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OPINION: Annemarie Lewis Thomas – Moving… the true cost!

Annemarie LewisIt was a milestone week for the college last week when we finally revealed that we were moving premises. However as with all these things there is a more involved story behind the sound bite.

I won’t bore you with the details, but it had become apparent to me a while back that our current premises weren’t going to be the long term solution to our housing problem that I initially believed that they would be when we first moved in (through no fault of our own I should add). In our current home we share the space with another company, which means that by 6pm every day ‘our space’ becomes ‘theirs’, so our students have nowhere to rehearse after college.

Then as luck would have it I was discussing the issues with a mate, who went on to discuss it with his ‘mate’…and the next thing you know I was contacted by a representative from Bernie Grant Arts Centre asking if we’d consider relocating over to Tottenham. I resisted the move for quite some time, fearful that by being located within the grounds of a bigger arts organization that we’d get ‘lost’, but also aware that financially it was not the best time for the college to relocate.

We had a long term business plan in place that would see us saving a little bit of money each year, which would mean that 5 – 7 years down the line we would be in a good financial position to move. However having spent a lot of time over at BGAC and seeing the facilities that were being offered to us (including the most amazing state of the art theatre literally on our door step), the possibilities soon out weighed the difficulties. So my thinking became more solution focused as opposed to dismissive.

You see the difficulty of this ‘ethical training’ malarkey is that we don’t have big profits to play around with. All the money that comes in goes straight out to directly benefit the students’ training. Unlike some colleges we don’t have other businesses attached to the organisation that are funding the charitable arm. We’re rather more black and white, fees come in, and I pay all my costs out of them (with a safety margin of course in case students drop out etc), but to my way of thinking if I was left with a load of money at the end of each year, then I could either reduce our fees, or offer more scholarships, as it’s not about running a business to generate a profit.

So fast forward a few months and we’re here – a new lease in our hand, and a new building that ideally we need to get remodeled to make it work better for us. We could just leave it as it is, and it would be OK – but OK has never been a word that I like to settle for.

Fortunately among my acquaintances is an exceptional firm of architects who specializes in performing arts spaces, so I returned to them (having first used them when we moved across to Holloway) to get the ‘ideal’ drawn up, while thinking all the time that the ‘ideal’ would be the long term plan.

I had already agreed a loan with our bank to get some essential works carried out (originally I was going to borrow a lot more and secure it against a 2nd charge on my home, however my personal circumstances changed and that stopped being a possibility), so instead I’ve put my money where my mouth is and personally guaranteed the loan that we’ve secured. However I still wanted to explore the possibility of raising more capital to get the ‘ideal’. So I started to think about match funding. Now in the past 6 years I’ve written hundreds of letters trying to get sponsorship for the college to no avail, so experience told me not to hold out much hope down that road – which left me just one option to explore – crowd fundraising.

I have often looked into this, but have resisted it as to be honest I didn’t think that anyone would want to help. We’re all very good at talking the talk about elitism in the arts, but my experience to date is that very few people will then ‘donate’ to make a difference, but then why should they? After all The MTA is nobody’s responsibility except mine. My fantasy was that people question why we would move if we didn’t have the resources to do so (which of course isn’t the reality – the resources are in place for an ‘ok ‘ relocation, I just wanted to do something more…I wanted to strive for excellence).

So I spent a while asking around to see what people thought, I asked trusted acquaintances, I asked the students to see what they thought of the idea. My favorite response was from an agent who informed me that it was really cheeky – but that shouldn’t stop me from doing it. It was that response that spurred me on to try it. After all I had nothing to lose and everything to gain.

At the time of writing the campaign has been active for a week and I’ve been humbled by the donations, and the comments that have accompanied them. However I hate the fact that I feel like I’m badgering people the whole time. I have no choice, the world of social networking means that in order to keep something alive, reminders of an active campaign have to keep going out, in the hope that a couple of people will see it every time. Already the campaign has made a difference, and will enable us to do a bit more than ‘ok’

Yet every time I post a reminder I squirm inside, in spite of the fact that I personally gain nothing from the money raised. I’m aware that I’m not raising money for some life saving treatment, or trying to raise awareness of some terrible illness, but getting the college right will make a massive difference to our students/ambassadors, and potentially the arts community in Tottenham, once we get our proposed outreach programme going. I find it interesting how many people are crowdfunding for things that are 100% for them. Do they go through the same ‘squirm’ every time they post a reminder? How do you combat that feeling of being an annoying fly in the ointment of fun FB posts?

A week in what’s struck me is how many people ignore the campaign altogether. Have we all just become ‘campaign blind’? Is it because as far as they’re concerned it’s got nothing to do with them? Yet these would be the same people that get in touch with me/the college regularly asking for favours – needing some music, a song recorded, an ensemble for a concert, a rent-a-mob for some thing or another, some free rehearsal space… the list goes on. However it’s not only colleagues that ignore the campaign. I have ambassadors who will directly benefit from the new premises, refusing to help raise awareness. Obviously they’re not saying outright that they won’t help, but rather they’re doing the thing of ‘looking away’ whenever it’s mentioned. Yet they’ll be the first people to come to a class when the time comes. Or what about my own friends who have asked time after time over the past few years – for me to let them know what they can do to help, or commended me on the risks that I’ve taken in setting up the college, yet now that there is something for them to do – they’ve all ‘not seen’ the campaign… but then I return to my initial reservation – why would or indeed should anybody want to help? The MTA is an ethereal thought to most people – whereas of course to me, it’s an all consuming ‘thing’ that needs nurturing and developing.

I have never contributed to a crowdfunding scheme – my own take on it is that my spare cash should go directly back to the college (we have a Hardship Fund in dire need of a cash injection), I can’t afford to help a mate create their dream show/album, as it’s not my dream, and other than the people who hear the album, watch the show, what else is that show/album giving back to society as as whole? I do though always acknowledge their schemes and explain why I’m not in a position to help. The MTA is a registered charity – and I’ve read many a status about how much so and so does for charity behind closed doors so they’re not going to be guilted into doing X, Y or Z now for a charity that is not their chosen one – and I agree. I have my own preferred charities that I’ll always donate to (and I don’t advertise that fact), and then of course we all have a finite amount of spare cash so we have to pick our causes carefully. Why donate pounds/pennies to a college that has nothing to do with you, when you could spend that cash on something much closer to home – you! In other words I know all the reasons why people chose not to contribute.

So where does that leave me? I guess that it just leaves me out in the wilderness ‘being cheeky’ – asking strangers to give a few pounds to a college that is attempting to do things differently. I’m find it strangely risky though in a way that I hadn’t bargained for. It’s made me ponder whether I should jump to help people out when they need a favour, should the college become this nice ‘handy/cheap resource’ for people in need, or indeed whether ‘a college for life’ is just a notion that allows graduates to simply ‘take’ with no paying it forward. Then just as I begin to question the ‘greater good’ and find myself straying towards a life of cynicism, I’ll see a status from an ambassador/student, full of pride for this ‘ethereal notion’, or I’m humbled when a parent, who has already spent thousands on their child’s training with us decides that we’re worthy of a few pounds more (even though I’ve told students to stop their parents donating as I’m really uncomfortable with it) or an acquaintance/friend suddenly donates with a supportive endorsement of what I set out to do….so I gird my loins, pop my pride on the shelf, and ask for a donation once more, because we should never settle in life for ‘OK’, at least not when there’s a chance of an ideal. When I think about it, I guess that’s just #themtaway – striving for perfection.

EDITORS NOTE: You can help contribute to The MTA’s relocation by donating here: http://www.gofundme.com/themtaonline

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Our Features team is under the editorship of Nicole Craft. The team is responsible for sourcing interviews, articles, competitions from across the country. The Reviews Hub was set up in 2007. Our mission is to provide the most in-depth, nationwide arts coverage online.