In practice reflections about collective community memory and stakeholder balancing, from a community consultation for Hornsey Town Hall Arts Centre.

August 15, 2019

Setting the scene

Over the past year we have worked with cultural place-making and media specialists The Time + Space Co. who manage and operate Hornsey Town Hall Arts Centre (HTH Arts Centre). They asked us to undertake community consultation to understand the need and demand in relation to its future use.

The Town Hall is a beautiful building originally completed in the 1930s and one of my highlights working on the project was a peek at some of the original features. Unsurprisingly there is a huge amount of local love for this place. I recently chatted to Andrew Major, Head of Space + Community, to share key reflections....

Balancing views of super-engaged stakeholders with new audiences – a layered methodology

One of the challenges was how to balance the important needs of those hyperlocal groups who have had a strong sense of involvement with and ownership of HTH over the years, with needs of local people who may not even know about it. Added to this was the consideration of how HTH Arts Centre could be an asset for people across the wider borough and beyond.

In reality, a consultation process led by an external consultant (us) can only go so far in the process. Our work built on a lot of existing relationships developed internally, but a layered approach was key to engaging different people. This included:

  • Exploring population data and local arts engagement statistics
  • Mapping community relationships and spotting gaps
  • Consultation discussions, including pop-up consultation at public events
  • Surveys.
  • Plenty of refection in between was also key.

The findings from this consultation provide some evidence to sense check what many people may already know. Crucially though, it has generated a base of evidence on which HTH Arts Centre can build. They are now more informed about what kinds of new relationships to seek.

Negative feedback is usually down to communications – and consultation can help address this

One of Andrew’s key reflections was that any distrust or fear about changes to the building and area were mainly due to misinformation and communications challenges. Through the process it became clear that sometimes information about the Arts Centre was not reaching the right people, or inevitably messages weren’t clear or accurate. Through opening a dialogue in multiple ways there was a greater sense of clarity and awareness that a publicly accessible arts centre would actually be opening. Consultation proved to be a strong form of engagement.

Addressing the long-term collective memory - the need to take ownership of predecessors' mistakes

It was evident that various failed bids and redevelopment initiatives in the past had affected how some people thought about this new redevelopment project. This collective community memory was strong. Andrew reflected that is was important for them to own the challenges from the past in their aspirations for the future, even though The Time + Space Co. had not been around until recently. From the perspective of The Audience Agency, my key learning was that we’d spend longer mapping a timeline and stakeholders well into a venue’s past – before we think about the now and the future.

Build an assets-based approach to consultation – be specific in your ask

Andrew said his top take away from the experience was taking an assets-based approach to their ongoing consultation. He has found it more effective to consider the knowledge and expertise people and partners are valued for - then approaching them to talk specifically about that. This has really helped potential audiences and partners find common ground and feel valued. It also places HTH Arts Centre in a wider ecology, a principle that sits at the core of any community and place-based initiative.

Andrew’s additional tips when undertaking community consultation:

  • Don’t ever be arrogant and think you don’t need your communities’ support and help.

  • Whether is a local organisation or a corporate company, always show your face and talk to people – and know that it could take many face to face meetings before the trust has been established and real opinions are shared.

  • Be honest and don’t over promise or make out anything to be better than it will be.

  • Know that listening to people is ongoing – you can’t ask them, then stop listening at a certain point – so plan for ongoing mechanisms for this dialogue. Andrew and his colleagues developed more drop-in sessions after the consultation project to keep the conversation going. They are also talking to more colleges and schools after young people emerged as a priority through consultation.

  • Be comfortable knowing there will always be some opposition, as long as you are doing right by the majority.

  • Don’t ever be scared to undertake consultation. Whilst it was valuable to involve an external agency to bring that objectivity to the process, being involved in some of the sessions and having the chance to talk to people and hear positivity helped cement how very excited we are about the future of HTH Arts Centre.

You can read more about Hornsey Town Hall Arts Centre and read the full consultation report here.

Featured in the August edition of The Learning Diaries. Aimed at those working in learning, engagement or participation in the cultural sector, this newsletter will share updates from our team on sector events, ideas from some of our projects and links to new research. To receive The Learning Diaries, visit the sign up page.