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Artsreach’s impact on Dorset’s more rural locations over the last 25 years

PUBLISHED: 16:11 25 November 2015 | UPDATED: 16:11 25 November 2015

Horse + Bamboo on their horse-drawn summer tour of ‘Visions of Hildegard Artsreach tour in 1996

Horse + Bamboo on their horse-drawn summer tour of ‘Visions of Hildegard Artsreach tour in 1996


As it celebrates its 25th anniversary, Fanny Charles reflects on how Artsreach has brought music, theatre, art and performance to the county’s more rural locations

Artsreach's 25th anniversaryArtsreach's 25th anniversary

ARTSREACH, Dorset’s rural touring arts organisation, celebrated its landmark anniversary in style this autumn with a Big Birthday Bash at The Exchange in Sturminster Newton. The party was compèred by BBC Radio 4 favourite and Wimbledon poet-in-residence Matt Harvey, who invited the audience to contribute their own words and phrases to create a special silver jubilee poem for Artsreach.

Musical entertainment came from the all-singing, all-dancing, comedy string quartet Bowjangles and the Bucimis Balkan Trio with Turkish singer Cigdem Aslan and two members of Bulgarian Voices.

The audience of friends, village partners and local Artsreach performers including musician and actor Tim Laycock, artist Lal Hitchcock and composer and choral leader Sammy Hurden, also enjoyed an exhibition of 25 years of performances in The Exchange’s Bow Room.

Artsreach may not be the country’s oldest organisation bringing the arts to rural villages, but it is probably the most admired, the most diverse and the most loved.

Part of its enduring success is down to the commitment of the artists who take their shows, on shoestring budgets, to little halls, community centres, churches and schools all over Dorset. And partly it is down to the active support of the village promoters and the loyal audiences who turn out all year round, from deepest winter to what passes for the English summer - even in the open air!

Much of its longevity is due to its ability to encompass shifting tastes and the consistently reducing local authority budgets. This willingness to adapt (and survive) is down to its brilliant artistic director Ian Scott, who has been running Artsreach since the early months in 1990.

Ian is one of those dedicated and modest people who thank everybody else for their efforts. But performers, audiences and village hall partners know that it is his skill, his deep knowledge of every aspect of the arts scene (from stand-up comedy to traditional Chinese puppetry) and his ability to charm funders, as well as his understanding of Dorset and its people, that has kept Artsreach afloat at a time when many other arts organisations, theatres and arts centres have foundered.

“Rural touring matters because it values both performers and their skills, and the context in which their work can be presented in rural communities,” says Ian. “Without the contribution of artists who understand the power of presenting their work so close to an audience, and of local volunteer promoters who host shows almost as though in their own homes (and often actually host the performers in their homes), something very special would be lost.”

The Artsreach autumn 2015 season includes Dorset folk duo Ninebarrow, Zambian-inspired musician Namvula,Saikat Ahamed and Travelling Light in Strictly Balti, and Norwegian dance theatre company Panta Rei with Behind The Mirror, a new show inspired by Alice In Wonderland.

One of this season’s highlights for Ian is the ever-inventive Bristol-based duo Living Spit. “I can’t wait to see what they are going to make of Dickens’ Christmas Carol this December, given their wild comic genius,” he laughs.

There were just nine village venues involved in the first Artsreach programme. Now there are more than 50 on the scheme and more than 100 volunteer promoters. Up to this summer’s final open air performance by Miracle Theatre at Kimmeridge, Artsreach has brought more than 3,300 live performances to Dorset, plus numerous visual arts exhibitions, children’s summer activities, participatory workshops and projects including the South Dorset Ridgeway Partnership.

For the past two years, Artsreach has been an active participant in this vibrant project, exploring the history, archaeology, music, geology, wildlife and culture of the area. This autumn’s activities include the Ridgeway reading project, the Ridgeway Singers and Band giving West Gallery carol concerts at St James Church, Kingston (29 Nov) and St Mary’s Church Cerne Abbas (6 Dec) as well as walks, talks and a flint knapping course at Abbotsbury.

Reflecting on the last 25 years of Artsreach, Ian says: “It is something of a miracle that this unlikely form of arts promotion has survived the ups and downs of recent years, but it is a tribute to the huge commitment and passion of so many people who have made rural touring possible across Dorset.”

For details of the autumn/winter season pick up the Artsreach programme at tourist offices, arts centres and village halls, or call 01305 269512 or visit


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