Louis Barabbas is a writer and performer, best known as singer for rock band The Bedlam Six between 2006-2016. He has toured all over the world, from Mexico and the USA to mainland Europe and Australia. Between 2009-2019 he was Artistic Director of independent label Debt Records, during which time he also founded The Open Recording Sessions, a series of free drop-in studio events where bands recorded singles in public venues such as libraries and art galleries.

He now composes for theatre and runs community music events. His project for the Culture Collective – Neach An Taighe – is a collaboration with Highland Archives involving local stories shared at free events in village halls across Skye and Lochalsh. The stories have since become songs which are now being recorded in those same halls with local musicians for an album scheduled for release in September. In addition to his arts work Louis is an on-call fire fighter for the Scottish Fire & Rescue Service. In this blog, Louis reflects on the hurdles that may arise within community spaces, looking at what creatives can do to mitigate potential issues.

You’ve probably heard people say things like “if we don’t use the village hall it won’t survive” as if our shared spaces are pet fish that need feeding twice a day. Grassroots art and culture is so often discussed in terms of how it lives and dies on the whim of its community. But having worked with (and in) village halls across Skye and Lochalsh for the last eighteen months, I’ve noticed there is a third way that no one really talks about: the living death of a protected but unloved building – stable, clean and cared for, existing in the limbo of an unconscious vegetative state.

I’ve worked in the creative industries most of my adult life, particularly in the live music sector. The one constant in a world of shifting listening habits and the disintegration of the monoculture is the steady and relentless closing of small venues all over the UK, as quiet and maddeningly insistent as a dripping tap. Many of the community spaces I’ve been working with in the Highlands would have gone the same way if they were subject to the same pressures as commercial premises, but most are overseen by trusts or have council money or are community owned and managed by volunteers, or a mixture of all three. In each case, however, the building has enough support to maintain its vital signs but that’s about it. They live… just. The big difference between the two is that an independent music venue sings and screams right up until the fateful moment where it is abruptly silenced, whereas a neglected village hall wheezes along for years until it is finally swallowed up by damp.

I am lucky to live in an area where the local hall is still, for the most part, the centre of the community. All over Skye and Lochalsh there are bands and quizzes and dance classes and sports, touring theatre groups, open mic nights, exhibitions, storytelling, craft fairs and political meetings – all happening in the same room on different nights of the week. These are versatile spaces that are steeped in community history – stories drip from the walls and rise up like steam through the floor.

But there are a few that struggle. A few that feel sad. It is a sadness that keeps people away. And the tragic thing is that it can be the very individuals fighting to keep the lights on that create this atmosphere of chilly desperation, of unwelcome.

It happens in two ways. The first is that the trust sets up a committee to run the hall, voluntary managers and caretakers essentially. But if that committee attracts too many people who like being on committees for the sake of it (you know the sort) then a rot starts to set in. A lot of things work well: the agenda for the AGM is promptly circulated, the minutes are immaculate, but the hall rarely hums with activity, indeed it more often harrumphs with bureaucracy. A culture of one-upmanship quickly forms, hall meetings become more about committee politics, the wins and losses are personal not communal. Soon gatekeepers emerge, these are no longer caretakers but culture tsars writ small: “we don’t think this is a good fit for the hall,” “this isn’t the sort of thing the community wants,” “we don’t believe that will work here,” and that’s as far as any would-be event organiser can get— the hall is the committee’s kingdom now: immaculate and ordered and empty.

The second is when responsibility for the day to day upkeep of the hall falls on the shoulders of a single individual. They start out generous, altruistic, passionate, but soon the resentment creeps in, the martyrdom, the if-only-they-knew-what-it-takes mumbled under the breath as they push a broom round after the Knit & Natter group. No one has deliberately made this happen but one person has somehow ended up doing everything. They are Atlas struggling beneath the weight of the heavens. “What great work you’re doing!” “Oh what would we do without you!” the other committee members chime in unison once a year when the accounts are presented. And before you can say “point of order” there’s suddenly only one person in the world that knows what kind of lightbulbs go in the Gents and where the spare mop heads are kept. And pity the poor fool who hires that hall for choir rehearsal and accidentally stacks the coffee cups in the wrong cupboard. Everyone has a breaking point.

But it’s easy for creative freelancers like me to sneer. We swoop in with big temporary ideas, swathe the place in fairy lights, tick the outreach box in our funding applications and bask in the glow of our own relevance before leaving someone else to stack the chairs. The committees may be justified in their belief that no one appreciates them, that disgruntled caretaker may be entitled to their resentment. Apathy creeps in like mould, it’s hard to pinpoint the exact moment things start to turn bad. But the ultimate effect is the same: the wider community do not feel they belong in their local hall, they believe the hall is not for them.

If artists and event organisers really want to do justice to these community spaces we have to do more than just put on gigs and organise the odd fundraiser. We have to join the committees, attend the AGMs, volunteer to make the teas, bake the odd cake. If artists truly believe in community then they cannot be above the day to day stuff; we have to be on both sides of the microphone, both sides of the curtain, both sides of the cake table.

We can’t just make art, we have to know what day the bins go out as well.

Read more about Louis’ Culture Collective project here.