Looking back now, I can see that Bells Unbound opened a new door for us. We’d climbed over a stile and found a very different view opening up – a prospect of projects and partnerships that would take us far beyond Portland Square.
That summer’s Refugee Week was bigger still, and introduced us to Christien van den Anker, Reader in Politics at UWE. We’d worked with Canon Tim Higgins on Bells Unbound, a source of vision and energy at Bristol Cathedral. We were now part of the network of groups and individuals concerned with refugees and human rights in the city. Exciting people with important ideas – but where was my “calling” in this?
The momentum though was building. With Christien van den Anker we hosted a big Human Rights conference in December. I’d spent the autumn poring over Memorandum and Articles and turning the Pierian Centre into a Community Interest Company-(CIC). In Spring we held a wonderful multi-arts festival called Journeys – and then we celebrated an early 6th birthday at the Colston Hall.
In the early days we’d have a birthday party every June 21st – these days though the date was always swallowed up in the mayhem of Refugee Week. I wanted to make our 5th birthday a special one but the last half of 2007 was so busy, that we were into 2008 before we could draw breath. My plan to launch us as a Community Interest Company was to bring together all the groups and communities that had made the Centre what it was, but when I looked at the list I realized that we’d need somewhere three times the size of the Pierian Centre! And that’s when Graeme Howell offered us the Colston Hall after I cheekily asked him if he would support an event….
We went for it! We were definitely biting off more than we could chew, but we knew that and we still went for it! A Passage To Bristol was the title we gave the event – an attempt to trace the roots and the stories of as many of the communities of Bristol as we could. It was a huge success – the Colston Hall had never seen such a diverse audience – 800 people from over 69 nationalities and such a buzz in the place! But it was a challenge too, with the artistic side only loosely in my grip and the technical side a great deal more complex than the events we had mounted at Portland Square. But it put us on the map!
So two months later we took over Temple Meads Station for iWITNESS. This was our most ambitious collaboration to date, especially since we were also running our usual banquet of Refugee Week events back at the ranch. Seventeen 4-metre high banners were suspended opposite the main platform – and on them were Tom Stoddart’s harrowing photographs of Bosnia, Rwanda and Darfur. It took the Refugee Week message out across the city, and was seen by over 20,000 people a day. And it was a focused project, a delight to work on – especially with Tom’s colleague John Easterby overseeing the technical side of it.
It’s always been my belief that the more you give out, the more you get back. Certainly with these high-profile collaborations, each one we did seemed to trigger more invitations. In the autumn I was asked if I would join Tim Higgins and others on a steering committee to try and bring the Anne Frank [+ you} exhibition to Bristol Cathedral. We’d found Arts Council money and commercial sponsors for iWITNESS, and we needed to do so again for this extraordinary show.
Things weren’t plain-sailing though, and as the fund-raising fell behind schedule the group began to contemplate pulling out. Maybe I was unused to committees, but I felt (and said) that it was too late for that. We’d raised expectations and we should have the courage of our convictions! Committees have “commit” in their names but sometimes caution in their genes, and it had to be everyone’s decision, especially the Cathedral who were hosting the exhibition. So we took a deep breath and on we went – somehow the funding would arrive……
We reached our funding target in the end (money has a habit of following commitment sometimes!) – and found that we had a hit on our hands. Throughout May 2009 Anne Frank [+ you} filled Bristol Cathedral with children and visitors of every background. In fact it filled Bristol, because there were related events in other venues. Ten of them were events we put on ourselves at the Pierian Centre – so while it stretched us to the limit, we certainly made friends and influenced people (in the best possible way of course)!
We were looking after the day-to-day running of the business, helping to get this massive exhibition on, mounting a programme of 10 special events – and planning a Refugee Week extravaganza for just a few weeks ahead. A little voice was beginning to whisper words of caution in my ear. Could we go on like this? Should we go on like this – what did my calling have to say about these adventures? But the momentum of forward planning and events was inexorable – 15 amazing events for Refugee Week and the annual onslaught of Doors Open Day after that. And on the horizon, Europe was beckoning….