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Change?  That’s What It’s All About!

By Tony Fitzpatrick

Well, this blog has changed already. I started some scribblings a couple of weeks ago and at that time I was still a member of the Board of Trustees at The Stove Network (TSN). Now I’m not. For me, that’s quite a big change!

At the AGM in February this year I bade farewell as Chair of TSN, a role I’d been in for almost nine years. As part of reporting what the board had been doing and how it had been changing over the year, I said I’d be stepping down, firstly as chair, then as a board member once we had a new chair in place. We were ready for change but wanted managed change, a transition. Sensible.

In a subsequent email to Lynsey Smith (now our wonderful new chair) I wrote that my experience on the board had been probably one of the most “fabulous, enticing, disruptive and creative experiences of my life,” In short, it had changed me. What I’d also seen was that The Stove too was changing and enriching the lived experience of even more people in and now beyond Dumfries.

I knew when I signed up for the board that it would be about organisational change and professional development and that the board had to stay alert, keep up, be water-tight in governance terms but also, importantly, not get in the way of the dynamics coming from our creative community and the people of the town.

I had a clear sense that what was happening in and from The Stove building was different. There was a palpable sense of energy and some urgency that I didn’t quite understand but soon realised it was being driven by the desire and need for change. It was coming from the people of the town, those involved in the many fresh and new projects and businesses in the town centre. It was also coming from a growing band of creative and energetic young people, many of whom were coming to or returning to the area after periods of work, study and travel elsewhere.

In industry they have ‘accelerator projects’ to nurture and bring to life innovative practices and ideas. I saw The Stove as Dumfries’s accelerator project for the creative industries and indeed for the town. I also saw The Stove equally as a creatively driven community development project which was increasingly supporting wider economic development aims in a very tangible way. There were risks too and that was a great thing.

In my previous life, I had been involved in some amazing creatively driven change programmes and projects, but they were often scattered in the towns and villages across the region and not happening to any lasting extent in Dumfries. There were of course a growing number of exceptions like Big Burns Supper, The Usual Place, the revamped Theatre Royal, the Dumfries end of Spring Fling and the D&G Arts Festival. But there was clearly much more creative potential to be unlocked in our regional capital.

I don’t intend to list the programmes, events and happenings that have come from TSN over those years, but for anyone who has spent any curious time in The Stove Cafe, you’ll have spotted that there’s more than great coffee and food happening.

There’s a real vibe and sense of creative energy in the place. I can always spot a ‘newie’ in The Cafe. Their coffee often gets cool as they chat, look around curiously, wonder what those people are doing going up and down those stairs, take in the latest exhibits or eavesdrop at that wee buzz of a meeting going on in the corner.

An hour in The Cafe is like a wee bit of performance art in itself. But there’s a warmth to it all. A welcoming. And a kind of urban-cool. It also feels different. As that 70’s anthem went “…something’s happening here; what it is ain’t exactly clear…”

All of this is the very stuff of change. Any given hour in the daily life of that Cafe and building generates and emits change. Look into what happens in the evenings, in those upstairs rooms and in the creative productions that come out of the place, and you begin to understand what The Stove is, what it does and how it changes things.

The team have had now thousands of young people, businesses, creative and community practitioners, academics and folk from and beyond the town and region and country through those doors. Any trail through the published programmes of the last decade will be testimony to that. I urge you to have a look at the incredible and growing archives on the TSN website. If you caught Heather Taylor’s blog piece last month, you would have some feel for the next network driver: the “What We Do Now” creative placemaking network. An initiative that has all the makings of a paradigm shift.

So, what happens when an organisation that is driven by creative change and innovation faces a very real existential threat?  Well, every such organisation, community and individual faced just such a challenge that lasted almost two years. That pandemic thing.

Almost overnight we all experienced enforced change. The personal, community and organisational turmoil and fear was very real. Some coped better than others. At our AGM this year and last, I found myself repeating that I still don’t think we have truly understood the implications of ‘what just happened’. I’m sure we all still are seeing ways in which social, personal and organisational norms and behaviours have changed, even through those pressures to ‘get back to normal’. But strike up any random discussion about COVID and you’ll find things are far from forgotten or back to normal.

I was truly in awe of what the team and membership of TSN achieved during and following those lost years. Rather than lock-down and close the curtains, The Stove adapted, accelerated its innovative capacity, went online, on to social media, big-time, and into print and set up a small but very significant virtual community experience that proved a real lifeline, not just for the creative sector, but for many in the community in general. Have a look at the Atlas Pandemica pages on the Stove website. As relevant now as ‘back then’!

As this piece goes out, we find ourselves again in one of those periods when political leaders predictably thrust upon us the word “change” as a wedge issue. “What we need now is change” vs “The last thing we need now is that kind of change”. Corny though it was, I rather liked Barack Obama’s take on the change thing:

We are the ones we’ve been waiting for: we are the change that we seek

Barack Obama

It’s something like that which drew me to The Stove Network. Now that I’ve gone, wrench that it was, I’m now a small part of that change. That’s what it’s all about! See?

A note from Lynsey Smith – Chair

‘Tony has played an instrumental part in the development of The Stove over the past eight years and has passed on a very steady ship to me.  He has been of great support to me as I transitioned into the role of Chair and will remain a close friend to us all.  He has taught us many things on his journey, most significantly his ability to make everyone feel part of something, his flat hierarchical approach and gentle nature.  Thank you, Tony, from the bottom of our hearts.’

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