‘We need to blow our own trumpet’ – OnFife’s new chair on life after lockdown
It feels like a lifetime ago that Fife’s theatres fell dark, libraries closed, and our museum and art galleries sat empty.
The impact of lockdown on the region’s cultural sector was devastating.
Buildings which once buzzed with activity became silent overnight, while entire seasons of live shows were lost - more than once - as the pandemic continued.
Life before March 2020 is almost a dot on the horizon, and while many of OnFife’s operations have resumed, the road back to normality continues to be shrouded in uncertainty and with many challenges still emerging.
Esther Roberton couldn’t have picked a more interesting - or testing - time to take on the role of chairman to lead the arts and culture organisation out of the pandemic.
But it is an appointment the former NHS Fife board chairman relishes.
“It is the worst of times with two really tough years behind us,” she said, “but it is also the best of times.
“We’re moving out and into a very different world.”
The financial impact of the pandemic on the organisation cannot be under-estimated with revenue from live shows all but completely wiped out for the past 19 months as its four theatres - Adam Smith, Rothes Halls, Lochgelly Centre and Carnegie Hall went dark.
It will be 2022 before three of them are fully up and running, while Kirkcaldy’s main theatre remains wrapped in security fencing as a £3m refurbishment goes ahead to transform it into a major creative cultural hub for the town and region.
And while the shows will go on - indeed, some have already taken place - the challenge facing OnFife is adjusting to a very different world post-pandemic.
“The biggest challenge is audience involvement,” said Esther,
“Anything we learned before 2020 is out the window. We cannot predict audience behaviour based on what we knew before the pandemic - anything pre-2020 is out of the window
“We have to discover people’s appetite for events and shows.”For many, the prospect of sitting in a packed theatre - something they took for granted little more than two years ago - remains difficult.
Some may opt to watch it online, while others will be first in the queue at the box office to secure the best seats in the house.
Finding the right blend is part of the challenge ahead - “we know people get engaged online and some may not return to a theatre” - and OnFife’s work during lockdown could be key to its future planning.
“Recovery and renewal” is the title of the strategy which will frame the direction of travel for its libraries, theatres, museums and art galleries.
Esther said: “What I loved during lockdown was how OnFife created opportunities for creative artists to give them scope to work.
“That was a great achievement.
“The trust did an incredible job launching its online Shine programme.
“I was also blown away with what the library teams did- calling customers and checking in with them when everything was closed.
“It launched ‘connect and collect’ and staff also added books into people’s reading material - -they helped to shape reading habits! -and we were among the first to get our libraries open again.”In contrast, Leith library in Edinburgh continues to be used as a COVID vaccine centre, putting it out of bounds to booklovers.
Added Esther: “The teams have done some fantastic work. We need to blow our own trumpet more - and louder.”
Being ambitious and creative are key to the trust’s progress, and it already has some major landmark events on its horizon.
In 2022, Kirkcaldy Galleries will be packed for Jack Vettriano’s twice rescheduled retrospective exhibition which has an extended run from June to November.
And in 2023, the 300th anniversary of the birth of Adam Smith is set to become a major event for the town.
Sandwiched in between there is another important landmark to celebrate - OnFife’s tenth anniversary.
“There is huge scope for a lot of exciting initiatives within next two years,” said Esther.
“We do need to take that time to think about our tenth anniversary, but also where we want to be for our 20th.
“We want to emerge out of this pandemic with ambitious ideas - and we have people who have great ideas and enthusiasm to drive us forward.
“We also have to be ambitious for people of Fife.”And that ambition looks outwards rather than inward.
With four new non-executive directors also on board there is fresh thinking and different voices around the table, all working ass a team with the senior management.
“We had a day with the board and it felt like a moment.
“One board member asked where is our big event which becomes a regular thing in the calendar that meets the people of Fife’s aspirations but also goes national and international attraction?“I immediately thought of something like Bloody Scotland.”
That crime writing festival has brought huge audiences to its base in Stirling - pilling out of venues to embrace events such as torchlight procession to become a major event in the town’s calendar. The irony that it features two prominent Fifers, Ian Rankin and Val McDermid, isn’t lost on the new chair.
The challenge facing OnFife is to create an event which puts the Kingdom on the map in the same, hugely successful way - without forgetting its roots.
“We want to look beyond Fife but also nurture local talent,” said Esther.
“For all the changes, the impact of the pandemic on financials, there is real energy and enthusiasm.
“The senior team at OnFife sits at the very heart of that.
“The cultural sector is critical to the recovery for everyone in Fife.”