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What it is like being a director of an arts centre

Sophie Fullerlove, 39, is director and chief executive of The Spring Arts and Heritage Centre in Havant.

I started at The Spring in January 2013. I’ve always loved theatre and visual arts. I used to think I’d end up as an art gallery curator.

When I was at university in Cardiff (doing history and archaeology) I started working part-time as a theatre usher. It was a brilliant job! As well as seeing hundreds of performances, I got to learn about other career choices in theatres and to help out in other areas (including working as a dresser for the Welsh National Opera, helping the performers into their costumes and wigs).

Working in the arts

After university, I went on to do a post-graduate diploma in arts management at the Royal Welsh College of Music and Drama. It was brilliant as it gave me the practical skills I needed and a big advantage over other candidates when I started applying for jobs.

My first professional job was in marketing at an arts centre in Hereford. I worked up in various roles and learnt more about marketing and audience development, which is the way arts organisations develop relationships with audiences that make them want to come for the first time or return again and again, and fundraising.

I moved into general management of a theatre company where I learnt a lot about financial and strategic management, producing theatre performances and tours, and more fundraising.

Becoming director at an arts centre

The theatre company I worked for toured performances to The Spring, which I always thought was an amazing venue.  When I saw the role for director advertised it was an obvious choice for my next move. I was lucky enough to be offered the position and have been here – very happily – ever since.

My days are very varied. I can go from planning exhibitions or meeting with artists to clearing tables in our café and watching performances. Then there’s a lot of time spent at my desk working out budgets, writing reports and business plans, to writing our season brochure.

My favourite days involve working with artists to plan playful projects and events. Artists have such brilliant ideas that we try to make happen.

As the director and chief executive of The Spring, I am responsible for the direction of the organisation. I choose the performances we show and the exhibitions we have on display as well as managing (and trying to raise) money, overseeing our brilliant team and generally moving everything forward. None of it would be possible without our amazing workforce of staff and volunteers. They make everything happen and deliver our plans.

We also have a board of 12 trustees who support me and make sure we’re doing everything we should be. It’s very important as we are a charity and receive public funding.

Looking to the future

We are just in the process of thinking about where The Spring will be in five years’ time.

Our mission is to be a small place where big things happen. By this we mean we want to continue to surprise our community with the work we present and do more than you would think of an organisation our size. We are ambitious and not afraid to try new things.

In five years I hope we’ll be doing more of that! We want to become more playful in our work and make sure everyone in our area can really access the projects and events we offer.

What I love about the job

I love meeting our audiences and seeing their eyes light up when they enjoy one of our events or activities. There is also something magical when our work helps people connect – when people who wouldn’t normally speak start to have a conversation.

We also do a lot of work and projects for people who feel marginalised. When they tell me they feel seen, heard or validated by the performances, films or exhibitions they’ve seen in our building it makes my heart sing.

Overcoming challenges

Covid has been a huge challenge for the arts and cultural sector. The Spring has been very lucky and it’s been terrible to see friends and colleagues elsewhere struggle.

The worst moment of my career was the day after the government advised the public not to go to performance venues. It was about a week before the first lockdown. I had spent the night before on the phone to our board and the Arts Council and was at my desk by 5am writing plans. I had more coffees than hours of sleep that day, and I don’t recommend it! Telling our staff we weren’t going to open the building that day was awful – there were a lot of tears. Luckily the team were incredibly supportive and positive. We cleared the building, started thinking about what we were able to do remotely and donated the contents of our café to a local food bank. Trying to make the best of a difficult situation made all the difference.

Since then Covid has had a huge impact on the work we have been able to deliver and it’s not over yet. But, we have been lucky to receive government funding to help us through and our community have been amazingly supportive too. Now we are, hopefully, on the road to recovery, although we’re taking it slowly.

My proudest achievement

In 2018 we joined the Arts Council’s National Portfolio, which is the group of organisations that receive regular funding. The funding changed the way we were able to think, develop and deliver our work.

We’ve been able to do so much more than I ever imagined was possible as a result and it’s been brilliant! I got the email with the news when I was at home with my then-baby. I burst into tears and then immediately came into the office to celebrate.

In March 2021 we asked a poet to create a video to express how we felt one year after our first Covid closure.  It captured how I feel about the organisation and watching that for the first time was a very special moment. I feel amazingly proud of our team, our volunteers and community and completely honoured that I get the job of leading this incredible organisation.

My advice for my younger self

When something seems to be the end of the world, when you’ve made the wrong decision, when things haven’t gone as you wanted – just take a step back and breathe. Relax. In a year’s time, it won’t matter. Everything is a learning experience.

But try to remember not to answer emails when you’re cross!

Charlotte Harding
Charlotte Harding
Charlotte is a journalist and the co-founder of The Women's Work Collective.
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