Why Frome is a thriving centre for the arts
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Its annual festival may have been cancelled this year, but Frome remains at the heart of art, discovers CATHERINE COURTENAY
Normally July means one thing in Frome: it’s the month which marks the annual Frome Festival. For 10 days, the town puts on an arts-based community extravaganza, which sees more than 200 events taking place, including bands, comedians’ performances, drama, art exhibitions, literary events, classical concerts and more. This year would have been its 20th birthday, so an extra special festival was in store.
Although coronavirus put an end to the 2020 festival, organisers are hopeful that as much as possible of the planned activities will transfer to next year.
The festival is a big deal in Frome, but as regards the town’s arts and cultural offering, it’s only one part of a big picture. Frome is awash with the arts; there is so much going on, always, as festival director Martin Dimery says: “The festival cements a kind of core, it helps bring many disparate ideas and venues together.”
Frome has not one but two theatres, the Merlin and the Memorial Theatre, it has music and arts venues including Cheese and Grain, Rook Lane and Cooper Hall and more exhibition spaces at the Black Swan and the Silk Mill.
“Frome has more venues than any other town in the country, because one thing feeds into another,” says Martin.
He says that over the years, the stronger the local arts scene became, the more cultural activity it generated.
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“When I arrived in Frome in the 1980s, even then it had a bohemian feel to it. There were fairly strong cultural links in the population, which fed into itself,” he says.
It’s not just the venues, Frome also attracts people from the arts who want to live in the town, there are visual artists, actors, musicians, authors, graphic artists… the list goes on.
“In the past 10 to 15 years a number of people renowned in their own spheres have moved to Frome,” says Martin, citing folk singer Cara Dillon, jazz musician Pee Wee Ellis and saxophonist Iain Ballamy. Then there are the painters, sculptors, writers and actors – including Mark McGann, who runs theatre and screen acting workshops at the Merlin.
What’s also remarkable is that the arts have flourished in Frome at a time when funding has crashed.
Somerset County Council cut all its arts funding in the aftermath of the 2008 recession. Any jointly funded projects with the Arts Council, saw that funding end too. “Suddenly, venues like the Brewhouse in Taunton and the Merlin were hit by severe economic problems,” says Martin. “The Merlin managed to keep going, but staff went to a minimal and they had to rely on volunteers.”
It was a tough time, says Merlin director Claudia Pepler, who took over just as the cuts hit and was faced with having to make redundancies.
But it also presented a platform for making changes at the theatre and shifting it more towards the community, developing a more ‘crowd pleasing programme’, she says.
It offers live steaming of National Theatre productions, is home to a film society and it has its own in-house theatre company, Merlin Theatre Productions, where local amateurs stage several productions a year. It’s also forged ties with associate companies and artists, including Mark McGann and also actor Pip Utton, who rehearses and premieres his work at the Merlin.
The Merlin meets regularly with other venues in the town, ensuring they work together and ‘don’t step on each other’s toes’! As Claudia says: “There is a good attitude to the arts, it’s joined up and collaborative and that’s really healthy. There is a huge amount of arts activity in Frome and the more we get, the more it draws in.
“People move to the area and they love it, they think it has such a good vibe and atmosphere. And the new ideas keep coming. We get more people wanting to do things, which is lovely but sometimes I wonder how we will fit it all in!”
Kate Cochrane, co-ordinator of the Frome Open Art Trail, adds: “You can’t go out of the house without bumping into an artist,” says She points to the town’s heritage and the strong creative threads which tie present to past.
“We had silk weaving and its mills, then its famous ironwork foundries.”
This cultural richness, and ability to pull through despite cuts to funding, may also be due to Frome’s location which, according to Martin, has fostered a feeling of self-sufficiency in the town.
“We’re on the outskirts of Somerset, the most remote town from Taunton; we’re not even that close to Shepton Mallet, our district centre. We’ve always felt on a limb.
“It’s perhaps no surprise that politically the town council is made up entirely of Independents,” he says. “There is this sense of isolation and having to do things ourselves.”
As regards Frome’s thriving arts scene, there are some detractors, says Martin. “Some people do say the town is swamped with ‘pretentious hippy types’; that it’s lost its working class core as the factories have gone and it now has trendy cafes and bars. But if you go back to 2000 you’d walk through the town and see endless empty, boarded-up shops, now, if you walk up Catherine Hill it’s one independent shop after another, and they are working, viable businesses that bring people to the town. It’s better to have that than yearn for a past that only exists in people’s memories.”
Although the Frome Festival is cancelled, one popular feature will still be taking place. The Frome Open Art Trail draws together the many artists and craftspeople working in the town, with people able to visit their studios and see special exhibitions of work. Undeterred, this year organisers are putting on a Virtual Art Trail, which will run from 4-12 July. Although people can’t visit in person, there will be an interactive brochure available online with examples of work and links to individual artists’ websites. Around 50 are taking part and many are hosting unique online activities, like virtual tours and special offers.
Spoilt for choice
Just some of Frome’s many arts venues:
Black Swan Arts
This crafts centre and gallery opened in 1986. As well as exhibitions, it provides workshop space for artists and has a café. One of its most popular exhibitions, the annual Young Open Exhibition, was due to take place when the lockdown occurred – but it went online instead, with video tours of the exhibition available on its website
Frome Memorial Theatre
Built in 1925 as a memorial to those who lost their lives in the World War One, it offers a range of productions including comedy, celebrity talks, musicals and tribute acts. It was threatened with closure in the 80s and 90s but saved by a band of volunteers – around 100 continue to keep the theatre operating.
Cheese and Grain
Cheese and Grain is a popular venue for music events and concerts, thanks to its large main hall. It was set up as a not-for-profit, member-owned social enterprise and is a registered charity. It holds regular markets and exhibitions, as well as workshops and classes and it has a popular café.
An 18th century chapel and Grade I-listed building has become an arts centre. It’s
the home of NVB Architects, which renovated the chapel, building a contemporary annex to the rear and is the umbrella company that runs the year-long programme of events. The venue showcases local artists and musicians, as well as those from further afield. It’s also used for private parties and weddings.
An impressive former textile mill is now home to around 20 artists’ studios and a large gallery and events space. It launched in 2008 and holds exhibitions, concerts, workshops and social events. Many of the artists also open their studios to the public at various times of the year.
Situated on the Frome Community College campus, the Merlin’s programme includes professional and amateur theatre, dance, comedy and music, along with a wide range of classes and workshops. It has its own amphitheatre and works with a host of associate artists and companies.
Frome’s independent, family-run cinema shows all the latest releases. A traditional cinema that was refurbished and has three screens along with a bar area.
This contemporary music and performance venue is in the grounds of Selwood Manor, a private home. It’s a charitable trust, providing educational and performance opportunities for creative projects. Although events are on hold, creative director Morag McLaren and family and friends at the manor are filming and posting videos to its YouTube channel to keep people entertained during the lockdown.