

 Nurture is a brand new initiative to create a support network of artists committed to working within inclusive community settings.  Our aim is to provide opportunities for skills sharing and training as well as a safe and creative space for freelancers during these difficult times. Our first meeting featured guest speaker Debbie Bandara (https://www.debbiebandara.com/) and attracted 18 artists internationally to share practice and address challenges.  Further events are planned bi-monthly, sign up to the newsletter to be kept up to date with the network’s activity https://attenborougharts.us2.list-manage.com/subscribe?u=4047779f7fe6d67c865aedfcc&id=ccdf72f7e5

Between the Lines – work continues with artist Chris Samuel and our Next Gen Creatives young people Ambassador scheme as part of the community outreach programme linked to  UK New Artists Festival that was planned for February.  Whilst the future of the actual Festival is uncertain our project continues with over 8 young people busily creating artistic content for our digital platform.

Living Well with Parkinsons – this fantastic partnership project with People Dancing offers the opportunity for dance based activity to support foster mobility and confidence of people with Parkinsons, working with some of the country’s leading dancers.

In terms of our support to performing artists, January will see the start of a new digital season of Unexpected Tales – a set of micro-commissions selected from a range of performers designed to keep you entertained on a cold dark night.  Last season performances ranged from murder mysteries to cosmic encounters, archaeology to psychology with breath-taking monologues, poetry and physical theatre to make you laugh or cry and sometimes both!

We will also be working with Tightrope, our new artist collective partnership, to bring a Showcase of new talent this weekend (17 January), and available to catch up on any time.

We remain open to ad-hoc artist support from home, and I’d encourage you to contact the Programming Officer John Kirby (john.kirby@leicester.ac.uk) to see how we may be able to support you.”

Also we launch a new programme of Creative Learning with a range of Art History courses, Yoga and Life Drawing to keep you busy.

Our doors may be closed but our creative heart remains open – come and take a look!

Best wishes

Michaela Butter

An assortment of creative tool, brushes, pencil, and a camera

December 2020 - A year in Review

Well 2020 was certainly not the year any of us saw coming!  All those Risk plans and Future Scoping exercises over the years and I can honestly say a Pandemic threat never made it to the lists!

Despite our building being closed since March the whole team has been incredibly busy so I thought it would be good to take a look at what we have achieved since then.  I hope you will agree that it demonstrates so clearly what a fabulous team I have in my staff and board.  They have all been working tirelessly to find ways to still engage with audiences whilst supporting me to overcome financial challenges and find safe solutions in maintaining our commitment to access and inclusion for all.

As there are the 12 days of Christmas, I thought I would pick out 12 highlights over the past 12 months whilst sharing some of my own personal adventures during this time!

Two people looking at the Sargy exhibit

January saw the closure of the fabulous retrospective of the artist Sargy Mann with whom I had been privileged to work earlier in my career.  Sargy’s rich paintings brought much needed colour and sunshine to lighten up our spirits and

we were delighted when the BBC came to film the show for a thought-provoking programme about artists with Visual Impairment and how it impacted on their work.

 

February – whilst the staff worked hard to deliver a whole range of Festival activity from a world first BSL Comedy Festival to wonderful children’s activity during Spark,  I was off travelling around Columbia, encountering amazing street art, mining for emeralds, attending the world’s second largest street  carnival and visiting a whole range of galleries and museums.

group of people silhouetted against mariner 9

March – we opened the incredible Mariner 9 exhibition with a very popular launch party, with over 160 people in attendance, enjoying the art, stall from the Space Centre and meteorite collection. But then had to close the building for the safety of our customers and staff but not before creating 200 inclusive creative packs for our young people involved in our outreach programme,  honoured payments to all the artists we had booked for the season and organised the technology necessary to work from home.

artist making a flagApril –We worked with our Next Gen creatives – our young ambassador scheme who selected artist Emma-Lewis Jones to work with on an upcoming digital project.   We also saw the launch of the Attenborough Arts Centre podcast series, talking to the artists working with us as well as local Leicester artists. Since the launch we’ve had over a thousand downloads and had people lining up to take part.

May – In may, we started work on making our building as safe as possible in preparation for our return including new screens, signage and improvements to our toilets. We also helped to convert the popular student event, Leicester Fiesta, into a digital platform, celebrating the wealth of creative talent across the 1000 students involved in the arts.

No jobs in the artsJune – We finalised our new creative learning programming, taking a blended learning approach to ensuring our learners had access to the programme from the safety of their homes. We also worked with the disabled artist collective No Jobs in the Arts to create our very first Zine together, launching a commission for new and emerging artists across the East Midlands.

July We rolled out a summer competition for children asking them how they would want the world to be after COVID and created a calendar for the winners. Led by Jenny O’Sullivan from the visual arts team and working with the ERD team, the completed calendar was sent out in time for Christmas.

A bright, multicoloured house in LiguariaAugust We applied and received recovery funding from Arts Council England to support the loss of all of our income and launched our new website. I also managed to find new inspiration for public art commissions and our forthcoming Centenary in the hills and coastal towns of Liguria.

September. We secured funding to run an exciting new Creative Fellowship scheme giving the chance for 5 academics to work with 5 artists on projects that focus on equality and diversity, using our links to the university to start nationally important research.

Filming in Studio attenboroughOctober We launched Studio Attenborough to create new digital content not just for the AAC but to support artists and student societies to create and promote their work.  We welcomed back students on campus with a new version of Wild Card Wednesdays to be delivered in Halls of Residence and set up a new set of performing arts commissions called Unexpected Tales that went on line every Thursday building up to 250 attendances per week and providing much needed financial support to our freelance sector.

November We had to close our building again but launched a new set of commissions in partnership with Disability arts online to support disabled visual artists during this difficult period as well as facilitating an Artists Take Over by the artist collective No Jobs in the Arts. We were delighted with the range and quality of the students who applied for the University Music Scholarships providing opportunities to work with both local professional artists and also Philharmonic Orchestra.

Bob interviewing tim PeakDecember. We had the amazing opportunity to interview the astronaut Tim Peake in preparation for a major new arts and science project next year called Little Inventors which will be working with a number of schools across Leicester including our SEN partnership schools involved in the Paul Hamlyn project. And finally we also had Keith join our team as the cinematographer for our new Studio Attenborough materials.

 

I leave with you the chance to listen to one of our fabulous new music scholars who also happens to work part time with us as our Visual Arts Trainee – Jenny O Sullivan playing the cello in the our Mariner 9 exhibition to mark its closure.

Wishing you all a very happy holiday season and look forward to welcoming you back to the AAC as soon as it is safe to do so.

Michaela Butter

A child building sculptures in clay as a tutor looks over

November 2020 - Children in Need

November has arrived and with is comes a series of important events and anniversaries for the Attenborough Arts Centre. Firstly, the fifth anniversary of our gallery space opening and hosting our first, the disability activism exhibition taking centre stage of the launch. Secondly, with the country plunged back into a lockdown with theatre and art spaces closed, we are so excited to be hosting the Attenborough Lockdown Festival to help keep people’s spirits up during these turbulent times. And finally, it’s the sixth anniversary of our relationship with Children in Need, who have been supporting our SEN programme.  

When I started writing this regular directors blog, I hoped to build up a deeper understanding of the scope and impact of the work that we regularly undertake at the Attenborough Arts Centre and as such I can’t think of a more rewarding and important topic to discuss than our successful and growing relationship with BBC Children in Need (CIN), especially as it is an aspect of our work that many of our regularly patron are unaware of.  

The impact of CIN’s support cannot be overstated. In six years, we are grateful to have been in receipt of over £174,000 in funding from Children in Need, all of which goes toward of SEN programme, working with specialist schools and education settings in and around Leicester. That figure on its own is quite understandably exciting, but what is more amazing is the impact the funding has had. Marianne Pape, the Education and Outreach officer at the Attenborough Arts Centre, has overseen nearly 150 events, giving over 200 children an access to the arts that was previously impossible.  

These statistics can only tell half the story. What really makes me proud of the work that we do is the feedback we get, not just from the children who take part in the groups, but from their parents, family and friends. It’s too easy to forget how many people are positively affected by supporting just one child, especially during the current lockdown.  

With people shielding and separated from their friends, normality now a seeming distant memory, to be able to bring joy to children through the arts has been a vital service. The work that the team has been undertaking is now more important than ever. They have adapted how they are working – now unable to visit children’s schools and centres, they have been commissioning digital work that people can access from home, such as the Wheelchair Dance Sessions.  

“During lockdown our daughter has had to be shielded so it has been difficult to keep her happy and motivated during this time. She’s not been able to see any friends. Doing the online dance has allowed her to do an activity she really enjoys from home which has been great.” 

As we enter the sixth year of our relationship we are very excited about what the future will bring. Although we aren’t able to go into more details currently, we are confident that the next 12 months will see a continuation of our programme with one or two very interesting events taking place.  

I’m immensely proud of our Education team and the work that they have achieved over the last 6 years and it’s something I unashamedly talk about when talking to other venues within our sector.  

Michaela Butter MBE 

Director 

November 2020 

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

Director

July 2020