The origins and aims of the Festival The Festival was the outcome of a couple of RSA Coffeehouse Challenge discussions I held in Kingston Starbucks in 2006 and 2007. The first was about “community in Kingston” and homed in on the lack of good community spaces and things to do in the centre of Kingston for anyone who is not interested in pubbing or clubbing. We identified the Market House and the Market Place as under-used community spaces of great potential, and in 2007 a follow-up discussion on “101 things to do with a dead Market House” brainstormed very creatively about community and cultural events that could take place there. We envisaged the Market Place in the evenings as a continental piazza, with events going on outside and inside the Market House, cafes and shops open around the “piazza”, and people of all ages and cultures strolling around enjoying themselves. As a result, the RSA gave me a Coffeehouse Challenge award to run a 10-evening Festival in the Market House, as an experiment into and demonstration of some of the possibilities.   

The Kingston context Kingston is a relatively affluent town with a large student and graduate population; many people work in Kingston and many more people than formerly live right in the town centre; it ought to be able to sustain a more interesting and diverse evening culture than the current night-time entertainments on offer. The new Rose Theatre just off the Market Place will undoubtedly improve the evening culture in central Kingston and attract new people into the centre, but anyone who has been to a performance there and emerged at 9.00 or 10.00pm will have observed how dark and dead the Market Place still is at night, with no cafes open or restaurants, closed shops and businesses, few people about and nothing going on, either outdoors or in the Market House. Many people find this off-putting, even frightening. It is a great pity that the town centre is currently so unattractive to most people over 25 in the evenings and that many people have consequently come to avoid it. A fairly typical response to the Market House Festival project was: “Kingston really needs a more lively and sociable atmosphere in the evenings and weekends, and it is very necessary to deal more effectively with overcoming the drug and mugging problems”. It does seem to both the casual observer and to someone like me who has tried to do something to improve things, that there is still a long way to go before there is the “critical mass” that would attract businesses to open and people back to the town centre in the evening.   

The Market House Festival The Festival was a qualified success: it used the Market House for some fairly novel and attractively varied events in the venue (talks and discussions, an eco-fair, a “Strictly Salsa” class for beginners, an Amnesty exhibition and meeting, and tasters of different cultures, languages, wines and foods, some organised by community groups and some by local small businesses), all free and open to anyone. Event organisers enjoyed the opportunity to reach new audiences, and audiences and event organisers commented on “what a lovely room” it was; many had never been inside it before – there is little awareness locally that this is, or could be, a community asset. The events brought people into central Kingston who do not normally come into town in the evenings, mostly middle-aged, but including quite an age range over the 10 evenings. Audiences (a few small, some of around 50 or more) enjoyed themselves, talked to each other during opportunities for coffee and drinks, and appreciated the size and faded grandeur of the venue. A few people came to several events, some local councillors attended some, and the novelty of the Festival attracted local media interest. We were probably also helped by light evenings, reasonable weather most evenings, and the publicity efforts of individual event organisers. I had much practical support from Kingston First (Kingston Town Centre Management), and Borders Starbucks were also extremely flexible, helpful and generous in providing refreshments for the events that requested them.  

Some observations and proposals resulting from my experience of organising the Market House Festival: 

- The venue and its facilities: The acoustics are reasonable and talks and discussions worked well without microphones, and though there were no musical events to test the acoustics fully, a visiting musician thought that it would be suitable for music workshops. The salsa tutor thought the floor not slippery enough for dancing, and it is not at present an ideal space for exhibitions or for events such as fairs that would benefit from passing trade (upstairs, no way of advertising outside), which would probably be better in the Market Place itself. 



It could do with improvements: the Market House has no lift, no internet connection upstairs, no AV equipment, no café, a very basic, under-equipped kitchen, inflexible heating (either on full or off), no exhibition facilities upstairs, some need of redecoration, and no signage or way of advertising what’s on there. Loading and unloading can be difficult because of parking and access restrictions in the Market Place. There are doubtless difficulties inherent in a listed building that probably does not generate enough income to warrant refurbishments, but some RBK restrictions – on catering, music and film shows, council censorship of fliers etc – seem unnecessarily off-putting for potential hirers.  




At the very least, a set of cheap and robust cups and saucers and some washing up materials in the kitchen would make it easier for community groups to organise social events in the Market House in an environmentally-sensitive way (the alternative being bringing in everything necessary, including a great deal of plastic, and creating a lot of waste). 




Rental charges, facilities, terms and conditions, need to be clear right from the beginning of the hire process; they could, for example, be put up on the website, as with Library halls and other venues available for hire. It also has to be possible to book the room(s) well in advance, or hirers will go elsewhere, as I suspect many do and I would have had I not been committed to putting on a Festival in that particular venue. The venue is probably currently too expensive, especially with the extra expense of additional 3rd party insurance for every event, for local community groups to contemplate hiring it for themselves on a regular basis, though it should be possible for a very well organised and determined group to put on an occasional public event for which they charged. 



- Publicity: This is crucial to the success of any project to enliven Kingston by diversifying its evening culture. Many local residents and workers simply do not know what is going on in Kingston. Some probably wouldn’t be interested even if they did know, but I have come across potentially interested people who did not know about the very well publicised “Think in Kingston” and even some who were not aware that Kingston had a new theatre!

My budget, helped by Kingston First and the efforts of individual event organisers, stretched to 5000 festival fliers + a  few for specific events + all the free events listings in local papers and websites and coverage in local media that I could manage. The results were patchy, with full houses for some events and poor turn-outs for others that seemed equally attractive.

Some proposals: 

  • Good electronic signage in prominent places (the Market Place, the station, the Bentalls Centre, the Rose…) telling visitors and residents “What’s on tonight / this week / this month… in Kingston”.
  •  Or even A-chalk-boards doing the same thing in a more low-tech way.
  •  The Visitors’ Centre in the Market House being rather more selective about what it stocks, displays and publicises, with prominence given to events in the town centre.
  •  The RBK website section devoted to “Leisure and Culture” could do with a makeover – it’s not very comprehensive, the sub-divisions and organisation seem fairly random and there appears to be no calendar of events. Generally, it could be easier to navigate. 
  • The fact that the venue managers at the Council insisted on vetting fliers for the event, which was not advertised as a Council event d,id not help!

- Cafes need to be encouraged in the Market Place, and they and shops in the area encouraged to join Borders in staying open late, perhaps by some kind of zoning system guiding planning decisions (closed shops and building societies are no asset at all in the evenings). A café in the Market House itself would be an asset to anyone organising an event there – and events bringing in customers would be an asset to a café in the Market House or nearby.


- Actions that could encourage more community use of the Market House upstairs rooms, not necessarily mutually exclusive, include:

  • RBK developing a strategy to increase use of the Market House in the evenings, by favouring local community groups and even small businesses, for example by allowing them to use the venue once a year at greatly reduced rates, provided that it is for open public meetings / events in the evening, and its availability should be advertised much more widely. As one respondent wrote: “A lower hire rate would probably bring in more income in the long run, and there is no reason why some events should not be free to local residents.”
  •  An annual open evening – for community groups, local businesses, other possible users – to show off the venue and its facilities, explain what it can and can’t be used for and what works best, and to hear questions, suggestions and requirements from potential hirers.
  •  The Libraries and Museums department running the Market House as a cultural centre / exhibition space in the town centre with a café and a remit to stay open late and host regular evening events, not necessarily free. 
  •   A commercial art gallery-café taking it over, and encouraged to run events or at least to stay open in the evenings. Such venues work very well in other places, there is nothing quite like this in Kingston, and there are local artists and art students who might welcome an outlet in the town centre.
  •  The booking and hiring system needs to be much more transparent, user-friendly and customer-focused.    

In conclusion… 

During the 18 months or so since the first Coffeehouse Challenge discussion that initiated this project, I have encountered much positive interest in using the Market House more. The Market House is central, historic and well-known locally, a public building in an open space unique in S W London that could and should be opened up more often to the public. I think the Festival demonstrated its viability as an attractive cultural focus in the town centre as well as revealing its limitations, some of which could be overcome relatively easily.  

Coincidentally, at around the same time as I was discussing and working on the Festival, Kingston Council commissioned a Civic Trust project on the evening culture in Kingston town centre; the Night Vision report was launched in March 2008, and confirmed many of the impressions and conclusions that had come up quite independently in our 2006 and 2007 Coffeehouse Challenge discussions. I have responded very positively to the Night Vision report; I will also be circulating this report to various interested and relevant parties in Kingston, particularly within the Council.

Kingston Town Centre Management remain interested in the project and its outcomes, are committed to improving and diversifying Kingston’s evening culture and may well support future events in some way.  Several people who came to or organised Festival events could see the potential of the venue and would hire it themselves if it were cheaper and easier to do so and they could cover their costs or even make a profit. I intend to start a regular “Philosophy Café” in a town centre venue (not the Market House but nearby in a café or bar) to build on one strand of the Festival, as it was evident from this and annual events such as “Think in Kingston” that there are enough people in Kingston who would enjoy regular serious but informal discussions over a glass of wine or a coffee to make this worth trying. 

Events in and around the Market House could benefit and attract a wide section of society, including the older more affluent crowd who comprised a majority, though not the whole, of Festival audiences. It would be good to see something interesting going on there almost every evening, not just concentrated into a ten-evening Festival, so that Kingston workers, students, visitors and residents came to expect it and made visiting the town centre in the evening a regular part of their lives. Together with Borders opening late, the Rose Theatre and new restaurants and cafes in the area, the Market House could contribute towards a really vibrant evening culture in central Kingston.  The more people there are in town at night the safer it is and the more attractive it becomes, a virtuous circle from which businesses that stayed open late and restaurants would benefit too. 

I and most of the people I met at my Coffeehouse Challenge discussions and while organising the Market House Festival hope that something very like the Civic Trust and Coffeehouse Challenge visions of Kingston will become a reality, and some practical ideas towards making that happen have emerged from actually running the Festival. In the words of the Kevin Costner character in Field of Dreams (and as the new Rose Theatre is finding): “If you build it, they will come.” 

Marilyn Mason FRSA, Coffeehouse Challenge convenor, 2006, 2007, Market House Festival Director, April 2008 

See other pages on this website for more information on the Festival, including the full programme of events.