MIF director Alex Poots: "There's unfinished business."


Posted by: Creative Times on May 16, 2011 12:15

Now on its third outing, the biennial Manchester International Festival has put the city firmly on the arts map with its bold programming and focus on new, commissioned work. Chris Sharratt talks to its director Alex Poots about money, art and the pros and cons of familiar faces and famous friends.

A lot has happened since the inaugural Manchester International Festival in 2007. A global financial crash, a new coalition government, a wholesale questioning of the use of public money for funding the arts, cuts, cuts and more cuts.

And yet, says MIF Director Alex Poots, it’s pretty much business as usual at Manchester’s biennial festival. Yes, the last two years have been challenging times financially, not least with the loss of funding due to the demise of the Northwest Regional Development Agency, which contributed £900,000 to the 2009 festival. But the show must go on and for Poots, the show is the thing – everything else is just a distraction.

“Things really haven’t changed for me,” he says. “We’ve only become more visible through the approach of being an artist-led festival. The more we invest in great artists making great work, the more those other things [financial benefits to the city, tourism, etc] are activated. The most important thing for us to do is make an artistically and culturally important festival that is of the highest quality.”

“I’m happy to be criticised for revisiting key artists who I believe still have some really interesting ideas and unrealised projects in them.”

Quality control and co-commissions
Of course quality costs, and that means finding new ways to bring in the money. The funding hole created by the coalition’s bonfire of the quangos has been more than filled, says Poots, by the increase in revenue from the financial and artistic partnerships that have been developed through co-commissions. Teatro Real, Madrid; Holland Festival; Ruhr Triennial; Art Basel – just some of the organisations from an impressive and growing list of international collaborators.

Crucially, the festival continues to enjoy solid support from its founder Manchester City Council, which contributes £2million for each outing. MIF also became a National Portfolio Organisation in the recent Arts Council England funding round, with £1.5million for the three years from 2012-2015. This doesn’t mark an increase in ACE’s contribution, but it does provide greater stability.

“We were getting annual funding of £500,000 previously, but we were having to apply each year,” explains Poots. “Knowing that we’ve got the money over three years is reassuring, and that stability helps when we’re approaching commercial sponsors.”

Belts may be tightened, but this year’s festival has generated in the region of £2.5million from the private sector and, while it may still have its detractors, Poots deserves considerable credit for so quickly establishing MIF as a key part of the arts calendar.

From the bold masterstroke of making it a festival of exclusive, commissioned work, MIF has lived up to its international billing, pulling off startling exclusives such as Damon Albarn and Jamie Hewlett’s Monkey in 2007, and Marina Abramovic Presents… at The Whitworth Gallery in 2009.

Familiar faces
And yet, after the highs of the last festival, this third instalment does feel a bit flat, a little too familiar. The headline names are old friends of the festival: Damon Albarn; Abramovic; Antony Hegarty; Johnny Vegas; Punchdrunk theatre; Amadou & Mariam. All giants in their fields, but haven’t we been here before? Shouldn’t an international festival be casting its net a little wider? Poots is having none of it.

“I’m more interested in trying to realise great work than be a one-night stand festival where we say, we’ve done you now, we’ll just dispose of you,” he says. “There are artists where there is unfinished business. Because we’ve worked with them before we can do an even more ambitious idea because the relationship is there, because we’re able to be even more honest with each other.

“Two thirds of my artists this year are new, but I’m happy to be criticised for revisiting key artists who I believe still have some really interesting ideas and unrealised projects in them. And I’m proud that we can deliver those ideas, because I don’t think a lot of other people could.”

Poots’ relationship with some of these artists – Damon Albarn, for instance, whose new opera Doctor Dee premieres at MIF – predates his time as festival director. (Poots has previously worked for, amongst others, the Barbican, Tate Modern and English National Opera). Others have grown and developed during his tenure, most interestingly his work with Belgrade-born, New York-based artist Marina Abramovic.

She returns this year in The Life And Death Of Marina Abramovic, directed by Robert Wilson and featuring Willem Dafoe and music by Antony Hegarty. But the genesis of this long-time-in-the-making project – a co-commission with Teatro Real – is complex, and it was in fact the development stage of the performance that led to Abramovic’s piece at the last festival, rather than the other way round.

Shows of this ambition and scale take time to realise, and Poots talks of MIF as a kind of antidote to the quick turnaround, disposable nature of so much popular culture today. He’s relaxed about using a phrase like ‘rarified’ in relation to some of the festival’s programme.

Taking the rap
Yet he’s also keen to stress that popular culture has an important place at the festival table, that distinctions between high and low art are increasingly meaningless in the 21st century. Hence MIF’s ongoing relationship with rap and hip hop, from Kanye West in 2007, De La Soul in 2009 and, perhaps most surprisingly, Snoop Dogg in 2011.

“If you think that popular culture is as important as any other culture, then the last major development in popular culture was rap and hip hop,” says Poots. “And who has made a major contribution to that? Well, Snoop Dogg has.”

Snoop Dogg’s important contribution was his genre-busting, Dr Dre produced 1993 debut album, Doggystyle. He’ll be playing it in its entirety at the festival, a European premiere that quickly sold out.

Of course you could argue that despite that record’s cultural and musical impact, Snoop Dogg is more reality TV parody than a serious artist these days. But it’s this kind of audacious programming that has helped set MIF apart from your average arts festival. Poots likes to mix things up, to do things differently – to scare the horses a little.

Out of the ordinary
“I don’t want to be a festival that attracts the same 15 per cent, largely white middle-class audience,” he says. “We’ve got to do things that wouldn’t normally happen, that are out of the ordinary, that aren’t run of the mill.”

As a guiding principle, it’s difficult to disagree with. Does this year’s festival programme live up to it? We’ll have the definitive answer after July 17, but it certainly cuts a swathe across contemporary arts culture, from the work of experimental composer Mark Andre, to musical theatre from ex-Beautiful South frontman Paul Heaton, to a new play written and directed by Victoria Wood and featuring a full children’s choir specially created for the event.

And then there’s Bjork’s intriguing six-night residency at the 1800-capacity Campfield Market Hall, Manchester pop noiseniks WU LYF performing live in the Great Bridgewater Street tunnel, and a stellar line-up of international artists, including John Baldessari, in group show 11 Rooms at Manchester Art Gallery. It’s an endearingly eclectic collection.

The challenge for the future will be to keep pushing the boundaries, to shake off the feeling that the festival is falling back on tried and tested artists, to keep developing longterm partnerships while always being open to new talent.

“Everyone thought we were mad seven years ago when we said we were doing a commissioned festival,” says Poots.

Some people still might. Yet MIF is a very young festival and Poots, you feel, has the will, the staying power and above all the commitment to great art, to cope with any growing pains. Either with or without those familiar friends.

Manchester International Festival, June 30 – July 17, 2011, mif.co.uk

Images: Alex Poots, photographed by Antony Crook; Snoop Dogg; Bjork; (left to right) Willem Dafoe, Marina Abramovic, Antony Hegarty, Robert Wilson

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