Neil Griffiths’ career path was practically set in stone.
“My school told me I had three options: drive a van, load a van or join the Army,” he recalls with characteristic wit.
But he had other plans, becoming a fundraiser so accomplished he would eventually be voted among the 50 most influential in the world.
His a classic tale of transcending the limiting beliefs of one’s society - which is the essence of Neil’s current work as MD of Arts Emergency, a charity he co-founded with his friend, the comedian Josie Long, three years ago.
Sharing an anti-elitist philosophy, they had been chatting about helping young people from diverse backgrounds - not just the privileged few - explore careers in the arts, an idea that resonated all the more deeply against a backdrop of rising tuition fees, government cuts and dwindling university resources.
The solution, they realised, lay not in becoming just another grant body but rather in supporting 16 to 19-year-olds through a mentoring system that pairs them with experienced individuals who want to give something back.
The set-up, which has already proved transformative for many, also makes use of an Old Boys’ network, comprising a vast array of professionals from whose knowledge the students can draw upon.
Currently catering for 83 pairs, it isn’t huge and, by Neil’s admission, hasn’t strayed much out of London. The plan, though, is to expand it nationally, with communities running their own regional initiatives under the Arts Emergency brand.
With the North East set to be among the first to benefit, Gateshead’s Baltic Centre for Contemporary Art is highlighting the work of the charity at a launch on Friday evening. Supported by Arts Council funding, the event will also include music, dance, and a showcase for many of the region’s best-known arts organisations.
“The North East is a major cultural hub and has lots to offer,” Neil said.
“There’s a massive arts scene and the area has made a huge contribution to public life over the generations – beyond Paul Gascoigne and Jimmy Nail.”
The region, however, had also been hit by the London “brain drain”, cuts to support for the arts and the sidelining of those from deprived communities.
“But we’re going to change that,” Neil added - and his confidence may justified.
Indeed, there has been huge groundswell of support for Arts Emergency within the region, Friday’s event being organised by the Newcastle-based Community Interest Community Breeze Creatives, following a chance encounter at a party in London.
“A friend introduced to us Jonathan Wakeham, who co-founded the LOCO London Comedy Film Festival and is involved in the charity,” said Zoe Anderson, who works alongside Alex Breeze and Dan Gibson at the contemporary arts organisation.
“He put us in touch with Neil and I remember our first conversation. He kept saying, ‘How can we help you?’ and we kept saying, ‘No, how can we help you?’
“We felt what Arts Emergency was doing was absolutely amazing and we wanted to do something to assist, whether it was through financial support, spreading the word or whatever was most helpful to them.”
Breeze Creatives, which has established something of a track record on the arts-for-all theme through the likes of its Wednesday Lecture series, took it upon themselves to organise the launch, drawing together everyone from opera singer Dawn Furness to Dance City for a showcase that aims to be as fun as it is informative.
The Newcastle-based psychedelic installation artists, Candy Vortex, meanwhile, offered to take care of the event’s themes and branding, while singer Richard Dawson, who describes his work as ‘ritual community music’, is donating his fee to Arts Emergency.
“There has been such a positive reaction,” said Alex Breeze. “Everyone seems to see it as a breath of fresh air – we haven’t come across any negative comments at all.
“As soon as they have found out what it’s about, they’ve been more than giving.”
The relationship between the two groups, however, doesn’t end there.
Having recently relocated its base to the nine-storey Bamburgh House on Newcastle’s Market Street, Breeze Creatives has promised Arts Emergency a free office on the eighth floor, with inspiring views over the city, acting as a hub for the organisation as it establishes its presence here.
As far as inspiring environments go, it doesn’t get much better for young artists, the building featuring just over 100 studios, six project spaces, an art gallery and an events space to be run by Vamos, from which it will launch this year’s festival.
“The next step will involve me coming up to Newcastle in June or July to start recruiting arts graduates in the area and linking them to people in London,” Neil said.
“Then it will really be down to the volunteers and the 16 to 19-year-olds to work together and shine a light at the end of the tunnel.
“I’m aiming to get the service launched with at least one big college in the North East by September. Then we’ll hopefully get a full service running in the area.”
Among those supporting the move is Wearside MP Sharon Hodgson, Shadow Minister for Women and Equalities and chair of the All Party Political Group for Art and Education, who will be attending Friday’s launch.
She said: “Our cultural and artistic sector should represent the wide-ranging diversity in our society and during the last Parliament I championed high-quality, inclusive arts education in our schools so children and young people can unlock their imaginations and consider career opportunities in the arts, which can sometimes seem unattainable.
“That is why it is fantastic to see Arts Emergency, with the support of Breeze Creatives, setting up a permanent base here in the North-East so that disadvantaged young people in our region can have the opportunity of careers which are often reserved for the select and privileged few.
“The mentoring scheme set up by Arts Emergency will offer those often excluded from our cultural world the chance to network and establish relevant contacts to achieve their aspirations of a career in the arts, and I hope those who work in our local cultural sectors here in the North-East will sign up and become mentors and advocates to support the next generation of thinkers, writers and artists.”
Event running order
7pm - performance from DJ Nik Barrera on the main stage as Star and Shadow cinema begin screening short films in the cinema room
7:30pm - Introduction from Baltic director Godfrey Worsdale
7:40pm - Screenwriter and co-founder of the LOCO London Comedy Film Festival, Jonathan Wakeham introduces Arts Emergency
7.50pm - Chris Dorsett, Professor of Fine Art at Northumbria University, discusses the usefulness of charitable initiatives such as Arts Emergency
8pm - Performance from Dance City Centre for Advanced Training students
8.20pm - Performance from Newcastle-born singer-songwriter Richard Dawson
8.50pm - Constance Humphries performs cross-medium performance, Help!, created especially for the event
8.50pm - Theatre company Zendeh takes over in the cinema area
9.10pm - Vamos showcases the music of Hannabielle and Yillis
9.30pm - Dance City returns to the performance area, with a performance from dancer Viv Wood as leader of the Northern Sinfonia orchestra Bradley Creswick plays violin
9.50pm - Light projections from Novak
10.10pm - performance from five-piece electronic pop/rock band Shields
10.40pm - Performance from DJ Nik Barrera
11pm - evening concludes
The Arts Emergency launch will also feature a bar, where opera singer Dawn Furness will be performing throughout