“I think I have fixed ideas about how to do the job, but it would be wrong to say I have fixed ideas about the programme going forward.”
Richard has served his apprenticeship as a trustee, but will be seeing first how the land lies in his new role, particularly as he inherits the centre in good shape thanks to outgoing chairman Monty Toms who has retired after many years’ service: “Monty has contributed an enormous amount of energy and ensured the Oxmarket is a welcoming place for artists and visitors.”
But whereas Monty was an artist, Richard comes to the task as an industrialist and a businessman: “I don’t think I will be bringing commerciality to it all because that would be the wrong word for a non-profit-making organisation.”
But Richard is confident his particular set of skills will be more than useful for a centre now well into its fifth decade. He’s certainly aware of its strengths: “The first thing the centre gets right is it is very much open access. As a non-profit-making company, we have rates for renting the space out to artists that are really competitive, and that means new and emerging talent can find space for display, which is not always easy to find when you are starting out.
“But also because of the nature of the space, we can have everything from one-man exhibitions to big societies such as the Society of Floral Painters that come to us more or less every other year. We have that flexibility.
“And I also think we as a centre are getting better at not hiding our light under a bushel and getting better at bringing attention to visitors and to residents this little gem that is on offer stuck behind Little London car park and East Street! We have got better at drawing people’s attention to what we are doing. We are curating more than 100 exhibitions a year.”
The challenge, however, is the centre walks a tightrope when it comes to finances. Just as you’d expect in a 12th-century church, the costs of keeping the centre running are high, around £50,000 a year, including two staff members who cover its six days of opening and its one day a week of hanging pictures: “If we let our space throughout the year, we could sleep easy in our beds, but in a recession when money is tight because artists are not selling their work, we have gaps which is when money is not coming in.”
Hence the tightrope between stewardship of the building and the principle of open access: “It’s a question of achieving a balance.”
Richard would be strongly against admission charges, but he makes the point that if one in five of the 25,000 people who visit the centre each year made a one-pound donation, it would be a major contribution towards its costs.
Under Richard’s regime, we can expect the donations box to be rather more prominent. Just as importantly, Richard will be hoping to get the centre to reflect all that is happening in the art world. A great believer in the transformational power of art, he will be looking to increase the amount of art at the centre which you might term edgier or more experimental, He is also looking to forge strong links with businesses, all part of the centre’s place within the community.