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There’s trouble up at the Hall it seems.


Image Courtesy Alison Day

The name of Dartington Hall still resonates in arts, educational and environmental circles. Every so often, of course, there are newspaper exposés of how nutty the nearby alternatown of Totnes is; these always mention Dartington as a kind of engine room of alternative ideas. Many of these tracts are unfair but, as anyone with any experience of Totnes knows, Dartington’s century-long association with rural regeneration, education, the arts and ecology has certainly attracted a local population which is – shall we say – a little untypical of most English country towns. Compare it with Newton Abbot only eight miles away which has light industry, a more visible working class, a big Asda, Tesco, a racecourse, and a shopping precinct with a Costa Coffee which, incidentally, pitched for a venue in Totnes which campaigned against it – and won. Dartington, on the other hand, has (or had) an internationally famous Summer School of Music, for thirty years hosted a wellknown literary festival, had a reputation for experimentation in the arts, still has a unique community radio station (Soundart Radio), a college devoted to ecological studies (Schumacher College) and a history of progressive education.

…deep financial difficulties have to be dealt with somehow.

Some of these have been shed over the years. Dartington Hall School came to grief as long ago as 1987, the College of Arts – the jewel in its crown – in 2010, the Ways With Words literary festival in 2022. Now it seems not only that the futures of Soundart Radio, Schumacher College and the Summer School of Music are uncertain, but that the whole culture and basis of the Dartington Estate, administered by the Dartington Hall Trust, is in question.

Locally you will hear it said that the Trust has lacked enlightened policies for some years. It has reneged on the principles of its wealthy founders of nearly a century ago. Ex-employees who have resigned because they were put on zero hours contracts have little good to say about the Trust. Outrage over the closure of the College of Arts in 2010 is still current. On the other hand there is some recognition of the fact that long term very deep financial difficulties have to be dealt with somehow. Details and opinions vary…A Save Dartington Campaign, which includes people involved in the Transition Town movement, remains sore that the Trust refused to even grant it a meeting although there are signs that the current Trust may, at last, be ready to talk. But it is worth asking: where does the current situation come from – not only in the shorter but also in the longer perspective?

[The Trust] has become articulators of a now discredited outlook

As an idea, modern Dartington’s origins lie a hundred years ago (centenary/funeral next year) in philosophies and practices of communalism, the arts as integral to everyday life, alternative living experiments, progressive education, new approaches to land and farming, and a belief in local and smallscale enterprise as a response to industrialism and mass society. It was conceived and developed by an extremely wealthy couple, Leonard and Dorothy Elmhirst, and has been described by reference to that anomalous concoction – “aristocratic socialism“, although I prefer “paternal progressivism“. An old friend of mine, an Oxford scholar, used to refer to the “anti-bourgeois bourgeois“… None of Dartington’s original ideas have passed their sell-by date. In fact, surely they are more urgent now than a hundred years ago and, in some ways, more possible now than then. This includes the arts as more than an optional add-on, enquiry into new approaches to land use and farming, the roles of smallscale enterprise and crafts – and so on. New discourses and technologies can make these dreams far more than mere fantasies.

Sam in the doorway of The Great Hall

When I came into the story Dorothy Elmhirst had just died and Leonard was withdrawing from involvement. There had been a Trust since the 1930s but now without the Elmhirst presence the Trust took over the overseeing and running of the place although with the presence of some relatives of the original couple. In effect this meant that Dartington’s old school progressive paternalism began to merge into a more modern welfare model – one that not all at Dartington agreed with incidentally. One family member/Trustee felt that accepting public money always came with strings. But the new welfare outlook was consistent with a postwar socio-political landscape whereby public involvement jostled for position alongside former privilege. (The formation of the NHS – a public service alongside a private one – was a good example.) As time went by at Dartington these two argued with one another and reached a status quo. The College of Arts in particular depended on public funding as well as whatever the Trust contributed. The socio-political climate changed in the 1980s when a neoliberal, monetarizing culture of accounting quickly emerged nationally and internationally,

Although it had been under discussion in the works of the likes of Friedrich Hayek since the mid-1940s. Dartington took a while to catch up, but sure enough its outlook and precepts gradually became governed by this new approach to culture and society in general. Paternalism, welfare-ism, neoliberalism. In other words – although not always neatly – Dartington’s development echoed that of the country in general.

What has happened at Dartington in the 21st century…

– and is happening today – may have its roots in the 20th but it represents the outcomes of the neoliberalism that we see all around us. The Tory Party, for example, no longer sees itself as paternal like say, Harold MacMillan in the 1950s and ‘60s. It is now positively anti-welfare-ism and gets away with as little public involvement as it can (or dares). The Labour Party may not be far off – certainly since Tony Blair. The neoliberal approach has, in more recent years, been seriously questioned even by centre-right economists but as a doctrine it remains largely accepted by Tories and, indeed, In politics as in many things it is still the default position.

Institutions like the Dartington Trust continue to operate under its heavy and deadening influence. Without any real vision beyond something like modern Toryism and/or managerialism the Trust, pretty well inevitably has become articulators of a now discredited outlook – and this is so despite the association of some of its members with good causes and, in one case, Tony Blair himself. It must be added, though, that;

a) it is still not sufficiently understood how inoperable this neoliberal system is in anything like human and even economic terms and

b) it was a powerful idea in its inception but even now little has emerged to replace it.

The academic Raymond Williams used to say it is insufficient to “say Thatcher and spit”. There’s still a lot of spitting going on, but little serious opposition. This does not ignore the many “green” alternatives that are available but they take more vision than the Dartington Trust currently appears to be able to muster. Instead they now have a recent history of flailing about asset stripping, getting rid of elements that don’t make sufficient money (arts and education). changing the business model to landlordism and so on. In other words, the strengths of Dartington’s paternalism and welfare-ism now seem weakened and all that is left is a corporate-sounding culture of monetarisation. The Trust is now heavily weighed towards people who have served on other boards and charities, former directors of banks, CEOs, senior business partners, local and national government, property development, marketing, and (of course) management consultancy. Not that some of these skills and connections are unimportant but the culture of the Dartington Trust becomes clear when it is considered that practicing artists and local people are almost totally conspicuous by their absence.

A so-called ‘Change Team’ is now calling the shots.

People who, like me, highly valued Dartington may throw our arms up in horror and sorrow at the erosion of it’s ideals as we knew them. But another perspective sees what’s happening as a vivid microcosm of what has been happening in a general political sense in the Western world since the 1980s and is now coming home to roost. It’s why we have challenges from climate change – obvious measures to combat it should have been taken years ago but they don’t stack up in monetary terms. Such terms lurk among hidden narratives of wars (including the current ones). It is likewise ridiculous to blame the cost-of-living crisis only on Covid and Putin. The real root of these problems is the same as that which is at work at Dartington. Politics, ideology, social ideas, culture (even the arts) are a network.

Image Courtesy Alison Day

Oppositional ideas can also form a network.

Dartington’s origins were part of such an oppositional network. If there were sufficient vision at Dartington it would still be possible to make the place into a contributor to an oppositional or alternative network that now exists in matters of environment, the role and future of work, peace studies, the response of the arts to current challenges and so on. With Dartington’s international reputation as a lever all this could happen and become influential – as, indeed, the College of Arts was. Instead we see the crumbling of an edifice which has rapidly become a piece of cultural archaeology.

Schumacher College is now in flux. New students were told during their September Welcome Week that their courses would not be starting. That included people who had taken out loans, relocated, negotiated with families, arrived from across the world on Visas…Estate employees have been informed that they are now on zero hours contracts – many have chosen the highway. The world famous Dartington Summer School of Music apparently will not happen in 2024, Soundart Radio, a unique community station widely recognised as unique, is facing rent charges that it can’t afford. A so-called ‘Change Team’ is now calling the shots. Rumours fly around concerning such contrasting scenarios from theme
park to liquidation. The future of a bold and one-time genuinely alternative institution is uncertain. One hopes for enlightened solutions.

But somehow I am not holding my breath.

The survival of Dartington and an idea that has positive contributions to make, in the long and maybe even the short term, depends on it doing what it historically always did – place itself outside conventional wisdom and limitations of mainstream culture.

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25 days ago

Here’s exactly what DHT need to do to solve this mess.

Financial Advice:

  1. Financial Assessment: Conduct a thorough audit to understand the extent of the debt and identify its largest sources.
  2. Debt Restructuring: Explore debt restructuring options, such as refinancing or negotiating with creditors to extend repayment terms.
  3. Cost Reduction: Analyze all expenses and consider where costs can be reduced without compromising essential services or assets.
  4. Revenue Diversification: Explore new revenue streams, such as hosting weddings or music festivals, expanding the use of facilities, or introducing new learning programs.
  5. Fundraising: Launch fundraising campaigns, including seeking donations from individuals, foundations, and grants.
  6. Asset Monetization: Consider selling underutilized assets or leasing them for income generation.
  7. Partnerships: Collaborate with other organizations, including the National Trust, for mutually beneficial projects.
  8. Arts Programs: Reassess the arts provision program to make it financially sustainable, possibly by increasing fees in tandem with seeking state sponsorship.
  9. Community Engagement: Directly involve the local community in decision-making and fundraising efforts.
  10. Financial Transparency: Maintain open communication with stakeholders about the financial situation and progress.

Community Consultation Plan:

  1. Establish a Community Task Force: Create a diverse group of local community members to represent different perspectives and interests.
  2. Information Sharing: Share all financial and operational details with the task force to ensure transparency.
  3. Community Needs Assessment: Conduct surveys and meetings to understand what the community values and expects from DHT.
  4. Idea Generation: Encourage the task force to generate innovative ideas for revenue generation and cost reduction.
  5. Feasibility Analysis: Evaluate the feasibility of the generated ideas, considering legal and ethical aspects.
  6. Community Involvement in Decision-Making: Include the task force in key decisions, like asset sales, program changes, or partnerships.
  7. Public Forums: Organize town hall meetings to update the broader community on the progress and gather feedback.
  8. Fundraising Campaign: Collaborate with the task force to create community-driven fundraising initiatives.
  9. Long-Term Vision: Develop a sustainable long-term vision for DHT that aligns with community values and financial stability.
  10. Regular Updates: Maintain ongoing communication with the community through newsletters, meetings, and reports on financial progress.

By taking these steps, DHT can engage with the local community, find solutions to its debt issues, and ensure a prosperous and mutually beneficial future.

Vivien Bridson
28 days ago

Another side of this is the thousands of people influenced and educated by Dartington. I was sponsored by the youngest Elmhurst family member. Without this support I would never pursued a life in Dance and Theatre and – I hope – become a European

Sam Richards
Sam Richards
26 days ago
Reply to  Vivien Bridson

Yes, of course, I take that as read. The real impact Dartington – in all its aspects – had on people’s lives is one reason why what is happening to it is so tragic.

Jane Parsons
Jane Parsons
1 month ago

I’m glad to read this piece, Sam. It’s really helpful.
But what isn’t mentioned, except briefly in passing, is Dartington’s enormous and explosive debt. It is the debt that is fundamental to the problems the Trust faces today. Irresponsible and/or ignorant trustees have allowed this debt to grow uncontrollably over decades until it is now so damaging it grotesquely skews everything to do with the estate.
The Elmhirsts were immensely wealthy and could indulge every fantasy they and their friends possessed about sustainability and ecological ideals because there was, seemingly, a bottomless pot. Of course people were beguiled by this fantasy world, and they continue to hold up the Elmhirsts as gurus who created something unique, a utopia of natural balance and fairness. Indeed, they did create it, at vast and unsustainable cost.
Perhaps this current bunch of trustees has a Grand Plan, perhaps not. In my experience, CVs are never what they’re cracked up to be, and I wonder if there is anyone there with the vision to enable Dartington to survive.
The only sensible solution I can see working is to sell enough assets to pay off the debt, and run what’s left as an efficient business, using wisely chosen money-generating events to fill a pot which pays the bills, supports enterprising projects such as developing the gardens and features arts and community programmes which fulfil an aim to continue to be a centre of alternative, independent and effective thinking. Dartington is not doomed, but it could be without radical, courageous and visionary action.

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