In the South West, almost one-third of the population live in rural settlements and there are more people living in villages, hamlets and isolated dwellings than in any other English region – almost one in five of the region’s total population.
Arts and culture are often the lifeblood of the local community and one of the strongest examples of this is National portfolio organisation Prema Arts Centre.
Playful, slightly naughty and friendly
Long-time artistic director Gordon Scott has seen the centre embed itself into the community.
“I see people here I knew when they were at primary school, who now bring their own children. Years ago, when I carried out a local survey about what people thought an arts centre did, everyone said ‘art’, meaning painting and drawing. They didn’t realise we also had live music, theatre and workshops. When I told them about the full programme they’d think, well I like live music or comedy or whatever, and come and give us a try. And then they’d try something else.
“So whether it’s live music, directing a family Lego movie, needle felting woodland creatures or visiting the café, we try to offer audiences a lot of what they like and just a little bit of what they don’t know they like yet.”
Prema has been the base for a pioneering arts education programme since the early 1970s, when sculptor Andrew Wood first bought the chapel. It’s popular with locals but also draws visitors from nearby Cheltenham and Bristol.
Gordon Scott says: “Not everyone in the village goes to Prema, but they’re glad it’s there. We had over 74,000 visitors through the village last year. There’s the odd Volvo in our carpark but mostly it’s ordinary people who like a live band, some puppet theatre or who sign up to our participatory arts sessions.
“Prema’s intimate atmosphere means we work regularly with people who are anxious, or might assume that an arts centre is an alien environment.”
Rural communities have the same problems as communities everywhere. Prema tackles difficult subjects in approachable ways. One of the highlights of their recent programme was a crochet workshop for victims of domestic abuse. The group went on to yarn-bomb the village.
Gordon Scott says: “I’d describe Prema’s character as playful, slightly naughty and friendly. The events and activities which fill our building bring contemporary arts and creative practices to this small, tardis-like building, nestled in a small village in the southern half of Gloucestershire. “
Prema may be small but it's special
It’s apparent that Prema’s place in the community goes far beyond immediate economic returns or visitor attraction. They keep a light burning inside the community, reconnecting people with the public spaces they share. Individuals who can feel isolated are brought together and many develop their sense of self worth through that experience.
Phil Gibby, Area Director, South West, Arts Council England, says: “Prema may be a small arts centre but the quality of its programme and the extent to which it engages audiences and is truly embedded in its community, makes it very special.”