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Interview: The Atkinson Development Trust

Interview: The Atkinson Develpment Trust
Interview by Patrick Kirk-Smith

Southport is about to welcome one of the most significant archives in the UK, housing the British Museum and York Museums Trust’s Viking: Rediscover the Legend. Following on from Mrs Goodison’s collection of Egyptian artifacts, and alongside a major exhibition detailing the fascinating history of Sefton coastline, the Viking exhibition builds on The Atkinson’s reputation as a gallery and museum.

Ahead of the exhibition launch on Saturday we wanted to know more about the challenges facing the development trust behind the busy multi-arts centre so put a few questions to them, and I think it’s safe to say that most galleries around the region could take stead of some of their thoughts:

What are the aims of the trust?

The Atkinson Development Trust is a charity run by a small, committed group of skilled volunteers who have a shared love of Sefton and The Atkinson. In short, our aim is to raise money – it’s what we do with it that’s interesting.

How does your work impact the development of the Atkinson?

We all believe in the transformative power of art. And that communities thrive best when they have civic pride and a sense of place. So, the Trust was established to support The Atkinson to use its collections to make a positive impact on local people’s lives.

Are there any challenges to developing an arts centre in Southport and how does your work impact the development of the town?

The Atkinson is the council-owned arts centre which serves the borough of Sefton. If you’ve visited, you’ll know it’s a handsome Grade II listed building, prominent on Lord Street in the heart of Southport. After significant capital investment, it’s the cultural jewel in Sefton’s crown.

The staff at The Atkinson do brilliant, inspiring work with different groups and communities, sometimes working intensively with just a small number of people, but in a way that makes a big impact on their lives. This is costly, but we think it really matters: the projects we support work with some of the most vulnerable and under-served people in this community. Our role is to raise money from individuals, businesses and funding bodies who also think that this work matters.

From loose change to large gifts, we collaborate with The Atkinson to make people’s donations work really hard. Sometimes we provide a small amount of money as leverage to bid for a much bigger amount from a funder. Sometimes we contribute directly to specific projects, or we might help purchase a new acquisition if it unlocks something particularly exciting.

We chipped in to buy a rare artist’s sketch piece – a practice bit of stone carving from the Amarna period (c1330BC) – to add to The Atkinson’s Egyptian collections. What’s remarkable about that? The first people who saw that piece of ancient history when it arrived were not regular museum visitors but a group of children from Christ Church Primary school in Bootle. The Amarna sketch piece was used publicly to bring to life the museum’s nationally significant Ancient Egypt collection, and tell a previously untold story of female explorers and collectors in the North West, with a local woman, Mrs Anne Goodison, front and centre in the tale. Under the radar, it was the catalyst for the school’s project we supported, which involved placing a poet-in-residence and an Egyptologist-in-residence in the school to spark curiosity, inspire creativity and improve literacy. The kids and their parents attended the opening night of the Adventures in Egypt exhibition to perform the poem they’d written in class – for many of them, it was their first time through the doors. We hope we’ve given them a sense of entitlement to take up space in those galleries from now on.

The main challenge for us are that people across the country are generally feeling frustration at cuts to council services… meanwhile we’re asking people to donate to something they see as having the council behind it. Which of course they are, but purse strings have been tightened, the same as everywhere else. We want to get the message across that, far beyond the arts service that the council pays for, we are using the amazing resource that is The Atkinson to make extraordinary things happen. Every time someone donates to The Atkinson Development Trust, they are bringing communities together, changing people’s perceptions, inspiring them, improving their wellbeing, and giving our young people aspirations.

What is the impact on Liverpool City Region developments on the work of The Atkinson?

We’ve got our eye on three major Liverpool City Region projects and what possibilities they present. We had a very excited conversation in our last board meeting about how one of them would be perfect for an intergenerational project, bringing local groups together to share their memories and hopes, whilst involved in the communal act of construction. If it comes off, the outcome would be frankly quite magical.

What are your main goals for the coming years?

What’s on the horizon for us? Most pressingly, The Vikings are coming! We’re focused on working hand in hand with The Atkinson team to grasp the exciting opportunities coming up. They don’t get much more exciting than hosting a major British Museum and York Museums Trust touring exhibition, combining world-renowned objects with local stories of the Sefton coast in the Viking Age. There will be lots of visitors through the door and if half of them were to throw a few quid into the donation boxes we could do something brilliant to connect local children with the rich heritage of this area, like sending some (house-trained) Vikings into schools.