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Arts head: Sara Blair-Manning, the John Clare Trust and Cottage


The heritage chief talks access to poetry, volunteers, and why Maria Miller is wrong about cultural organisations in the regions

Hi Sara, can you tell us about the John Clare Trust and Cottage?

The John Clare Trust was formed in 2005 with the goal of obtaining Clare Cottage (the birthplace and family home of John Clare, the renowned Victorian 'peasant' poet) and transforming it into a site of historical, cultural and educational importance, open to the public. With the collaboration and help of many others, the cottage was purchased and a first stage application was made to the Heritage Lottery Fund to develop the site into a cultural, educational and environmental hub for every age group.

The Heritage Lottery Fund awarded the trust funding of £1.27m in May 2007, and following a major restoration project, the cottage in which Clare was born and lived for many years is now open to the public. My role as the chief executive is to raise the profile of Clare's life story, poetry and prose through a range of national events and initiatives, linked to the aims and objectives of our charity, and to ensure the long term future of this unique heritage site.

You've worked in arts and heritage for 20 years – what are the biggest changes you've seen in that time?

Much has changed, especially the way that charitable heritage and arts organisations now recognise that they need to work in a more business-like fashion. We now need to compete against multi-channel TV, gaming, the internet and other low and high-tech attractions, so organisations like ours need to focus on providing excellent customer service, value for money and delivering a great day out.

Everything is cyclical and the cultural sector is no different – sometimes there is money around and sometimes not. We're just in a lean time, and sooner or later the global economic situation will improve and people will have more money in their pockets to spend, and eventually the government will again understand the social and economic benefits of a strong and thriving cultural sector.

What are the main challenges to your role, and how do you overcome them?

My main challenge is to run a highly professional heritage operation on a tight budget. I oversee a team of seven part time staff and around 40 volunteers (for our main site). We open seven days a week, dropping to six from October to March, which is a big ask for a small team.

It's also a real battle to ensure that we are consistently economically sustainable and not just using grant project money each year to make our business viable. That can be quite challenging and stressful; we are not universally known as a heritage site and Clare's work is only an optional extra on the national curriculum, so it's a constant challenge to attract new visitors. But we are very fortunate that we are held in high regard within our community, something that I've worked hard at.

You have a lot of experience in managing volunteers – how do you keep that relationship strong?

Volunteers give their time freely and for a variety of reasons, so trying to keep your volunteer staff motivated is based on establishing why people want to volunteer in the first place, matching their needs with those of the organisation's, and making sure that the working environment is a positive and enjoyable place to be.

As someone who works in the cultural sector outside of London, how are you finding the situation in the regions?

Following Maria Miller's remarks a few weeks ago, it might seem to people outside the sector that organisations in the regions are just wafting about playing at being businesses, or worse, not bothered about delivering quality services on strict budgets. That is far from the truth, because organisations such as mine are acutely aware already about working effectively, bringing money to their locality and raising the profile of their heritage in the regions for the benefit of the UK as a whole.

However, sites such as ours are not situated in densely populated areas and do not necessary have famous brand names associated with their work, or high profiles. Because of this, one could argue that we have to be even more business-like and strategic in the regions to be successful. The John Clare Trust and our partners in the regions deliver high quality cultural events and heritage businesses for our local regional and national visitors and we have always worked hard to do so. For the culture secretary to suggest that this is not the case, or that we should be working harder is an insult to the regional cultural expertise which is undoubtedly continuing to do its best in very challenging economic times.

What do you say to Sir Andrew Motion's report in 2010 that poetry is seen as a "problem" for schools and a "bore" for pupils?

The apparent general attitude to poetry is a problem, which I think is based on a massive assumption that poetry is really airy, difficult to understand and much of it is a waste of time, with people wondering what difference it can make to your life experience.

Poetry is not airy. One only needs to look at the work of the first world war poets like Wilfred Owen to realise that poetry can be upsetting, graphic and hard hitting. Look at rap music: artists are performing the spoken word that, if written down on paper, most people would call poetry. So when you hear Suli Breaks or Dizraeli, they are performing work which is topical and true social commentary, and very attractive to the younger people of the Peterborough schools we work with. I would love to know how that can be boring for schools or anyone.

Do you think the sector does enough to educate and engage people about poetry?

I think we could take a more radical look at how young people need to be excited about poetry and how they have their first encounter with it. Having work read by either the poets themselves or confident teachers out loud, rather than reading it from the page, would help. Having alternative forms of spoken word events in schools such as rap battles would bring the spoken word to life for students.

Of course, having established and recognised poets and their work as part of the syllabus is important, but it's like anything: if you can bring it alive for young people and make it relevant, then they will be hooked for life. I'm afraid that Michael Gove has not got it right in respect to poetry – it is not just about remembering a series of words so you can trot it out later in life; it's about asking questions about why it was written, its relevance to your own life and understanding how and why people write poetry and prose.

What's next for the trust?

This year we have the official launch of our 2012 gold medal wining RHS Chelsea garden in July at Clare Cottage and the We Love Words International Literature and Poetry Festival, featuring Michael Portillo, Germaine Greer, Simon Armitage. Benjamin Zephaniah, Ian McMillan and Tony Husband to name a few of the acts. It's also the 150th anniversary of Clare's death in 2014, so we have some really exciting events planned for that.

Sara Blair-Manning is chief executive of the John Clare Trust and Cottage– follow it on Twitter @JClareCottage

Sara is also the artistic director of Peterborough's We Love Words festival, which runs from 20 to 28 September 2013

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