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Saturday, June 22, 2024
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PeopleMick Smith

Mick Smith

‘I was born in Reigate. My father was an Anglican vicar and Mum was a midwife, then later a health visitor and marriage guidance councillor. We moved quite a lot, probably every six or seven years. My parents had three girls and then I came along, followed sometime later by my younger brother. When I was about two, they moved to Lewisham in Southeast London where I grew up very happy, absolutely loving the diversity of the area and feeling part of “the world”. I enjoyed primary school but when I was about eleven, we moved to Slough. It felt like I had been ripped out of Southeast London and brought to this “other” place. One of the worst things for me was that, without knowing what it was, I took the Eleven-plus and passed! So I ended up going to a grammar school that felt like it was run by a group of teachers that had tried and failed to get work at Eton. Their stock-in-trade was arrogance and humiliation, and I went from getting an A-merit to a D-merit in quite a short time, quickly falling into a habit of just not going into school. To distract myself I began obsessively playing the piano which I had tinkered with since I was young. I had started on guitar, playing things like the Beatles and David Bowie but I realised I was more comfortable playing the piano. I played with my brother who played drums with wooden spoons on an old Tupperware kit. Music became my counterpoint to “education”, funded by a Saturday job as a stockroom boy in Woolworth.
By fifteen or sixteen I was skirting around with getting in trouble with the law and things could have gone really badly, but my Mum and Dad, who were amazing people, worked really hard to get me to see other options in case music didn’t work out. So I decided to become a psychiatric nurse. I think I had inherited a sense of service and contribution to community from my parents. My Dad was also a hospital chaplain and he had helped form what later became the Samaritans. At one point he was offered the option of becoming one of their first Directors but he decided to stay working as a vicar. With their support, I resat an O level to give me the minimum entry qualifications and got into an institution in St Albans called Hill End. In those days nurse training was vocational, whereas now it’s a degree. This allowed me to leave home at 18 and live with about a hundred and fifty other people from all over the world. It was absolutely brilliant – an incredible experience. But although I loved the social life, the work was a trial by fire. I learnt a lot of what not to do and witnessed a lot of abuse and dehumanisation. However, on the same site there was a separate Regional Adolescent Unit, run on a social model by a radical psychiatrist called Dr Peter Bruggen, which used every new kind of approach you could think of, including family and group therapies. Drugs were only used if a child became physically impossible to deal with. It was diametrically opposite to the rest of my experience when I went there for a student placement, and I was overjoyed. It felt like all the institutional things that were taken for granted in the main institution had been dismantled and reassembled to make some sense.
After I qualified I managed to get a job working there and when one of the charge nurses went off with a long term illness, I was put in charge of a shift. So at 21, I found myself with a great deal of responsibility. It was an incredible experience. I stayed for a year and then moved back to London to work in a mental health project in Fulham. We were allowed to work on outside projects there, so I helped set up an agency to assist people with mental health history to get back into the workplace. That entailed everything from producing and delivering the concept to getting on the telephone to hundreds of potential employers to get businesses to offer people jobs. At the time it was Thatcher’s Britain, so it caught the eye of the public and we ended up on You & Yours and Thames at Six. We had a lot of success and I realised that developing new projects was something I really enjoyed.
All this time I had also been working as a musician, doing gigs, recordings, putting singles out with various bands and giving an enormous amount of time to that – in a way equal to what I was doing in my day job. I was getting very little sleep but quite happy. One band I was in played dance music tinged with Middle Eastern music. That was the early 80s, so it was about ten years before its time. We had interest from record companies and were convinced we would one day get “the big one”. We never did but despite that, I decided in 1988 to do music full time, which I did for the next twelve or thirteen years. I travelled a lot, did TV in four countries and gigs in eighteen countries or so, in different bands and sometimes as a singer-pianist, as well as one or two tours and a stint on a cruise ship with a jazz trio. I was also writing songs which I managed to place with a few people who had a profile.
During those years I also got married and when our third child came along it was obviously time for a more settled life, so I got a job in Dorset as area manager for twelve mental health services and moved to Bournemouth. That job gave me my first experience of Bridport when I helped set up a drop-in centre there in around 2000. Then ironically, having moved out of London, I was promoted to Director of Operations – based in London! It was quite a job, in charge of hundreds of services and organisational lead for various initiatives, dealing with MPs, local councils and generally firefighting.
After about four years I decided to take a break from all that and felt that it was time to combine my creative interests with my management experience and look for something that combined the two. So I took a job in Bournemouth to deliver a creative business incubation centre for what eventually became Arts University Bournemouth. That led to a full-time mentoring job based in Southampton. Having had my own creative businesses of various kinds, my experience suited the mentoring role. I was quite open-minded in terms of not thinking there is only one answer and aware that a lot of creatives don’t like rules or focusing on traditional marketing and sales, so I saw my job as turning business planning into a creative act. I really enjoyed it and over three years I helped establish 35 new creative businesses. One of these, a group of artists from Southampton Solent, had decided to stay on after graduating and set up studio spaces. I ended up helping them voluntarily for fifteen years and as chair of Trustees for nine years.
I then took a job as Director of an Arts Centre on the Isle of Wight where I worked for five years, promoting the idea that we were an arts organisation, not a building, and aiming to provide artistic opportunities for all, including those unlikely to enter the arts centre building. We set up a very successful presence at the Isle of Wight Festival, the Kashmir Café and ran an art tent at Bestival.
After the Isle of Wight, my next job was in Tower Hamlets interviewing 150 community organisations, assessing them and offering support with relevant training, governance, finance, quality assurance etc. I then took another Operations Director role with a National Mental Health charity, but after five years and a combination of family loss, and lack of funding I realised that I no longer wanted to work at that level and with my kids now adults, decided to go travelling again. In Bangalore, preparing to return to the UK after volunteering in India and Nepal I saw the Bridport Arts Centre job and applied.
It’s been a challenging time to run a venue and the arts centre has had both an illustrious history and various recent traumas, but the charity has survived the pandemic, engaging thousands of people in creative events and opportunities even during lockdown, via the Bridport Prize and our investment in filming and streaming equipment. As before, I am focused on providing creative experiences and opportunities for everyone, both in and out of the building, through projects with young people and supporting underrepresented writers with bursaries and residencies as part of the Bridport Prize. But we do have an excellent theatre and gallery, and it’s great to be open again. And with events such as Mi Flamenco and Ballet Central and our ‘Mash P’ exhibition showcasing the work of a talented young photographer and former child soldier in Sierra Leone, suddenly I feel like part of “the world” again!’

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