The emerging battle of the Arts Weeks


It has fast become a fixture of Trinity Term. Numerous weeks across Oxford allowing students to put down their books, take off their lab coats and pick up a paintbrush, or a mike, or maybe even an African drum. The Arts Week revolution has been spreading secretly across the carefully mown lawns of Oxford colleges, infiltrating the very heart of their ancient walls. This term, some colleges, such as Queen’s, are holding an Arts Week for the very first time, and others, such as Somerville, are reviving past traditions, whilst the steadfast success of Wadstock continues to delight music lovers into the early hours.

But what is it that makes an Oxford Arts Week? In many ways they epitomise all things Oxford with the chance, at Mertonbury, to pass a sunny afternoon relaxing on the lawn with a glass, or few, of Pimm’s listening to beautiful music. The obligatory open mic night and, increasingly, the short film competition are fixtures on almost every Arts Week schedule. But these old favourites are not to be knocked – it is said that the open mic night is usually one of the most packed out events of a week.

The Arts Week thrives on the traditional. The Turl Street Arts Festival, held in Hilary, ends each year with a Joint Evensong, and the Chaplains of Lincoln, Jesus and Exeter continue to sit on the Committee having first come together to propose the festival. Usually the weeks provide a showcase for the talent contained within college walls with recitals and concerts, but often the weeks aim to break the constraints of the need for ability or talent.

“The emphasis is less on spectating and more on participation – we want art to be for everyone”, is how the Co-Ordinators of Queen’s Arts Week described their approach. They believe that their combination of sculpture workshops and beginners’ dance classes, Strictly Ballroom, will win over their Arts Week rivals, Somerville. Both colleges are holding their weeks in Second Week this Trinity and will face competition on their opening nights from the arty stalwart, Wadstock.

Somerville has been pumping up the heat, however. Last term they elected a poet laureate, following in Corpus’ footsteps, in preparation with a JCR motion noting how the Arts Week was ‘on the horizon’. Promising fashion, photography and cookery, amongst others, the college is offering an eclectic mix of events rivalling Queen’s. Somerville’s art week will feature a historical costume show. Tracking the college’s history through clothes hired from the National Theatre costume department, a cocktail tutorial from Angels Cocktail bar, a collaborative college mosaic and a play written by the students Principals of Murder – a murder mystery based on alumna Dorothy L Sayers’ Gaudy Night.

These weeks offer experiences unlike any others. In the past they have seen truly quirky offerings – back in 2010 Brasenose held a ‘Shakespeare-a-thon’ performing thirty-eight plays in thirty hours. This year’s Turl Street Arts Festival went musically global with African drumming workshops and a New Orleans Jazz Parade. Back in fifth week last term Keble saw giant canvas painting and, they claim, an extended game on consequences in pidges.

But putting together an Arts Week is not always as harmonious and creative as it may seem. JCR budgets are typically tight and struggle to stretch to the imaginations of organisers. Most weeks aim to make as many events as possible open to all subscribing to the belief that art is free. Some have managed to gain sponsorship but this far from the norm. The Queen’s Co-Ordinators cited budget restrictions as one of the hardest parts of planning the week. Other Arts Festivals charge to cover their costs: Wadham is £10 or £15 for non-Wadhamites and last year you could buy a week long Brasenose pass for just under a tenner. It is always a fine balancing act between covering costs and encouraging attendance. But this is far from the only pitfall facing organisers. As with any Oxford event they fall flat to the typical dilemma of Oxford life – too much to do, too little time.

Nonetheless, the Arts Week remains a steadily growing feature of the Oxford landscape. Constructed of the traditional arts, with recitals, exhibitions and the open mic, they equally try to break boundaries and make a name for themselves. Most importantly they give Oxford the little needed excuse to spend a few hours indulging ourselves in creativity, relaxing and enjoying the talents of this city and university.