Setting out to establish a new institution is a challenging, some might say a foolhardy, undertaking. But the power of a vision should not be underestimated – particularly when that vision focuses on an undisputed need in Britain for a national Centre for the Children’s Book. Elizabeth Hammill explains.
While British children’s books may be celebrated worldwide, they are undervalued at home. Countries abroad have national Centres dedicated to children’s literature but ironically no such centre exists here. There is no institution in this country where original work by the creators of children’s books from first notes, early drafts, preparatory drawings to finished artwork and manuscripts is collected and preserved to be shared with the nation through exhibitions, artistic and educational programmes, and used for research and as an international resource.
The creation of a unique showcase for children’s literature in Newcastle upon Tyne which will provide a safe haven for the work of British illustrators and authors and stop the loss of this rich seam of Britain’s literary heritage to overseas institutions is motivation enough to pursue the vision for a Centre. Enlarge this vision of a collection which will focus on work produced in post-World War II Britain with a library, galleries, a studio theatre where narrative in other forms can be explored, workshop space, a ‘model’ children’s bookshop ands a cafe serving book-inspired food and you have an institution replete with exciting possibilities for connecting all of us with children’s books. Its potential to place children’s literature at the heart of our national literary culture by transforming attitudes to it and thus creating a new climate in which the artistic importance of such work is recognised and a broader, more enthusiastic audience for it emerges is enormous.
Creating a vision takes time but is relatively straightforward. Realising a vision is another matter altogether. Politics, in all its senses, is the operative word. Hard graft too. It took five years of consulting authors, illustrators, publishers, educators, librarians and the general public before an initial proposal was composed. Plunging into the world of public subsidy, private sponsorship, grants and lottery funding was an act of faith – one that meant putting everything that I believed in about children and books on the line. If buildings could be assembled on goodwill alone, the proposed Centre would be in business already.
A Lottery Award
But more than goodwill has been forthcoming. In 1995, by happy chance, I encountered a former colleague who had worked with me and others to establish the Northern Children’s Book Festival in 1984. Now, as Principal Planning and Development Officer in Newcastle City Council’s Education Department, Mary Briggs was in an ideal position to help move the project forward with the Council. We have worked as a team since; initially forming a Steering Committee representing local and national political, literary, educational and museum interests, then translating that Committee into a Board of Trustees when we received charitable status, and receiving a lottery award of £27,000 in August, 1996 to carry out feasibility work into the establishment of a Centre. An Arts Council grant enabled an Acquisitions Committee to develop an Acquisitions Policy and approach a representative group of authors and illustrators to establish their support for the Centre and their willingness to pledge work to it – a feasibility exercise resulting in over 100 offers of original work from writers and illustrators including Joan Aiken, Quentin Blake Anne Fine, Shirley Hughes, Philippa Pearce, and Philip Pullman as well as the entire literary estate of the late Robert Westall. Grants helped us to acquire the Kaye Webb and Faith Jaques Archives, the latter saved from the rubbish tip by an astute house clearer. Ted Hughes offered us a 20 foot Iron Man, created for a Young Vic production of his classic tale.
Initial feasibility work was completed just as the lottery changed its guidelines in late 1997 and introduced a three-stage application process (with a project like this, the goalposts always move). Further feasibility work was required but because the Arts Lottery had only £55,000,000 to spend on capital projects until 2,000, a hold was put on all such initiatives, the Centre included, while a National Capital Strategy was produced. Northern Arts, however, has put together a funding package to enable us to complete feasibility work – convinced, like us, that the project will succeed.
In the meantime Newcastle City Council has become the Centre’s local development partner (vital for any project), making available a site in a growing cultural quarter of the city worth £1 million. Tyne and Wear Museums Service has become a formal associate and the Centre has received seedcorn funding from a range of publishers, in particular Walker Books who gave us our first £1,000 as an ‘act of faith’ and has recently pledged £100,000 to match a donation of £100,000 from the Walker Books’ Employee Trust Fund towards a gallery to commemorate Sebastian Walker. Hodder has pledged a 5 year sponsorship and Scholastic, Macmillan and Penguin have pledged 4 years of charitable giving. The Robert Westall Charitable Trust has also pledged £100,000 towards the £10 million project. Mary and I have spent the past 18 months working full-time for the Centre, Waterstone’s having given me a sabbatical and provided our first major sponsorship.
Where to now? Completion of feasibility work, the challenge of finding plural funding given the anticipated changes in the Art Lottery’s Capital Strategy, a Stage II Design and Development Lottery Application in 1999, and a steadfast belief in the value and viability of our vision. An opening date? 2002-2003. Just cross your fingers.
Elizabeth Hammill is Project Director, The Centre for the Children’s Book.