Interview with Monica Ferguson, chief executive, The Stables | Arts head

The brains behind the Milton Keynes International Festival on overcoming the town's punchline status and its audacious bid for European capital of culture

Hi Monica, what can you tell me about The Stables?

The Stables is one of the UK's leading music organisations. It was founded by Sir John Dankworth and Dame Cleo Laine over 40 years ago as a charity with a mission to engage the widest range of people with music in all its diversity. We present over 370 gigs each year and over 250 projects that encourage learning about and participation in music.

Some say we need new models for touring music – what do you think?

I think there are real challenges for both musicians and promoters, but there have always been obstacles to overcome. If anything, the definition of what success means has become a bit distorted; it's defined more and more by an ability to fill an arena for 12 dates rather than fill smaller spaces for a sustained touring period.

A lucky few can do this (most for a short period of time) but to sustain a long career you either need an incredibly lucky break or be prepared to work hard both on and off stage, including working with promoters to engage and develop audiences.

So what does that mean for the next generation of musicians?

Some sections of the music industry seem better equipped than others to develop young musicians. Look at the folk sector and you see quite a thriving young scene where great talent usually finds a way of getting heard, and is frequently supported and championed by established artists. But when ambition is geared around finding overnight success with a large recording deal, I think you have to be lucky to find it and sustain it.

We see too many artists who, even having had that break, find themselves cast adrift after a year or two and without the skills or experience to do their own networking, tour bookings and PR – they simply can't sustain their audiences or careers. As a charity we feel an enormous responsibility to both developing artists and developing audiences, but it's not easy to balance the financial risk.

You're also the brains behind IF: Milton Keynes International Festival – why put on a festival there, specifically?

Milton Keynes is the fastest growing town in Europe and although it has yet to be awarded official city status, its population growth will place it in the top ten UK cities by 2031. In 2009, Arts Council England (ACE) identified that the town's cultural infrastructure wasn't keeping apace with its development and asked The Stables and Milton Keynes Gallery if we could contribute ideas towards changing that picture.

The first festival was a bit of an experiment but it was deemed to be a great success and people pleaded with us to do it again. We worked with ACE and Milton Keynes Council to secure the resources to build it into a biennial event and here we are on the cusp of delivering the third edition.

There's a cruel joke that goes: what's the difference between a yoghurt and Milton Keynes? Yoghurt has culture. How much is a festival like this about profile and pride?

In just two editions of the festival, we've made people think twice about what's possible here. We've even ignited an ambition for Milton Keynes to bid for European capital of culture in 2023. People might sneer at that but you have to look at what the town has achieved in the past few years. It defied the odds to be included as a host city in England's FIFA World Cup bid and in 2015 will be a host city for the Rugby World Cup. The appetite to bid for these big events has been hugely important in helping us to realise the festival and now it doesn't seem that great a leap of the imagination to capital of culture.

Those who live and work in Milton Keynes are fiercely proud of it and the festival is playing its part in fostering that sense of pride. 80% of people who attended in 2012 believe it's adding to their sense of pride in the city and 98% reported that it was having a positive impact on their perception of Milton Keynes. There's more to this place than the easy jibes would have you believe.

You're a strong believer in the power of lists – how important are they to an arts manager?

I love lists! I have so much information to juggle I just couldn't do without them. In fact, I have lists of lists now and use an electronic list manager which syncs across all my gadgets. I find when I'm worried about something or struggling to find a way through it helps to make a list and when you start crossing things out you have dealt with – everything seems just a little bit better.

Monica Ferguson is chief executive and artistic director of The Stables – follow the venue on Twitter @StablesMK

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Interview by Matthew Caines

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