A Busy Run of Events and the Importance of Donations

I am just back from a short walk around the neighbourhood – it’s stopped raining earlier this morning but the wet was still dripping from the trees and the squirrels chasing each other shook loose that one drop that went right down my neck… I enjoy this time of year – full of colour and change, with the nights drawing in and the smell of woodsmoke in the air.  It also tends to be the time of year when events happen one after the other and there’s hardly a moment to catch my breath, pause and process the happenings of the week. But today I have set aside a bit of time to assess the last few weeks from mid-October to mid-November.

First, we hosted an interactive workshop about historical medical instruments, a mix of talks and handling sessions run by Devon & Exeter Medical Heritage Trust. The workshop was delivered by medical professionals and pitched at an interested but not expert audience. The result was a mixed audience of students, teachers and other interested parties of all ages and backgrounds. Not an easy feat and all praise to the medical trust’s coordinator Megan Woolley for making it such a success.

Then we had the book launch for Prof James Clark’s new book “The Dissolution of the Monasteries” (which has since been very favourably reviewed in The Times and elsewhere) which we managed to pull out of the hat at somewhat short-notice. With a ready-made audience of colleagues, friends and fans, the launch was well-attended, and if nobody noticed the lack of volunteers available to support me in running the event that’s because my partner and my best friend luckily have careers which allow them to be flexible and help me out in my moments of need. Similarly, James’ family were there to help cater for our audience, and the evening turned out to be a perfect mix of public talk and private reception where everyone is welcome and made to feel they are part something particularly special.

Sarah Spencer’s exhibition was a resounding success, drawing in a wide range of people from all backgrounds. People also appreciated the chance to talk to her about her work, look at her artist’s journal and how it was  conceived and planned. The greeting cards specially made for the exhibition proved popular and with all proceeds going to the priory, we make a little money to go towards covering costs. Now with new funding coming in, we plan to acquire her work and make it a permanent feature of the priory.

Then there are our children’s workshops for half-term – always very popular and they sell out quickly. There is an art to pricing an event and still keeping it accessible to a majority of people, and volunteer-involvement does make it possible to keep the ticket price for our audience down. So we are lucky to have such dedicated professionals giving us their time for free to deliver a wide range of children’s activities.

Speaking of pricing, you will know we have a whole range of free events, and I find that people are generous in donating at such gatherings. With the funding we receive from various funding bodies, and with our visitors’ and audience’s support, we continue to be able to offer this free programme, and I am very grateful. But when it comes to materials, staff time, or specialists who are called in to give a talk, or run a workshop, or put on a show, the costs can’t be covered by funding and donations alone. We are a not-for-profit organisation, so it’s a balancing act to make our events accessible to people of all backgrounds but still make sure we are a financially viable organisation.  In the arts, heritage and charity sector, we’re all in the same boat and we tend to cross-promote each other’s programmes and share best practice. A solid network of organisations and people to support each other on this level is, quite literally, the make-or-break of our success.

Music at the priory is still in its trial stages but Melanie Mehta and Peter Adcock had a captive audience for their free performance of music in keeping with the Tudor history of the building. A pleasure to meet them both and find our visitors generous with their praise and donations. Later that day, All Hallows’ Eve was a rare treat for all of us, with David Heathfield telling folktales to suit the occasion. In the evening, David told his stories free of charge, and the story sessions were ticketed but free. And how wonderful to see so many families with children come in the evening, though we had a great number of adults joining us, too. With sweet treats made by our wonderful Sally Dyer, we all enjoyed a very special evening.

Then last week it was the Exeter Literary Festival and we had a number of wonderful speakers with us: Rosemary Griggs came as “Lady Katherine” in full Tudor dress to present her new book “A Woman of Noble Wit”, Ed Fox made history easily accessible with his talk about Tudor rebellions and an engaging Q&A session afterwards, and Lawrence Sail read his beautifully crafted and thoughtful poems and excerpts from his book “Accidentals” in the priory’s Great Hall.  For these talks, we charge a small entry fee, and we usually sell enough tickets to just about cover our costs. We ask people to fill out feedback sheets to make sure we learn from them how to improve what we do, and hope they’ll come again.

I now have a pile of those feedback sheet to analyse, then adjust our marketing strategy according to my findings. And after that, it’s on to applying it to promote our Tudor cooking session this coming Sunday, Melanie’s wonderful music for Remembrance Sunday, the next medical workshops and our Christmas show and Tudor Christmas re-enactment weekend in December. But more of that next time!

Until then, stay safe and be in touch, Judith

Dr J Morgane, manager of St Nicholas Priory, Exeter