Arts Aloud Interview: Tamsin Ace on creating the perfect arts programme for children

Southbank Centre’s Imagine Children’s Festival is now one of the biggest hitters in the children’s arts calendar.

Arts Aloud spoke to Tamsin Ace, Head of Festival Programme and a busy working mum herself, to pick her brains on what makes it so special.

AA: How did Imagine Children’s Festival first come about?
TA: Believe it or not, the festival is actually one of the Southbank Centre’s longest running festivals, even pre-dating Artistic Director Jude Kelly’s 10 years on the programme. Historically there was always a strong literature focus for half term breaks, but the idea was to create more of an ‘appointment to visit’ in the calendar.  Creating a ‘festival’ of arts meant that we could make it much bigger and also look for ways to incorporate broader aspects of the children’s arts scene, year-round. 

Did you have a specific audience in mind when you devised the festival? (For example, Early Years, KS1 or KS2) and how do you balance content for the range of visitors that the festival might appeal to?
Imagine Children’s Festival puts children of all ages at the heart of the festival, not just in the events and activities but every aspect, from including them in visitor experience teams to selling merchandise, serving food and generally running the show! That’s something that we are very proud of and love to shout about.

Children have always been a very important part of the community. Morning, noon and night we have always worked to create a space that children can be free in. As you’ve said, some parents perhaps feel that they sometimes ‘colonise’ the space with their young children and buggies, but the festival was keen to take things one step further and make a point of actively encouraging this family participation. We didn’t want to create a festival where children were invisible and it was run by adults.

The Imagine journey is very much one of discovery, where visiting families are open to discovering other art forms


How is the festival funded and how does this impact on the content that is available?
Outside of the Arts Council funding that we receive, the remainder of the festival is funded in a variety of ways including ticketing, retail units on our website, sponsorship opportunities and contributions of other trusts. Every festival has a subsidy of some description but by funding it in this way it fulfils our ability to create a programme which has a careful balance of commercial and populist content, as well as aspects which are free or alternative. 

Typically, well-known aspects to the programme, such as the reimagining of well-loved children’s books, are easy crowd winners and certainly draw the audience, but once they are in we hope that the journey is very much one of discovery, where visiting families are open to discovering other art forms which they weren’t aware of previously.

Does the festival have any official learning objectives at play? Or is inspire and entertain the main aim?
Although it’s not our official call-out, I’d probably say the main aim is to ensure that what’s on offer both reflects children and challenges them. We spend a lot of time curating content for the programme and researching the very best in the children’s arts scene, but equally there are an array of artists who we might already be aware of that aren’t making stuff for a family audience, and perhaps could. 

Artists such as Eilidh MacAskill and her Gendersaurus Rex project is a really good example. Her work asks some serious questions about gender, feminism and sexuality. It would be brilliant to find a way to get children thinking about some of these issues in an appropriate way. 

In terms of learning, we feel that the majority of this comes from the quality, creativity and diversity of the work on offer. Bringing this to a new audience is the single biggest learning opportunity. 

In your view, what do you believe to have been the most successful or memorable aspect of the festival?
I’ve been at Southbank Centre for 8 years, taking over the Imagine programme 5 years ago, and I have seen so much growth in that time. 

Literature has really moved on and remains at the heart of the programme. We’ve built on our publisher relationships beyond the culture of ‘new releases’ and ‘junkits’ and now have a very carefully curated programme of author talks, signings and workshops. 

The expansion of the free programme has also been fantastic, with aspects running all day, from 10.30am to 4pm. Plus we’ve also transformed the dining space in the Royal Festival Hall to provide an abundance of seating in order for families to enjoy their own packed lunch on-site. 

The introduction of our ‘mini festival makers’ has also been a proud moment. Children have always been part of the journey but from the minute that we became a ‘festival’, children have had an increased input, even getting involved in the design of its identity. We had school groups of children 7 to 10 years old from Lambeth visiting weekly in the first year and it was their input that helped create a fresher more relevant appearance (the brightly coloured robot and alien images now synonymous with the festival). This kind of collaboration has since evolved into one-day takeovers. 

We’d like to make superstars out of more authors…
that would be a very good message to send our children

What’s your vision for the future?
We see no reason why the festival can’t continue to get bigger and better every year. Space is an obvious constraint and challenges exist around how we can meet our full capacity yet avoid the feeling of overcrowding for visitors. 

We also want to welcome even more of the local community to the Royal Festival Hall and see them enjoying the festival as well as spending a greater amount of time in the space and around the site.

From an artistic perspective we’d love to see more international work and perhaps even commission some more of our own work. This year David Walliams was obviously hugely popular but we’d also like to make superstars of even more authors, newer or perhaps lesser-known authors. We feel that would be a very good message to send our children.

Imagine Children’s Festival runs for 2 weeks in February and includes a programme of children’s music, theatre, literature and free events. 

Check back for updates on the programme for 2017 (Usually released around November).