Last May I had a particularly busy week down in the West Country. I visited three wonderful gardens, set up a music installation for the opening of a tapestry exhibition in a unique modernist house, and finally attended an inspirational conference at the UK’s only festival of contemporary textiles. All three of these experiences I’ve written about on this blog, but the most extensive piece was devoted to the Slow Textiles Conference at Stroud International Textiles (SIT) Festival. It’s actually a long illustrated letter, and you can read here.
A little while later I received a charming e-mail from the SIT Festival director asking if she could put a link from SIT’s website to my conference review. Well it wasn’t so much a review but a detailed resume to a colleague who hadn’t been able to make the conference. All the same, following the link to my ‘letter’ going on SIT’s website, this 3000-word piece started getting a serious number of daily hits. This is personally very reassuring, although I should remind readers of why I started this blog: it was to learn rather than report or teach. One way I’ve found to both fix (and question) knowledge and develop understanding is to attempt to explain it by writing or speaking. Assembling knowledge you can explain so often requires careful note-taking and additional research; so it rather goes without saying that the whole process is a good learning experience.
Sadly my day at the SIT Festival conference only allowed me a brief experience of its programme. I was confined to a lunchtime visit to the main exhibition space and to reading the festival programme and later the excellent catalogue (of which more later).
Since then a gentle dialogue has developed between myself and SIT’s indomitable founder and director Lizzie Walton. Like so many other festivals and regular events that currently rely on the Arts Council’s Grants4all programme, SIT became seriously worried about its 2011 Festival when the Arts Council announced its proposed cuts following the Government’s panic to reduce the budget deficit. The Festival mobilised its many friends in July to make sure it had sufficient funds to safeguard the programme for its 2011 festival. As summer turned to autumn it became clear that raising funds for this was not going to be easy.
It was at this point I made the suggestion that instead of simply focusing on the future as ‘the next festival’, the sustainability of the festival for the next five years might be addressed. This is what the Arts Council has been promoting for some time: the idea that organisations should start thinking seriously about becoming self sufficient from Arts Council grant aid. This is a continuation of the process that began over ten years ago of helping organisations experiencing financial difficulties to take stock and turn themselves around. Sustainibility funding, a model from the USA, was introduced and the programme has only recently finished, with many success stories to its credit. What this funding meant was that to be eligible for such support an organisation had to submit itself to the most stringent review of its operation and create a new business plan. Now I can hear you saying ‘rich pickings for the ‘ol consultants’, and of course that certainly did happen, and continues to happen, not always successfully as an example close to home (the former studio community I belonged to) demonstrated.
The next stage of encouraging arts organisations towards self-sufficency is the National Portfolio Funding Programme. Launched last year it will replace the regular funding programme in March 2012. Its intention is to look strategically at arts provision across the country and to provide sustained funding for deserving organisation for a period of 3-4 years of development. This is to enable organisations with an outstanding track record of delivering artistic excellence to become more self-sufficent from 2012 when the full impact of the Government’s cut of 29% off the Arts Council’s budget will start to be felt.
My suggestion to Lizzie and her team at SIT was that they should consider applying for serious development funding through this programme and in so doing put SIT and its festival on a robust footing: a paid director, marketing and business manager, education officer and the organisational infrastructure to secure in perpetuity this treasure of cultural enterprise serving the applied arts.
Although my experience of the textile world is very recent, I can see that SIT and its festival occupies a special piece of the jigsaw that reveals the cutting edge of textile art and the design, craft, and textile education in the UK. There is this calendar of perennial events: The Knitting and Stitching Shows, the industry focused stalwarts like Origin, and the very necessary New Designer showcase. There are enterprising galleries and specialist centres like Ruthin, Oriel Mynndd and The Platform Gallery and regional makers fairs such as Nottingham’s Lustre. Museums and Universities are increasingly presenting new work alongside scholarship and research-led exhibitions. But at the SIT Festival you really can find in one place, over a packed 3-week programme just where it’s at (and more important perhaps) where textiles might be going both home and abroad. This is just so exciting and very worthwhile, and for a wide constituency of interest too.
In the music world I inhabit we’ve had for 25 years the challenging Huddersfield Contemporary Music Festival. Having nestled under the skirts of the town’s university this two-week festival has finally reinvented itself to offer a programme no concert hall or broadcaster could begin to put in place. This festival has now learnt that just presenting ‘a lot of work’ isn’t enough. There must be interpretation alongside performances. Audiences these days are better informed and want to know more about the ‘story’ of a piece of new work: why it is what it is. This means you have to have the composers and experienced performers there; not only as a presence at concerts, but really active in rehearsals, workshops, lectures, debate, education work. In the little town of Stroud such a blueprint for a ‘contemporary’ festival has been there from the start, and it seems amazing to me that no major institution or corporate body (pace Stroud College) has begun to recognized that just what such a festival has delivered over the past 6 years.
I really don’t need to sing SIT’s praises by pointing to its events past and present, its beautiful programme booklet and innovative catalogue (what other festival anywhere and in any media produces such a valuable legacy documentation celebrating the practice and work of each festival’s major artists). This is an event brave enough to consistently challenge its audiences, understanding that professional, student or amateur / hobbyist textile practice is, and always will have, an adventurous and experimental edge, even if the techniques are traditional-based and or time-honoured. Textiles art constantly seems to reinvent itself with fresh ideas, new materials and lively collaborations. In this festival art and craft come together wonderfully, underpinned by a lively academic presence, status reports from the frontiers of research into the practice of makers worldwide, and a programme of events that cross textile boundaries and make connections into literature, theatre, and music.
If I could point to just one recent initiative at last year’s festival it would be the presence of work from the Highlands and Islands. To read the blog kept variously by those who came down from Scotland for the festival is to really get a measure for what this festival means to a community of interest.
If Stroud isn’t on your radar then take a look at its extensive website that will fill in the many gaps time and space won’t allow this blog to mention. This summer’s (2011) festival looks as good as ever. For me there are three designer / makers I want to flag up, partly because they are names new to me and their work looks intriguing. Also to mention is the presence of two of our foremost academics in craft related disciplines from Farham: at The Craft Study Centre and The University College for the Arts: Professors Simon Olding and Lesley Millar.
Jan Garside works as an artist in woven textiles. Loughborough trained – read about my enthusiasm for this college’s approach and the work of its students in my New Designer’s review last July – and working with a 32 shaft ‘peg and lag’ dobby loom, her work is striking and different.
Corinne Gradis works with appliqué and embroidery. She often collaborates with Japanese artist Ebolie Watanabe. There’s something of Sheila Hicks in their work, particularly in pieces like Golden Bowl above.
Regular readers will know of my interest in paper yarns so I was intrigued to get to know about the work of Sue Hiley Harris, a weaver who works in linen, hemp and paper. Much of her work is 3 dimensional and sculptural in intent. All three of the artists mentioned above will be leading workshops as well as exhibiting their work.
So, keep your fingers crossed for Lizzie Walton and her team at Stroud; that the Arts Council recognize that this established and confident festival should be worthy of support from their new programme from 2012. This festival rightly deserves to continue: to show contemporary work with the authority and flair it has so imaginatively developed and regularly delivers.