Thoughts from Xtrax: Adam Gent

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Adam Gent, Theatre Bristol’s recently departed Creative Producer for Circus and Outdoor Theatre, was asked to speak at a street arts event in Manchester called Xtrax.

The context for his talk was in setting the scene nationally with speakers from Spain and France.

He wrote this piece for to share his thoughts about the circus and outdoor theatre sector, which were originally developed for that event, in response to some of the prompts he received from Xtrax.

1 – Funding priorities

Do the funding institutions in your country affect the type of work being created? Is there money available for some types of work more than others?

The major funder of the arts in the UK is Arts Council England. It sees itself not just as a funder of the arts but as a development agency. But the pressures on its budgets and its consequent staffing levels often make this a difficult job for it to do. Despite valiant efforts of the officers it is impossible for staff to see all the work they would need to, particularly of the many emerging artists applying through the grants for the arts programme. This means that funding decisions are often made on written applications backed up where possible by first hand knowledge of the art by officers. One of the ways in which this is mitigated in south west where I’m from is through development agencies. I currently work for Theatre Bristol, am on the steering group of TheatreWorks in Wiltshire, and work closely with Activate who cover Bournemouth, Dorset and Poole and who are here at the festival.

I think there is an interesting conversation about the balance of funding that goes to an increasing number of agencies, regional and national, all with their own infrastructures and staff to support, and how much goes to actual art.

And I really do mean its interesting, Because as an artist it easy to be cynical about what great chunks of money go to and sometimes thats because the work those agencies do is not that visible, but still very valuable. And while we have ISAN, NASA, and the Circus development agency ISAN is focused on promoters, NASA has a tiny amount of funding and the CDA is under resourced too. To me it seems obvious that there needs to be a properly resourced development agency serving the needs of this sector nationally.

In this sector one of the ways in which funding is raised is through a process of getting commissioning partners on board. If a festival decides to invest money in the creation of a new piece of work this has two functions as far as ACE is concerned; first it increases the value of any investment they might make in the project, and second it acts as a validation. If a festival with lots of experience in programming and commissioning work decides to invest in you then it augments the knowledge that Arts Council have, it’s a vote of confidence from people who may have a more detailed market intelligence than an officer from ACE has the opportunity to acquire..

What drives the making of work is a complex set of agendas comprising what the big funders are interested in and what festivals and other potential commissioners and bookers of work are interested in. There are a range of priorities which stand out which I’ll touch on in a minute. But it is important to say that the one thing in common that all these organisations and agencies, the thing which they have in common with audiences at this festival from children to adults is to see original, passionate and engaging work. And the starting point for this is nowhere but in the hearts and minds of artists. This is the foundation, the most important driver of new work, and oddly its very easy to miss it.

I think the most difficult thing for artists to do is to preserve the uncompromising pursuit of a personal vision but to combine it with the wit and connectedness to understand how it can be talked into the agendas of lots of other people.

One major driver of funding at the moment in the UK is the Olympics. Artists, particularly those working outside of large organisations are often pretty cynical about the Cultural Olympiad. We heard yesterday at the Elemental event about some great opportunities through Lakes Alive, and there will undoubtedly be some welcome investment, particularly in larger scale work.

But Grants for the arts lost a third (I think) of its money last year to help pay for an Olympics which was won partly on the grounds of its cultural content. At the small scale and for the emerging artists this has been a disaster. This is mitigated by officers and staff of great integrity who attempt to make positive outcomes from a deeply flawed planning from policy central. Undoubtedly artist will ‘grasp the opportunity’ as they are being urged to do with initiatives like artists taking the lead. But this will be a very small minority and from the grass roots there just seems so far to be a frantic quest to brand existing activity. Investment in the long term, at the small scale, and for emerging artists has yet to be meaningful.

Young people are a big focus for investment – and rightly so. However I think in this sector there is still a gap between the professional artists making work and the agencies designing programmes. Often the connections between professional work and programmes for young people are not strong enough. There are interesting examples of good practice in some venues where there is an emphasis on very visible ladders of progression and a welcoming environment which has continuity. How we learn some of these lessons outside of a venue based environment or how we partner with venues so we don’t have to are interesting questions.

Perhaps the other big policy drive behind funding is around cultural diversity. This is a complex issue to deal with quickly. Undoubtedly it’s a very good thing. The visibility of disabled artists and artists from ethnically diverse backgrounds making work for the public realm, many of whom can be seen at this festival is important both artistically and politically. The long term and well informed support of any groups who have been marginalised and their integration into the mainstream is not only beneficial for those artists but crucial for the mainstream.

I just want to also touch on how the creation of new work relates to participatory experiences. One of the biggest bread and butter markets for outdoor work is local authorities both in terms of programming and increasingly in terms of commissioning new work. The agendas of local authorities are very broad and encompass a huge range of concerns. They will often be interested in a greater depth of experience for their constituents in addition to their role as audiences. In the UK I think this is something we do very well across many art forms – to combine with integrity the creation of new work with participation and this is something that local authorities and other bodies are hungry for. In my experience there is a lack of companies in this sector producing high quality work who can also deliver good participatory programmes. And I think particularly with participatory work its important that its delivered by local companies where possible, so that it might maintain continuity and develop roots.

2 – Political Factors

Are there other key political factors that affect the type of work being created? What are these political factors and how do they differ in different countries? For example, are artists influenced by issues such as Climate Change? Is sensitivity to climate change affecting the way artists create work? What other political factors affect street artists’ work?

Do we make work in response to climate change? I think this begs a wider question – do we make work in response to political imperatives? I think the answer is mostly no in this country, and one of the reasons why is that it’s a very difficult thing to do without simply creating dogma, and another is that in this sector which has been marginalised historically there is a lack of ambition to tackle serious and challenging subjects. There are exceptions to this, I’m sure you will all think of some. One that spring to mind is Desperate Men’s Miracle Show. From abroad, Australia, some of you may have seen Small Metal Objects by Back to Back. This piece by a company working with artists with perceived learning difficulties illustrates perfectly that when the political becomes personal it can then become great art. I’m genuinely interested – who is the heir to Welfare State? What happened? Perhaps the looming Tory government will focus our minds.

3 – Creative agendas

Who sets the creative agenda? Are artists free to create work on whatever subject they choose? Are promoters who commission work looking for a particular creative agenda?

I think artists are free to create work on whatever subject they choose. Its not subject that’s the question but form and location that we tie ourselves up in knots about. In some of the work I do in supporting artists the thing which depresses me more than anything is being told by artists who make work for outdoors that in order to develop they are going to make an indoor show. Though this may be sometimes quite legitimate it seems to me to often illustrate 2 things.

First a lingering sense of inferiority that we are not making ‘proper theatre’. That we aren’t reviewed or funded in the way that proper theatre is.

And second that we have become stuck in groove of our own expectations about what work outdoors can be. Have forgotten that it can be as subtle, as challenging, as engaged.

Of course each show has to develop for itself the huge infrastructure of focus and framing that lights, seating and a black box give you. But the massive engagement of new audiences should enable us to make those arguments for better resources. And perhaps that’s the final destination of those endless conversations about scale – that its always about quality and how we enable it and anything else is irrelevant.

And this means the setting of the creative agenda starts way back and is about training, resources, building ambition and making work in the public realm highly attractive to talent.

And I worry that we are currently investing huge amounts in the large scale, and in importing work, and important and exciting though this is, we need to do more than pay lip service to the development of the sector at a more profound level.

4 – Strength & weaknesses

What do you think are the key strengths and weaknesses of street arts in your country – in general.

Our key strength and our key weakness are one and the same. In the same way I made the point earlier about the presence of culturally diverse artists being crucial for the mainstream – work outdoors, in the public realm has been the periphery also.

So while I welcome the increasing production values and professionalization of the sector, I would be loath to lose all of the anarchy, the sense of being outside literally as well as metaphorically.

There is a sense in which regular grant funding infantilises arts organisations, makes them dependent, vulnerable to what they think is wanted by their funders. Often this is not what the funders themselves want or intend. The history of this sector has been a necessarily entrepreneurial, independent one. And this again is its strength and weakness. Dot Comedy sprung from this seedbed with some inspired and original shows and innovative business models. But equally this environment has produced too much work driven by markets which are only concerned with making homogenous high streets more ‘colourful’ so people will spend more.

And as the public realm attracts more funding and attracts the welcome injection of life from established companies and artists working in other areas, it will be fascinating to see how the radically democratic context of the streets, the parks, affects them, and how they affect it. And I hope they do affect each other, realise the potential of this different canvas.

5 How do we make things better?

Apart from investing more money, if you could do one thing to support the development of street arts in your country what would it be?

If I could do one thing to support the development of street arts in this country other than giving it more money I would seek to raise the level of ambition – and that is quite different from raising production values or scale.

Because to win the argument for greater public subsidy means making excellent work that everyone will see. And when everyone sees it is excellent, that the spontaneous, immersive events that happen around them are genuinely increasing the quality of their lives in the public realm, they will not begrudge the subsidy.

I think you do this by:

  • taking risks with what you fund,
  • spending seriously for the long term in developing the grass roots of where work comes from
  • getting to people when they are young and illustrating with great clarity and conviction the opportunity that making work in this sector brings,
  • seeing more work, by broadening our horizons – soaking up the sheer depth of evolution of classical music, the way dance balances so high on the bridge between athleticism and art, the sheer wit and invention of so much Live Art, and how the visual arts are so confident but wear their lineage so lightly.

And with all of these by taking the development of a critical framework seriously so we have a better language to talk to each other about how we move on.

Adam Gent

What do you think? Share your thoughts in the comments below…