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Tuesday, 31 May 2016

Profile: Chris Kirkwood (CEO of Lincoln Drill Hall)

hris Kirkwood may fit the sharp-suited image we all have in mind when we think of a company chief executive – but he is far from the typical pencil pusher or bean counter. Chris is the lead organiser for Lincoln’s diverse arts venue, the Drill Hall. A fan of the arts foremost, his objective seems to be to inspire his passion in others. “My entire life has revolved around arts and culture. I was always interested in theatre and drama, and that has manifested itself in my adult life, and I try to instil that in my children.”

Chris was born and raised in Leicester, and spent his childhood going to the theatre, watching films, reading and playing cricket. Chris, now 42, says the arts have always played a part in his life. His father worked for the BBC for thirty years, and one of his first Saturday jobs was working for Radio Leicester. Naturally, he pursued his passion by studying drama and theatre studies at Middlesex University. After he graduated in 1994, he got a job working at Ticketmaster, where through ticket sales, he remembers witnessing the meteoric rise of bands like Oasis. This was followed by two years working in the box office at the Prince of Wales Theatre.

In 1998 he earned a postgraduate diploma in stage management at the Guildford School of Acting, and then worked as a freelance stage manager for various theatres and touring companies until 2002, when he took a break from show business for a few years, working for Islington council’s housing department.

When he moved to Lincolnshire in 2004, he got a job in the arts development department of the county council. While he was working for the council, he helped to arrange the Lincoln Book Festival. Chris is an avid reader, and says that “the best present anyone can ever get me is a new bookshelf.” One of the first events Chris helped organise for the Book Festival was a great success – an exhibition called Anne Frank: A History for Today, which was attended by Eva Schloss, Anne Frank’s posthumous stepsister, who had written a book about her ordeal as a Holocaust survivor. As part of the event, on the night of the Drill Hall’s opening, she gave a speech to a packed audience. “It was a really moving experience, really early on.”

He started his job within the council’s Arts Development team at almost the same time the newly refurbished Drill Hall opened in 2004. At this point, Chris was continuing to indulge his love of theatre, working as the executive director for theatre company New Perspectives.

Getting involved with the Drill Hall seemed like a natural progression for his career. The venue has a personal resonance with Chris: “I’ve promoted events there, and I’ve worked for theatre companies that have taken shows there, I’ve had an ongoing relationship, both professionally and as an audience member with the place.” He loves his job, and the variety of projects it allows him to be involved with. He adores being in a job where “no two days are ever the same.”

However, while he is undoubtedly passionate, he must balance this enthusiasm with the level-headed composure of a businessman. Running an arts venue can be a very challenging enterprise. With every potential event, Chris has to work closely with the sales, marketing and programming departments to decide if there’s an audience for it, if it’s artistically worth the risk, and whether they have similar events programmed near the same time, to avoid splitting the audience.

“We probably get about 100 emails a day, from various artists and performers who are touring, some are plugging shows they want to do in the next eight weeks, others are shows that are happening two or three years down the line.”

While Chris prides himself on the more experimental events that are programmed at the Drill Hall, he is aware of the financial dangers that come with less commercially-driven work. His job involves overseeing a constant balancing act between events – everything from experimental theatre, a blindfolded 3D sound experience, food festivals and the yearly Christmas pantomime:

“We are always trying new things and pushing boundaries. I think one of the things I’m very proud of – and I want to keep going – is this sense that I would rather say yes and then have to rein back, than just say no straight out.”

Chris clearly counts his blessings. Perhaps unsurprisingly given the current climate, there seems to be a slight unease at the back of his mind. “I don’t really want to talk about funding. Everybody knows we’re in a challenging landscape.” He says nonchalantly. Chris has an infectious optimism and his love for the arts will not be dampened by funding cuts. It is this confidence that motivates Chris to navigate what must be a boundless landscape of bureaucracy, in his tireless mission to bring arts to the community. Working with his team, Chris has developed new fundraising strategies, such as a friend’s membership scheme. He values the public more than anything, and emphasises that they are the most important ambassadors for the Drill Hall.

Chris talks of his job like a man with a vital quest. While he doesn’t underestimate the importance of simply providing entertainment for the community, for him, the Drill Hall offers much more than that.

“There is a myriad amount of evidence about the wider benefits of arts engagement, from the ability of youth theatre, for instance – it plays a role in building young people’s confidence and their ability to communicate and engage with other people. There are health benefits that are linked to arts development – for example, taking part in a dance class obviously can improve physical health, but more areas are trailing the idea of ‘arts on prescription’, as a way of combatting mental health.”

The Drill Hall is, after all, a charity. “Why does any charity exist?” asks Chris, “Any charity is there really to make things a little bit better, and we can do that is very specific, targeted ways.”

When talking on the subject of arts promotion, Chris becomes animated – he speaks with a fervent urgency:

“I don’t mean this to sound worthy, but I think – bottom line – that everyone has a right to it. Everybody should have the right to see a play, watch a concert, hear a comedian, and that is a strong reason for having an arts venue within any city.”

Click here to listen to an interview with Chris Kirkwood on the radio show I co-host on Siren FM, Charlie & Seb at Lunch

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