Guest blog – ArtsUnboxed: touring ideas, not people
In this guest blog, Melanie Precious, CEO of Greenwich Dance describes ArtsUnboxed, a safe, sustainable way of touring ideas rather than people.
It’s hard to pinpoint the exact moment the idea for ArtsUnboxed first came to me, certainly it was long before COVID-19.
At first it was just a little question, rumbling in the back of my head. I was thinking about the sharing and presenting of the work dance artists make and the model we all seem to revert to, more out of habit than anything else. For years we have been asking ourselves as a sector the very same question – ‘could there be another way?’
Admittedly the touring model is the way artists get their work seen. It’s the way venues bring new voices to their communities. It’s the way audiences share experiences with each other across auditoriums as well as across regions. But it presents many challenges. It carries financial risk – almost always for the artists themselves as much as the venues.
Presenting work from performers outside the region does little to support employment of the local artistic communities and the responsibility for whose job it is to actually promote the work – venue or visiting company? – can occasionally result in disappointment on both sides.
That’s all before you start looking at the funding model. Double-funding seems to be inherent in the way the entire touring model is built. Multiple rounds of funding bids from venues and companies working on the same production can result in staffing costs slicing through the funds, making less money available for the art itself. Then there’s that small issue of the existential climate crisis. I started to question the price we pay as a planet to ship dancers about the country, to places where there are already so many wonderful, cash-strapped performers trying to make a living.
No-one wants to see touring in this traditional form disappear altogether, otherwise how would we ever get to see the Royal Shakespeare Company or Birmingham Royal Ballet? But as I considered how other art forms seemed to distribute their work – writers, musicians, even chefs – I couldn’t quieten that voice. There must be another way.
And then COVID happened.
And with all performances cancelled, travel prohibited and theatres shut suddenly, the urgency to find a new way intensified. Not just because we needed art. (We did, of course. And do.) But because those artists needed to be paid.
Listening to a podcast one day, hearing musicians express relief that their PRS cheques were coming through their letterbox, I realised that I knew not one single dance artist fortunate enough to receive such post. Further into lockdown, my colleagues and I started to make plans for a socially distanced doorstep tour and realised, thanks to Facebook, that many others were thinking similarly. We are, I thought, all being paid to write the same things. Do the same work. Come up with the same ideas. Or, more tragically, not being paid at all.
And suddenly I knew.
We should tour ideas, not people.
We should think of our work as chefs do – who write recipes in books they are paid to write and then sell those books (and get paid again). Rather than worrying about whether anyone is following the instruction to the letter, they move on. Because ideas are what they do. And ideas are what they sell.
ArtsUnboxed aims to do just that. It’s a shop full of ideas.
It’s an online shelf upon which we are lining up recipe books for dance performance and participation projects. Recipes written by incredible artist and producer teams who have done all the thinking and planning and are willing to share all of their ideas with others in return for a royalty. Once the recipe boxes are bought, they can be utilised in any way the buyer chooses: exactly as written or adapted for new and differing audiences and settings. They can be treated as inspiration from which to leapfrog or use word for word like an architect’s blueprint. With buyers encouraged to cast their bought ‘recipe’ with local dancers and deliver it with local producers and educators, they offer a way of supporting local economy and artistry.
What’s more, if you like the concept of the ArtsUnboxed shop, you can submit your own recipe to the platform so that you and your artists also have a box on the shelf, for others to buy.
ArtsUnboxed is a revolutionary new way of working, and more importantly, thinking. It has been new for the artists who are making the work – and preparing themselves to let go of it. It’s new for us – developing it as we go, thinking through issues and obstacles as we meet them. For the solutions and refining of all of those steps I have much to thank the creative team for: Rajpal Pardesi, Lucy White, Lou Cope and Alex Covell, as well as our first cohort of artists, who are all informing and enriching the process with their ideas and perspective.
And it’s going to be new for venues, who will not have experienced being asked to buy ideas in this way before and may have to think about new ways of using them. However, within each box is everything needed to deliver the project or performance. The risk assessments, marketing assets, covid mitigation plans, tutorials, choreography, sample schedules, audio description, easy read transcripts. Everything. And with this ‘meal-at-home’ style, ‘everything in a box’ model, buyers can then use the time they save and the precious funding they receive to make more art. More dance. More culture.
It’s a new way. It may transform the way we think about touring. It may not. But if there was ever a time to experiment with something new, isn’t it now?
Image credit: Roswitha Chesher, courtesy of Greenwich Dance.