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Maggie Clarke believes that this is a good time for outdoor arts, with investment, partnerships and networks raising the bar and resulting in a raising worldwide profile.

Image of Wired Aerial Theatre’s ‘As the world tipped’
Wired Aerial Theatre’s ‘As the world tipped’

Mark McNulty

With its portfolio of industry-facing showcases, professional development opportunities and its commissioning, touring and producing experience, XTRAX has had a bird’s eye view of the changing landscape for outdoor arts in recent times − and it is a mixed picture. On the one hand, public sector cuts are biting hard at the festivals and artists at the heart of this sector, and there have been some casualties along the way. On the other hand, the success and broad appeal of the numerous outdoor events that took place across the country as part of the Olympic celebrations whetted the public appetite for free, accessible celebratory events in public places. The new investment from Arts Council England (ACE) in schemes that aim to reach new audiences in areas of low engagement for the arts, such as Creative people and places and the Strategic touring programme, has seen many promoters looking to outdoor arts as part of a mix of accessible, audience-focused arts projects. So there are opportunities amidst the challenges.

Earlier this year we decided to revamp our online International Directory of Outdoor Arts and Circus, a free listing of international street artists, shows, promoters, outdoor arts festivals and events. We expected the entries to the directory to be decimated, but despite the cuts and the casualties, we have received an inspiring range of new entries, with evidence that pathways are emerging which are helping artists and promoters, programmers and festivals working in this area to ride out the storm.

Pathways are emerging which are helping artists and promoters, programmers and festivals working in this area to ride out the storm

One highly influential development has been the emergence of Without Walls, a pioneering consortium of festivals committed to raising the profile and quality of outdoor work, through commissioning and touring new projects each year. Since 2007 Without Walls has supported the development of more than 60 new outdoor shows of all styles and genres, many of which are by culturally diverse, deaf and disabled artists, and 37% of which are now touring internationally. Whereas funders and promoters used to casually mention the inferiority of UK outdoor work compared to that of its European counterparts, and its lack of diversity, Without Walls shows are now regularly touring to major festivals in Europe, and our sector is recognised for its inclusivity. The Paralympic Games opening ceremony was co-directed by Bradley Hemmings (Greenwich+Docklands Festival), one of our founder members, and Jenny Sealy (Graeae), Director of one of our commissioned artists. Without Walls productions have also appeared at some of the world’s major festivals, including Sydney Festival, Fira Tarrega (Spain), VivaCite (France) and Tollwood (Germany), to name but a few.

At the heart of Without Walls are the festival partners: Brighton, Greenwich+Docklands, Mintfest, Norfolk and Norwich, Salisbury, Stockton and Winchester Hat Fair. Each of these festivals is experienced in producing new work through commissions and co-productions, providing support for artists and promoting work that contributes to the growth of outdoor performance, on both large and small scales. The consortium punches above its weight by using its collective extended networks to connect artists with potential co-commissioners and bookers from across the UK and internationally, with the end-game being to ensure that high-quality, well-researched outdoor shows, suitable for national and international touring, are generated.

Initiatives like the research and development grants, which have generated over 300 expressions of interest, provide a space for artists to take risks and experiment with new forms and styles of work that would otherwise be impossible in a time of limited resources. The consortium helps to develop relationships between new co-commissioners and strategic allies from across the arts, cultural and creative sectors in the UK and internationally. Such relationships are not only good for the consortium but there is a knock-on benefit for individual festivals and artists.

This level of support can have a transformative effect on a company, as was the case with Wired Aerial Theatre in creating ‘As the world tipped’. For this project, Without Walls was able to coordinate commissioning partnerships with Liverpool City Council and TippingPoint to pool investment from six festivals from the consortium, to offer advice and support in creating the show and to harness interest from international festivals that translated into bookings. This enabled the company to work with an internationally renowned director, Nigel Jamieson, and to make a huge leap in scale in creating and touring a large-scale show, the success of which is demonstrated by its continued touring success.

The ultimate goal of all our work is to inspire and thrill audiences with high-quality work, and the consortium is working to widen the reach beyond the member festivals. Supported by ACE through the Strategic Touring fund, there is now an Associate Touring Network which tours existing, commissioned shows to eight new festivals with accompanying audience development support. This three-year project aims to develop sustained relationships and strengthen the outdoor touring sector to ensure that audiences across England have access to the highest quality contemporary new work.

The current Associate Touring Network members are Birmingham Summer on Southside, Bradford Arts Festival, Derby Feste, Out There Festival Great Yarmouth, SO Skegness and FUSE, Medway. From 2014 Blackpool Council and Stoke on Trent will also be involved. These festivals are all in areas of low engagement for the arts in England (a priority for ACE in this programme).

The Without Walls partnership model is unique in Europe, and admired by the street arts sector which sees its impact on commissioning, on creating a credible body of new work from all genres and on all scales, and on driving up the quality of work from UK artists. Without Walls works with international colleagues and networks, delivering presentations and seminars at events, to advocate for UK artists and raise the profile of UK work in Europe and beyond, and to offer touring pathways and strategic connections for artists and promoters in the sector. Through the Associate Touring Network we are building expertise in audience development strategies appropriate to outdoor festivals that can be shared through the sector. Despite the onset of winter, the temperature outside seems to be warming up nicely.

Maggie Clarke is Director of XTRAXArts.

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Photo of Maggie Clarke