STREET ART New street talk
XTRAX, the showcase for outdoor arts, was set up 20 years ago by Manchester’s Streets Ahead Festival. Ten years ago it helped set up an offshoot, Without Walls. Here Maggie Clarke, director and founder of XTRAX, and Josephine Burns, executive chair of Without Walls, explain how it is the way to the future – and how artists themselves can help guide it
W ithout Walls was established in 2007 by five outdoor festivals committed to investing in new outdoor work by UK artists. As experienced promoters, we knew that for the work to reach its full potential it would require several presentations in one season; so we set up Without Walls as a way of developing new work, by offering commissioning funds, advice and support in the creation process, and guaranteed bookings at our festivals.
Ten years ago, outdoor arts in the UK lacked structured investment and status and it was widely believed that UK work was inferior to that of other European countries. We wanted to challenge that perception and realised this would need co-ordinated investment. Our aim was to create the conditions in which great work could be developed, find its feet and flourish - which meant festivals working together, sharing creative ideas, and committing to presenting a number of new shows from a shared programme over a season. This co-ordinated approach was and is at the heart of Without Walls.
Initially there were five partners, Streets of Brighton, Greenwich + Docklands International Festival, Hat Fair, Winchester, Stockton International Riverside Festival, and XTRAX in Manchester. Ten years on, we are now a partnership of 19 organisations. The core commissioning group has grown to nine organisations, and in 2013 we introduced an Associate Touring Net- work (ATN), which enables a further ten festivals in areas of low engagement in the arts to present shows from the Without Walls back catalogue alongside a programme of audience development activity. This is great for artists, offering access to a wide touring network after the first year of creation; great for the festivals as it gives them access to a major national network to support the development of their events, and crucially it means that the work is reaching audiences in tens of thousands across the country. Research confirms that the shows reach audiences who would not normally attend arts events. In 2015, 43% of audiences at ATN festivals were from lower engaged groups (Without Walls Impact Study, BOP Consulting, 2016).
Five years ago XTRAX took on the overall management of Without Walls. XTRAX delivers many year round pro jects to support the outdoor arts sec- tor, including running international showcase events which have raised the pro le of Without Walls and the work of UK companies. The response has been impressive with several countries planning to emulate our model. The outdoor arts sector in the UK is significantly stronger and more con - dent than it was ten years ago. There is growing demand for outdoor shows from UK artists at international festivals – through XTRAX. UK artists presented programmes at festivals in Germany, France and South Korea this year alone, and shows commissioned by Without Walls continue to tour widely throughout Europe and beyond.
The commissioning policy of Without Walls has brought new artists into the outdoor sector, including a more diverse portfolio from different artistic disciplines as well as from diverse cultural and ethnic backgrounds. Our recent Impact Study showed that over 16% of our projects were from BAME artists, and 10% were from deaf and disabled artists. (Without Walls Impact Study, BOP Consulting, 2016). There is now a sizeable body of high quality outdoor work from diverse artists touring the UK – this was not the case ten years ago.
While the recent funding cuts, particularly to local authority budgets, have had an impact on the festival sector, this has been mitigated to some ex- tent by the increased focus on drawing audiences in hard to reach places, as outdoor festivals have a proven ability to attract many who don’t normally at- tend arts activities.
It is a great vote of confidence in Without Walls that Arts Council England has accepted our application to join the National Portfolio, receiving £1.2 million for each of the next four years. This provides the security to plan confidently and to increase our impact. We will continue with our core activity of commissioning and touring new works and we will be able to look at a wider range of complementary activity that will further strengthen the range and quality of outdoor work being created in the UK. It is an exciting time.
As a result, we have launched our next open call for submissions from artists and companies looking for sup- port with the creation and touring of new outdoor work for presentation in 2018/2019. Our open call ensures that all artists have the opportunity to share their ideas with us simply and democratically. It’s a great way of prompting artists who may never have made work for outdoor presentation to think about the creative opportunities involved in work for public spaces, and address the challenges and the opportunities that go with that. In previous years we have been thrilled with the huge response to these open calls; it is a privilege to read the proposals and always very difficult and time consuming to make a selection from so many great ideas.
But as a barometer of the state of outdoor arts in this country, these open calls demonstrate the vision, ambition and creativity of our sector – we are ex- cited to see what this next round will bring, and look forward to sharing the results of our work with audiences in 2018.