At the start of 2015, based on two years of organising and promoting events, Oxford Arts Group was flying. We’d seen the year out collaborating with sister Meetup group, The Roaring Forties, and newcomers, Oxford Indie Social on a huge ‘Not the New Year’s Eve’ event at The Wig and Pen. This was preceded by our Christmas performance showcase (‘Botley’ Crue!), which as well as presenting musicians and poets from Oxford and London, featured for me, THE standout live performance of the year c/o Moogieman and The Masochists. A few weeks later, when we attended our first big Meetup of 2015, featuring Ben Mowat’s String Project, we literally packed out the venue, to the astonishment and gratitude of the novice group. For a moment it looked as though the old (f)OAGy/young artist crossover had come to pass.
However, truth be told, doubts were already emerging. Having morphed from a regular (albeit highly active) Meetup group to wannabe arts entrepreneurs at the start of 2013, the next 12 months had proved to be an incredible ride. Ideas for spaces where arts-minded people could meet and mingle without the cliqueiness endemic among many social groups bore continual fruit. We supported local retailers with Membership discount cards and delivered on our promise to pay our performers well above the minimum wage (Even if a pound a minute for 15 minutes isn’t much.) 2014 saw things expand and consolidate. We brought in DJ Jim B Donovan to run vinyl-only ‘Arthouse Discos’, with yours truly supplying the visuals (see pic above). We experimented with a midweek live music night, discarded only after we realised members didn’t like staying out after 10pm. We ran ConVerses (earlier in the evening) as well as Gallery Tours and Performance Arts events (in the afternoon) and tried our luck with a big outdoor event (Park Live!) which showed that if you kept folk warm and well fed, you can score a huge hit. But was that what we were really about?
By the end of the year, the pressure to sustain momentum was starting to take a toll. Asking £10 for a (voluntary) annual membership contribution had seemed like a big deal, and I felt we needed to reward members by constantly updating the programme, but fitting everything around a full-time job was becoming harder.
We ploughed on into 2015. The level of support generated, not just among the group, but also the local arts community who realised The Arts Group delivered something more tangible than a round of applause, seemed too good to blithely discard. The decision to produce an evening of plays by a local writer morphed into a three night run as part of the Oxfringe festival – our biggest project to date. As organiser I was confident (perhaps arrogant) enough to believe we had sufficient support to make it viable and the writer was indeed suitable rewarded. (The cast and I shared what remained – such is theatre). However, the enterprise was something of a reality check. The realisation that I’d risked several hundred pounds promoting local talent in the blind hope that people would trust my judgement made me question for the first time the limitations of the group. When I’d taken over as organiser, like most, I simply wanted to socialise and enjoy the arts. This had developed into an opportunity to create events unavailable elsewhere. And now I was acting like some small town entrepreneur, with all of the risk and little of the reward.
By the middle of this year, (you may have noticed), financial matters were beginning to weigh heavily on my mind. While the number of events showed no signs of decline, the frequency with which I was taking a hit began to rise, and the odds seemed weighted ever more firmly against breaking even. When I’d started my tenure, there had been perhaps 50 Meetup groups in the city, most of them fairly dormant. By the middle of the 2015, the figure was nearer 150, many with active memberships, and two of them incorporating ‘arts’ into their titles. Event fatigue was also clearly setting in among group regulars. I was having to badger people to RSVP (and then grumble when they didn’t show up), which was no fun for anybody. I took the decision to reduce the membership with a ‘no exceptions’ £5 annual fee. At the same time, in a bid to reach a wider audience, local media came on stream. You may have seen the recent appearances on ‘That’s Oxford TV’, discussing the Arts Group, Meetup and even (God help us), current affairs.
But in the same way a band can emerge with an impressive debut release, maybe managing a successful follow-up, before failing inevitably to deliver the elusive hat-trick, the Arts group is now experiencing its own ‘difficult third album syndrome’. We’ve spent too much time in recent months chasing a higher profile; regurgitating favourite events. Seeking ever more ‘audience-friendly’ packages. As the group’s age demographic tilts inexorably towards retirement, and the younger members, who used to provide a handy counterweight, arrive, smile, then rush headlong into the arms of ‘Oxford Social Network’ or ‘Wine and Books for Twenties and Thirties’, so the Arts Group has become increasingly set in its ways and in truth, lacking inspiration.
Some of you may know I created The Roaring Forties Meetup group in 2014, and thanks largely to the efforts of co-organiser, Liz Pride, assisted lately by Bernard Wakefield-Heath, the group has developed an extremely strong identity. In a way, its success has contributed to the stagnation of the Arts Group. Overlap in membership is high and I’ve come to feel The Roaring Forties, with its emphasis on socialising and popular arts events, offers more of what many OAGres want. The challenge for Oxford Arts Group now is to find a way to differentiate itself without (necessarily) becoming niche. I’m about to launch my first business enterprise, which while likely to be a slow-burner, will take up a big chunk of my time and energy, and while the purpose of this post isn’t quite to offer a long-winded resignation note, I must stress that if there’s anybody out there as excited about the prospect of helping to run this fabulous group as I was five years ago, then please get in touch. The question of whether or how to work out a way forward needs to be addressed. It may be that our best work has been done. Or that we need to step back from the spotlight for a while, seeking out fresh inspiration before launching a comeback. Everything is up for discussion. But as several people have recently remarked, it would be a shame for Oxford Arts Group to become a parody of itself, or simply fade away through lack of interest. It’s up to all of us to make of the group what we wish. Anyway, for the present, I want to offer heartfelt thanks to everyone who’s supported OAG over the past few years (including those I’ve disagreed with!), and who’ve helped to make the run up to fifty one of the happiest times of my life. Finally, I’d like to wish all Arts Group members a Merry Christmas and a peaceful and prosperous New Year.