It’s mid January in Margate. Around 20 people circle round a huge table on which stands a mock up of the town, constructed from photocopied pictures and foam board. People point, measure, discuss, shake their heads, scribble.
A scene reminiscent of a military planning group, it is in fact a production meeting for Blink, a large scale performance to take place on August 27 August before around 7,000 people, involving choreographer Wayne McGregor and his company Random Dance, the German action theatre ensemble Pan Optikum, the musician Scanner – and around 500 local people from Thanet who will be involved both on and and off stage.
Most importantly it is a many-tentacled collaboration between artists, arts professionals and local organisations and people. Others taking part include the soon-to-open Turner Contemporary, Thanet District Council, Theatre Royal Margate, Kent County Council, Margate Regeneration Partnership, Kent University and Thanet College.
Collaboration is nothing new in the arts, but we have now entered an era in which money is scarce and resources are stretched – and in which central government is asking the arts to be part of how we rethink localism from the ground up.
“At this point when arts organisations are struggling to keep their heads above water to deliver their primary commitments, it’s actually a prime time to pool their different resources,” says Verity McArthur, co-director of McMc Arts. McMc Arts, a production company who specialise in large-scale collaborative public events, are co-producing Blink with the Canterbury Festival.
“Those resources could be financial, but it could be different skill sets, it could be access to different audiences and participants,” says McArthur. “It’s almost about provoking people to think outside their organisations; the danger of the current climate is that people might become inwardly focused in order to survive.”
Blink is the result of a local Arts Council South East initiative. “The original ambition was very clear,” explains Sally Abbot, Director of ACE South East. “It was about trying to create a range of different opportunities for audiences and artists, and making sure that those audiences got exposure to the very kind of high level international work that would begin to begin to meet the artistic aspiration of that bit of the region.”
So key to the project’s aims is its potential legacy. “The idea is to get a whole bunch of people working together on the delivery of this,” says Jane McMorrow, the other “Mc” in McMc Arts, “and that they then continue to exist as a group who will continue to look for opportunities to work together again.”
“It’s a kind of no brainer really, to make sure there’s a really strong collaborative core at the heart of any project like this,” explains Sally Abbot. “And that is not just about taking people with you or about finding additional resources, it’s about something much more fundamental which is about ensuring the greater value of bringing all those together, not just in terms of brain power, but in terms of collective ambition.”
If good collaboration is about finding shared goals, the opening of the Turner Contemporary on April 16 this year was one of the big reasons that convinced McMc Arts to pick Margate as the venue for Blink. Director Victoria Pomery was already working hard to make sure that the gallery exists within a strong network of local partnerships.
“The arrival of a new art institution can be potentially very, very difficult,” says Pomeroy. “So it’s about thinking around how a building isn’t parachuted in. So when Verity and Jane came here they saw the potential of something in Margate which could support making something like Blink happen.”
Finding where shared goals lie is key to activating the project. They approached Random Dance partly on the strength of their creative learning programme. Wayne McGregor will be working with 100 young people from the town. “For Wayne,” says Jasmine Wilson, Creative Learning director at Random Dance, “this project is absolutely about participation. It’s all about those 100 young people.”
A further 400 local people are being recruited to work together behind the scenes – some to assist with the pyrotechnics. The local further education college is proving to be an invaluable partner. Students from Thanet College are pitching to run a local media campaign. “That campaign has been built into their timetables for next term,” says Jane McMorrow. “That way we’re helping to deliver the college’s ambitions.”
For McMorrow the key to successful collaboration is time. “What we try to do is build a good amount of time into the process. There’s not a real perception of how long it takes to build a collaborative event of this scale. We’ll have had a 20 month lead time to this project which in my view is about right, particularly when you’re creating a new piece of work. Things have to happen organically in this process in order to be really solid.”
Sally Abbot cautions that there is a lot of work to be if that kind of solidity is to be achieved. “If it’s not a good collaboration between McMc Arts, Canterbury Festival and locals, then this won’t result in a sustainable piece of work. I think McMc Arts have quite a challenge on their hands. It is quite a skill to get right.”
Jane McMorrow agrees that that is crucial. “Because only then will you have a piece of work which responds sincerely to the place and the local people. And that’s what’s going to allow people to see Margate in a very different way and hopefully inspire the audience to want more. So next time you do something like this, the local skills and experience are already there. You don’t have to ship it in. It’s only one little step. It’s not going to solve all the problems or significantly alter the whole arts infrastructure,” she says, “but it is going to make a difference.”
A version of this article is published in Arts Professional [subscription only]
All photos by Drew Hart Photography