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A Quiet Revolution: A word from Rob

Updated: May 16

Rob Huggins shares his thoughts on leading an arts venue and how engaging with people need not be by shouting the loudest. Published in The QT on 2 May 2024.
Rob Huggins in light blue shirts nad blue trousers stands in front of an audience
Rob Huggins address the audience at the reopening of GCT on 25 August 2023.

As CEO of Gosforth Civic Theatre, I have often thought I should start a support group for introverted leaders of arts organisations. I am quite shy; I am more comfortable loitering outside with the smokers or chatting with the technician and front-of-house team when I should be talking to the politicians or the other cultural leaders out the front. I am good when it’s one-to-one; I like to have honest and open conversations with others about the challenges we are facing or the successes we have enjoyed; I even enjoy speaking in front of an audience, but put me in a crowd, and I want to run away and hide.


“My name is Rob Huggins, and I have run an Arts Organisation in the North East since 2003.”


This personality trait has definitely become a part of the culture of the organisation I run, and at times it feels like it holds us back, but at others, it is definitely our superpower.


Liberdade (pronounced li-ber-da-jie) will be twenty-one this year, and I don’t know if many people reading this will have heard of us (probably because I was hiding out the back when I should have been talking to you!). Back in 2003, I founded the organisation with eight amazing young people with learning disabilities, and together, we have grown Gosforth Civic Theatre into a flourishing arts venue, since taking over Gosforth Civic Hall in 2016.


This does not mean I’m not passionate. Quite the opposite; I am fiercely driven by inequality; it is why I started the organisation in the first place, and yet I openly acknowledge the irony that, without the privileges I have benefitted from as a straight, white, university-educated man, I definitely wouldn’t be in the position I am today. Without the safety net and advantages of that privilege, the uncertainty of starting an arts organisation would not have been possible now or then.


I am writing this from the foyer in Gosforth Civic Theatre, its lunchtime on a Tuesday in April, and I am sat on a very comfy, leather sofa by a big plant tucked in the corner of the room. Sharing the table with me are two young professionals having a work meeting, and Gareth, who is a 49-year-old man with Downs Syndrome, eating his lunch. It feels totally normal; it has taken a few years, but users of the building have noticeably grown more comfortable with each other and it's amazing to witness; it wasn’t like this to start with.

Gosforth Civic Theatre's foyer: light floor, brown leather couches to the left hand side, sky light window in the ceiling, tables and chairs to the right and bar in the distance

We opened the theatre to create social change and we purposefully want that to happen quietly, we want people to have the opportunity to passively spend time together and to come to the realisation that we share a huge amount in common with not only people with learning disabilities but anybody. To achieve that, we knew we needed to create a building that people want to use and deliver a cultural and events programme that people want to attend.


We have also always used this methodology in the dance and physical theatre we create, we use humour, popular music, and shared experiences to entertain our audience, as well as reflect on the similarities between their own lives and the lives of the characters on the stage or screen.


This passive approach to social change also played a big part in our recent £2.5m redevelopment of the theatre; during the design and delivery of that project, we had to fight for a high-quality cultural feel and not a community centre feel. Our mission is to raise the expectations of what people with learning disabilities can achieve, and what is more aspirational than creating a great cultural venue that the whole community values. (If you haven’t visited the new Gosforth Civic Theatre yet please come over and say hello, I promise I won’t hide).


I think sometimes this quiet nature can foster misunderstandings though, rightly or wrongly its natural if you don’t know the facts that sometimes you fill in the blanks, and I think this has happened from time to time with Liberdade and Gosforth Civic Theatre over the years. Last year we were not awarded NPO (Core investment) funding from the Arts Council, we had asked for £200k or 1% of the total investment in Newcastle and Gateshead.


We are incredibly well aligned with ‘Let’s Create’, the Arts Council’s 10-year strategy, considering that we are one of the only cultural venues in the country founded and led by people with learning disabilities and are proudly inclusive and representative of our community, delivering over 800 events and activities and achieving over 50,000 visits every year. The fact that we were overlooked is incredibly disappointing. If we were louder, would it have made a difference?    

Dancers on stage at GCT. Young dancer with pig tails in foreground with arms stretched out to either sider of their body and stood on a small white wooden plinth. Six dancers crouched behind. Black red and white colouring.
GCT's Youth Dance Company perform at Freedom Moving in 2023.

I hope these words, our Theory of Change, and the passing of time will help to remedy this. Even though I have learnt that you can run a successful arts organisation without being front and centre, I am also committed to working on myself to be more present and to proudly represent the organisation more, both regionally and nationally. 


I am lucky that we have a talented and dedicated team at GCT to help spread the word about all the great things that happen at the venue, whether it be through forging links with other organisations and individuals, working closely with customers and families of people we work with, or growing audiences through our social media and marketing platforms. Without them, far fewer people would know about us, so this is me publicly saying thanks for all of your great work.


Sometimes I worry that we should be more outspoken, but then I remember that our job is about bringing people together, and I think that is best achieved quietly, so quietly in fact that people often don’t know it is even happening.    


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