Michelle Walker, 25 January 2015

I convened the session as I've just started in post as Artistic Director of Winchester's

Hat Fair festival - the UK's longest running festival of outdoor and street arts. I wanted

to meet artists making or wanting to make work for outdoor spaces and to talk about

artists' experience of partnering with festivals: what works, what could be better,

what's exciting, what's difficult.

We talked for a while about the specifics of Hat Fair and how I hope it will express the

original radical spirit of the festival (now 41 years old) whilst prioritising artistic

ambition. My dream for it is that it has meaningful local resonance whilst also bringing

international spectacle to a small city; that it disrupts a usually well-behaved place with

a gently anarchic celebration for a few days each July; that it is always playful,

sometimes political, sometimes thoughtful, always welcoming.

Some artists shared specific ideas of their previous / current work in outdoor

environments, including Chloe Mashiter (making a headphone piece to take place on a

bench), the Naturals theatre company based in Bath, the Human Zoo theatre company

(currently under co-commission from Latitude and Greenwich & Docklands festival),

and the Royal Society for the Pursuit of Lovebirds. Anna Cottis shared some thoughts

on the street arts scene in France where this form of theatre is ‘taken more seriously’.

We talked about the pragmatic nuts and bolts of commissioning and touring outdoor

work - what works well for artists and commissioners. We discussed how best a

festival might balance the advantages (for both festival and artist) of co-commissioning

/ co-presenting touring work with other partners versus the ambition to curate a unique

festival programme specifically tailored to a particular place (avoiding closely

replicating festival programmes elsewhere). One of the challenges we discussed was

the inherent risk of presenting new outdoor work: often the commissioner who has

invested the most support in a new piece premieres it before it has benefited from

being ‘run in’, so often doesn't get to offer its audiences the piece at its most fully


We talked about the way the Without Walls consortium works: 6 festivals - Hat Fair,

Greenwich & Docklands, Brighton, Salisbury, Stockton, Norfolk & Norwich - co-invest

their own money and the consortium's Grants for the Arts funding to R&D and

commission new outdoor productions for touring around the partner festivals and

beyond each year. There is a related Without Walls network called the Associated

Touring Network, with 9 member festivals focusing on audience development

initiatives for outdoor work, presenting and touring shows previously created through

the Without Walls commissioning network. There is also a new outdoor arts

consortium called Up & Out, led by Seachange Arts in Great Yarmouth - this includes

festival partners as well as creation centres like Jackson's Lane. They have recently

done their first open call offering free creation space and mentoring from a consortium

member (but no money is as yet attached to their opportunities).

There was a general consensus amongst artists that 6 - 9 months was a helpful lead

time for responding to a commissioning brief. Although issuing briefs may feel

inappropriate for established companies with long planning cycles, younger artists in

the conversation felt that there were lots of hungry artists who want to respond quickly

to briefs / commissions through channels like IdeasTap. For commissioners who want

to avoid issuing briefs to artists (not wanting to ‘dictate’ creatively to artists), the

importance of relationship building was felt to be key in order to maximise the chances

of synergy between what the artist wants to make and what the commissioner might

be hoping would work well for their environment.

Things that artists felt make a good experience for performing at a festival:

- having 1 consistent individual point of contact in the festival team who's your ‘go-to’

person for anything and everything from start to finish

- being enabled to feel part of a temporary artistic community, for example by

attending opening / closing events all together rather than just turning up for your

allotted performance slot then leaving

- being supported by festival staff in helping audiences to register the ‘performative

frame’ of the show (some thoughts from an earlier session on Pop-Up politics were

cross-pollinated here). How, without the usual indoor signifiers of a performance

(tearing of ticket stubs, allocated seating, dimming the house lights, etc), does an

audience ready itself best for being engaged by an outdoor performance? What

responsibility do artists / audiences / festivals each have for best enabling that?

- taking demonstrable action to improve the ecological sustainabilty of the festival. Can

be difficult to achieve although solar-powered generators etc are now fairly common

practice for many events.

Lots of us were excited by the increasing permeability of the outdoor arts sector to

artists who had previously only worked in indoor / site-specific building environments.

We discussed the differences (creatively and pragmatically) between ‘site-specific’ and

‘outdoor’ though agreed they were more flexible terms than had previously felt the


More informal break-out conversations between individuals in the group then occurred

towards the end of the session picking up on specific points of interest / sharing of

project ideas.

I hugely enjoyed hearing from so many artists working in the sector; thanks to all for

taking part and sharing your thoughts / ideas / plans. Do keep in touch.

Michelle Walker

[email protected]

Session participants: Chloe Mashiter, Anna Cottis, Francis Christeller, Andrea Carr,

Rosanna Lowton, Ian Pugh, Lizzie Crarer, Florence O'Mahony, Jason McKell, Bea,

Sarah Allen, Sally Christopher, Steph Connell, Clara Giraud, Michelle Walker.


commissioning, outdoor arts, festivals, Festivals, Outdoor Arts, Outdoor arts, street

arts, consortium, Hat Fair