The Independents Day in Brum – SPACE

Space was a key, emerging, theme of the Independents day as we toured the city of Birmingham. Starting with A Fierce Hello (a venue less festival), moving to Stans Cafe vast factory space through to the re developed spaces of MAC and finally The Custard Factory.

In terms of space I have history here.

Increasingly one of my frustrations as Director of Phoenix was a sense that all the exciting, innovative work I was beginning to see emerge was moving to public spaces, found spaces and site specific locations. Art Centres – set up in the late 70’s as the alternative, experimental and community based spaces – had become the establishment. The very spaces that had once incubated young and emerging artists were being rejected for the danger of the public space.

Another twin pressure was continuing to affect us. Stand still grants and increased building costs was – year and year – impacting negatively on programming budgets. Perversely this often had a positive impact – more residencies, more work with artists in different ways (as a CP Creative Agent for example) increased partnerships with other organisations and venues. But there was no hiding the fact that pressure on budgets was making experimentation more and more difficult. Our turnover would be in the region of £750,000 – but less than 10% of that was spent on live programming. You couldn’t help but ask is that effective?

Needless to say I’m aware of the irony of the fact that when putting out tours myself, by my very nature, I turn to the small-medium circuit for opportunities! I’m also very aware that the Independents is being run by BAC – an arts centre whose mission is to invent the future of theatre. (One of my absolute objectives about being on the independents programme is to understand more and get inside the BAC ethos and way of doing things!)

But for a while now I’ve been thinking about what was the best model to help support, develop and provide access to emerging innovative arts practice of the future. So in a way what we saw in Birmingham today was three potential models – none of them new – but seeing them all in the space of 24 hours left plenty of food for thought.

First up then the festival. We came into contact with two – the music based Supersonic (see and – of course – FIERCE ( Both are driven by passionate people (and in the case of FIERCE an equally passionate board). Not tied by a venue they look for great ideas which capture the imagination and which they can help to happen/develop in whatever space seems appropriate. But festivals can be transient things – unlike venues they have no year round presence so its interesting to hear the new AD’s (Laura McDermott and Harun Morrison)of FIERCE talk of focusing activity on a series of weekends throughout the year.

Then there was the artist led space – in this case Stans Cafe ( Factory space (but you could also mention ‘s new ish space in Leicester or projects like Slack Space in Colchester – . Low on facilities, high on space and industrial memories. Its all very La Boheme – shiver for your art! Whilst we were there two young groups were busy rehearsing in different spaces whilst James (the 39th most influential person in Birmingham!!) talked of the different ways they had been able to use the space. – for experimentation, development, sharing and performance.

Finally we saw a radically re-invented MAC. Not the Apples and Pear scheme of Will Alsopp but a ‘central slab’ driven through the middle of the original site to link the previous, older buildings. Its all very impressive and if the 17 or 18 studios are anything to go by a renewed focus on supporting the creation of new work. Even in this stage of development its clear that MAC as a space has been brilliantly re thought and that the in house team are getting increasingly excited about the possibilities the new spaces present. It will be an extra ordinary resource both for artists and the communities of Birmingham. But there is no extra revenue support and 40% more building so as the building opens in Spring 2010 mid way through a recession the business plan will undoubtedly be well and truly tested.

A healthy arts ecology would undoubtedly have a mix of all three of these models and many more (no mention here for example in the roles of HE and FE institutions in supporting new work).but…

Midway through the day a colleague rang to cancel a crunch meeting at the beginning of next week. The reason – Arts Council senior execs were coming to town to talk about planned revenue cuts to RFO’s. A very clear reminder of the times we are in..

So we might want all three and more but in reality it leads you to wonder which model will best support the development of new work and remain financially sustainable over the next couple of years.


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