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Growth Hub assists Midlands Arts Centre with renovation and innovation

Thursday 17th December

The GBSLEP Growth Hub has supported Midlands Arts Centre (MAC) to renovate their disused and unsafe outdoor Arena and to innovate their existing processes. MAC is a community arts centre located outside of the city centre, in Birmingham’s Cannon Hill Park. MAC’s mission is to promote innovative, creative arts activities in ways which help to establish them as an important part of people's lives.

MAC receives over 1 million visits per annum and present an exciting and inclusive programme of international, national and regional art, performance and film. The facilities include: two theatres, a cinema, three galleries, studios for dance/performance and music, as well as places for making and doing – digital, jewellery, ceramics, sculpture, and painting.

Many businesses in the creative industries have suffered due to the coronavirus pandemic, with activities such as festivals, concerts, shows and more being cancelled or postponed. MAC is one of the affected organisations in the cultural and arts economy, Sally Pennington, Head of Development, explains how social distancing measures affected their business operations: “The impact of Covid-19 restrictions means that MAC will not be able to reopen until 2021, we cannot operate viably as a single service venue, and almost all of our income is generated from MAC Trading activities - the café, bar, conferences and ticket sales. These important revenue streams make up 85% of our annual turnover. Emergency grants that we have received during closure are being used to adapt the venue and ensure the safety of our artists, staff and audiences.”

Initially, MAC contemplated using a small outside area that they have to host outdoor events: “MAC have access to a small outdoor terrace where it would be possible to present outdoor performances. However, as a charity we need to think about risk, resilience, protecting jobs and ensuring the sustainability of the organisation – we need to adapt our larger, flexible space, the Arena, to present a bigger programme for larger audiences for longer term resilience and enabling MAC to thrive into the future.” (Sally Pennington, Head of Development, MAC)

Fundraising to adapt the Arena during the pandemic would present a number of challenges, Sally said: “there was a lack of eligible funds out there for a capital venture – with many of our regular supporters naturally realigning their criteria to support vital frontline activity. We needed to find investment that supported future business planning and income generation.”

It was the Pivot & Prosper grant funded by the GBSLEP, with business support from the GBSLEP Growth Hub, that helped MAC with their ambitious renovation project. Sally (Head of Development, MAC) explains how she found out about the expert Growth Hub services: “We’d recently received money from the GBSLEP to fund a beautiful new studio and  garden at MAC, and Kerry Billington, our Project Ambassador, told me about the newly announced Pivot & Prosper funds.”

MAC was successful in receiving the grant and the funding will be put towards undertaking an exciting renovation of its existing 450-seater open-air performance space, the Arena. The renovation will include removing unsafe rigging, concrete podiums and the existing canopy to make the venue safe; installing a new canopy and state-of-the-art rigging system to provide a high-quality outdoor experience; appropriate groundwork and general clean-up/maintenance.

The revamped Arena will meet high demand for outdoor business events, private hires and educational/schools’ activity. “With the help of the Pivot & Prosper fund, we are investing in new opportunities, capitalising on our unique location and night-time economy.” Sally continued: “In Spring 2021, we will have an outdoor, fully accessible venue – which can support social distancing – welcoming audiences back to MAC and presenting the best in theatre, comedy, cinema and dance. As well as offering the City a unique outdoor events and conferencing alternative. We are absolutely thrilled.”

As well as helping with the application for the Pivot & Prosper funding, Richard Beason, the Growth Hub’s Creative & Cultural sector specialist, has introduced MAC to the brand new GBSLEP Skills & Apprenticeships Hub, where they are looking to upskill and possibly take on Kickstart placement employees (find out more about the Kickstart Scheme here). Sally stated: “the conversations that we are having with Richard are very valuable. We are looking at skills and how we future-proof our workforce to make MAC even more efficient and effective. We want to be a great employer and increase the confidence of our staff and our audiences, so we are working very closely with Richard.”

MAC is also focusing on innovating the organisation – specifically in upgrading the digital infrastructure throughout the site – thus, Richard introduced Sally to Focus Digital, a programme delivered by Coventry University that presents new digital products and technologies. “As well as investing in our workforce, we also need to develop our digital capabilities and Richard has been absolutely amazing at connecting me with the right people to talk about funding and knowledge sharing. Without Richard, I wouldn’t have this network, we didn’t have it as an organisation and now through the Growth Hub, we do.” (Sally Pennington, Head of Development, MAC)

Sally has been most impressed with “there is a great depth of knowledge and the way that it is shared with me, it’s very user-friendly.” She is delighted with how Richard has communicated the terminology in layman’s terms: “a lot of these things are very complex governmental regulations and initiatives, and ordinarily that could be very confusing and the jargon can be quite difficult to understand, but actually with Richard, he has helped me overcome that and has given it to me in an easy-to-understand way.”

Speaking on his experience in working with MAC, Richard Beason, said: "along with most performing arts venues, MAC Birmingham has been badly hit by the effects of COVID-19, in particular the ability to welcome people into the venue. I first met Sally Pennington this summer, in support of the MAC's Pivot & Prosper grant application which was based on resurrecting the outdoor theatre. As work has progressed since being awarded the grant, I have been able to work with Sally, introducing new projects of benefit to the organisation. During the same period the scale of the project has grown giving the MAC the prospect of a wonderful self-contained outdoor facility coming on stream, just as society begins to emerge from self-isolation with the promise of a brighter future."

MAC is currently closed to the public but are looking forward to the future. The organisation is hoping to reopen in the spring but in the meantime, they have a whole array of digital projects that you can get involved in. We are glad to see that the tailored support from the Growth Hub and the funding from the GBSLEP has provided opportunities for MAC to innovate their business during a particularly challenging time for the arts.

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