Celebrating 25 years of Cupola!

Well that was scary!

But, we did it.

I have run Cupola Gallery, a non funded, private, contemporary art gallery for 25 years. That in itself is hard enough, but my idea to mark that occasion took an unplanned turn. I started writing about it on a number of occasions, but the sheer amount of energy required to delivered this 'unplanned turn' was extraordinary.

In a nutshell, I, along with the help of some extraordinarily generous & hard working people, funded and delivered an ambitious arts & music festival 'HillsFest'

in 6 months. It was crazy, impractical and an insane amount of work but we did it!

HillsFest Highlights

How did it happen?

That's a reasonable question to ask and I shall try to answer it as briefly as possible. To celebrate the gallery reaching a landmark 25 years in business I had for a couple of years considered delivering something 'bigger than me' that gave something back to the community that had supported me over all that time. I was considering some kind of 'art fair' to be sited in the local Hillsborough park. Therefore, I decided to undertake some community consultation.

The result of these consultations is what changed everything.

Essentially, the message I was getting from the people was "Great Karen, but do it bigger. No, bigger. No, even bigger!" People felt that Hillsborough for far too long had been overshadowed by a number of negative events over many years, not least the terrible football tragedy of 1989, and this was an opportunity to put Hillsborough on the map 'for all the right reasons'. So the vision grew and grew.

Yes, I could have withdrawn from the whole idea and I nearly did on several occasions but the desire and support from the community (local residents, local shops, business & industry) as well as from artists was really strong and I got to the point where I felt that if I didn't at least try, I was letting everyone down. This was an immense pressure to bear and at times was very nearly unbearable as the enormity of the task and the associated costs started to become very clear. Partly because it had to be, for many reasons, a FREE festival.

So, we had to fundraise in earnest. Let me tell you, in this climate it wasn't easy. It is not easy in any climate but this was tough. People were clearly telling me they wanted this event to happen but would they help pay for it? I didn't know. I was helped early on by a benefit gig from local musicians with the expert help of talented artist and promoter Martin Bedford. It wasn't a large amount but it was a start. I investigated all the usual routes - grant funding, support from the local council & local councillors, Arts Council England, etc but it was so important to me to engage the local and wider communities. And so... talking to people, lots of people, started in earnest! Word of mouth is by far the best way to spread interest and enthusiasm, but, my word, that takes some energy and time, lots of time, which was in short supply. Fortunately, I was successful with a relatively small funding bid to Arts Council England which allowed me to employ some support in the form of two part time programme development managers, which helped take the pressure off me slightly as I simply did not have enough hours in the day to run Cupola and fundraise, develop and deliver a substantial festival within 6 months, with only the help of a small group of dedicated volunteers.

I thought that crowd funding may be a good way of not only raising some money but also a useful marketing tool to raise interest and enthusiasm for the project. I took advice and ran a campaign. This is the video (below) we used, kindly made with the generous help of my friend Sarah Barlow & Soundhouse media.

Fundraising video

I was positive about the campaign but hoped we might be able to raise more this way than we did. I was very humbled by the range and number of rewards offered by artists keen to support the activity. It is tricky trying to raise money for a free festival, especially one that hasn't happened before, so getting the rewards right was important. I didn't manage this element as well as I might have done for a number of reasons, timescale being one factor, but it did help raise the profile of the festival, press interest and community engagement, so was well worth doing. We didn't reach our target but we raised a reasonable amount. Essentially the more events, the more meetings, the more social media activity, the more talking we did, the more I felt this festival was going to be possible. There really is only 6 degrees of separation and in Sheffield often much less than that. You never know who knows who and who can help with what! A boost I got fairly early on was from Sheffield Soup which is a sort of friendly Dragons' Den kind of affair but with no dragons! I won £600 from this event and so much more in terms of connections and further support.

Another lucky break was when HillsFest managed to win a commission for Sheffield's Year of Making

which again not only brought much needed cash but a certain amount of prestige and yet more connections. All of this helped boost our sponsorship campaign as well. There is so much competition for sponsorship funds that I felt that we did really well securing as much money as we did. The aim of the festival to put Hillsborough on the map for something entirely positive seemed to touch a cord with many people who felt quite strongly that the north side of the city really missed out. Local shops, local manufacturing industry, artists and the community really came together to help deliver the vision. Every time I felt overwhelmed by the enormity of the task someone stepped up or something happened to give the project a boost.

In the original vision the festival had a desire to forge links with the Liverpool art & music scene in order to create a positive relationship between the two areas, for what I hope are obvious reasons, but sadly due to the enormous sensitivities around the result of the inquests this proved too problematic this year. However, there was much interest and support from Liverpool for this to be established and so if the festival does happen again, this is something that might be developed.

So, with enormous support from many volunteers and helpers, artists, sponsors, funders, staff, friends and professionals we did it!!

Here's me talking about how I felt it all went.

Sheffield Live interview

So, it was all a bit crazy and yes, it has not left me in the pink so to speak, but the feedback has been so fantastic that there may well be a possibility that, subject to raising enough money, it could happen again.


Happy 25th Birthday Cupola Gallery!! What a way to celebrate.... PHEW!