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Julie Finch is back, and she means business

PUBLISHED: 16:39 14 August 2015 | UPDATED: 16:39 14 August 2015

Julie Finch

Julie Finch

Archant

With the appointment of Julie Finch as chief executive of the Cheltenham Trust, the town is serious about boosting public participation in the arts and sport

Julie Finch was appointed chief executive of the Cheltenham Trust last year, and she has some serious credentials. From director at the National Football Museum in Preston and director of museums, galleries and archives in Bristol, delivering record visitor numbers after completing the city’s new MShed museum in 2011. Then she jumped on a plane to Perth, Western Australia to take on the role of museum project director to work on the business plan and blueprint for the Western Australia Museum. Now, like Arnold Schwarzenegger, she’s back. And she means business.

So what is her business in Cheltenham? Julie is in charge of Cheltenham Town Hall, Pittville Pump Room, The Wilson Art Gallery and Museum, Leisure at Cheltenham, the rather dowdy Prince of Wales stadium and Cheltenham’s tourist information centre. She’s also responsible for play, sports development and outreach services, all through the new charitable organisation ceded off from Cheltenham Borough Council, called The Cheltenham Trust. And did I mention she’s also served on the South West Heritage Lottery Fund and on the board of Arts Council England, among other responsibilities?

It’s a tall order, even for someone who’s braved down under and battled with Bristol’s feisty arts community and public sector.

However, Cheltenham is home and she loves being back.

So, in these straitened times of government cuts, how can the Cheltenham Trust deliver everything expected of it while not being a drain on the public purse?

“In Bristol, I grew the business and footfall through a public programme of activities. I also harnessed data to become more entrepreneurial and businesslike. Where we could, we became consultants, selling our expertise rather than giving it away. No one expects to swim or play squash for free, we need to encourage people to place similar value on the arts as they do on sport. If you offer the right cultural programme and build relationships, you can introduce a sound commercial model. Our opportunity here is to commercialise our venues in an inclusive way.”

There is scope. Cheltenham Town Hall is occupied 70% of the time, Pittville Pump Room 60%. The Cheltenham Trust’s big opportunity is to think about how these buildings are used in the daytime and it will be consulting on this later in the year as part of the town hall redevelopment project Cantata.

Julie also wants to play her part in building ‘brand Cheltenham’, so that people see it as a great place to live and work, to create a thriving economy. “Cultural activities encourage people to live in a place,” she says.

Yes, but we already have the globally recognised Cheltenham Festivals. Does she see them as a rival?

Absolutely not, the two organisations enjoy an excellent relationship. “Cheltenham Festivals use our venues, and they don’t run all year around.”

Julie wants to widen participation, after all, not everyone enjoys the arts, music and literature offer which forms the bedrock of Cheltenham Festivals.

What’s really needed, Julie thinks, is for the region to work more in harmony. Greater Manchester is now seen as a powerful northern entity, but a few years ago it was a more disparate place, she says. “Cheltenham, Gloucester, Tewkesbury and the whole region should join up for survival. We are already linked by virtue of our geography. Gloucester in particular has massive growth potential. But what ultimately matters is what is offered is complementary. We want to look at ways to join up and celebrate difference. Then we can encourage people to visit across the county and share footfall.”

More pragmatically, funding agencies are more likely to support those places that think strategically.

“We are talking to Pangolin Gallery about a joint show. We want to reveal the county’s artistic communities and we already do a massive amount of outreach and education. I want to take my role away from the concept of running buildings. It’s about delivering experiences.”

Whatever the ambition, maintaining buildings are an expensive job. A good thing, then that £2.4 million has been secured for the redevelopment of Cheltenham Town Hall through the sale of the town’s North Place car park. This will provide seed funding for the Cantata project that Julie thinks could cost up to £10 million. And then there is the Prince of Wales stadium, which has seen better days.

“We’re looking hard at our sporting infrastructure too. We’d like to renovate the stadium and it offers fantastic investment opportunity. Cheltenham is a fantastic town already. It could also be amazing.”

So are Julie’s ideas. Common sense too. Let’s hope that she can galvanize the community to get behind her. There’s been too much competitiveness in the past. Now is the time to work together.

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