Advice: Promoting performance art in town centres

Putting on performances in public places can have a lasting impact on town centres, but they need to be based on local issues and culture, finds Ben Kochan.

Performances like Choreography for the Running Male, in east London, can change perceptions of an area (PIC Block Universe)
Performances like Choreography for the Running Male, in east London, can change perceptions of an area (PIC Block Universe)

“Events may only last three or four days in a town centre, but they can change the image of a place for its residents and other people who are attracted by them.” That is how Matthew Butcher, lecturer at the Bartlett School of Architecture at University College London, sums up the potential impact of performance art in town centres. Such events might be static performances, illuminations around buildings or parades through the town. “To have maximum impact they need to draw on local issues and culture,” he adds.

Events can attract visitors from well outside the immediate town, as well as providing entertainment for local residents, says Martin Blackwell, an independent place management consultant.  The Lumiere light festival in 2019 in Durham, with its 37 artworks, attracted around 250,000 people over the four days, he points out.

Here are five key points to consider when promoting performance art in town centres:

1. Change perceptions of the place

Events can radically change the feel of the place for the residents. “For the period of the event, the life of the city can be disrupted and the space transformed into something magical,” says Kate Harvey, senior producer with Artichoke, an agency that organises light festivals and other theatrical events in major cities. “As part of the Lumiere festivals, colourful images are projected on to buildings creating lively effects,” she says.

“Streets being closed to traffic make them feel like spaces for fun,” says Blackwell.  He points to Norwich Business Improvement District’s programme over the summer of musicians and street performers to encourage office workers to stay on in the city into the early evening. “The aim is to bring the city alive throughout the whole day,” he says.

2. Create a trail

“To make a major impact on a town centre, a series of displays is necessary,” says Diane Dever, who runs the Folkestone Fringe, which organises the Triennial art festival and other events in the town.  The Triennial involves siting artworks all around the town centre in public places, and generally has a theme.

“The art seeks to reflect local issues, recently it has been social wellbeing and living by the sea,” she says. “By having a trail, people have been led to places that they would not have gone to otherwise in the town centre."

3. Allow artists to bring creativity to spaces

“Artists are commissioned to design events,” says Louise O’Kelly, founding director of Block Universe, which organises a performance art festival in London every year and in other major international cities. “The artist brings a fresh perspective on the area and introduces new issues,” she explains.

She points to the Choreography for the Running Male performance in east London, which was part of the London festival in 2017 and which challenged ideas of masculinity and the jogging culture. “Eight men strode out of a church garden dressed in grey running attire. They marched across Hackney intermittently pausing to perform strange and exaggerated gestures,” explains O’Kelly.

“Performances in unusual places, that are free, take art to new audiences,” says Ned O'Connell, curator of David Roberts Art Foundation. “The dance, music and comedy that we promote can challenge many preconceptions."

4. Work with local communities

“We aim to leave a legacy for the local community in the areas where we run festivals,” says Artichoke’s Harvey. “We work with local colleges to produce some of the props, such as the sculptures.”

Students also work on some of the video imaging projections that are the centrepiece of many of our shows,” Harvey adds.

5. Crowd management

Performances will attract different size audiences and the spaces need to be managed, says place management consultant Blackwell. “Appropriately sized spaces need to be chosen for the different events,” he says.

Harvey points out that the narrow medieval streets in Durham city centre need to be closed off for the Lumiere event and visitors need to have a ticket, even though it is free.

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