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Animated Edition - Issues 1996 - 2001
Generating regeneration
Animated, Autumn 1999. Since its inception Merseyside Dance Initiative (MDI) has striven to find new ways of sustaining local artists and of developing dance provision for the disparate community it serves. However, projects have sometime fallen short of their potential simply because they were not integral to the planning policies of the local unitary authorities they were occurring in. Karen Gallagher talks about MDI's pioneering strategy which is placing dance firmly in the minds of local government policy makers
With a modest staff (one point five members last financial year) and a small revenue and project grant from North West Arts Board we, like many organisations, are obliged to develop relationships with local authorities in order to establish partnership funding and increase the provision of dance activity in their respective areas. Subsequently, any developmental work that we embark upon is reliant on identifying new sources of income.

Merseyside has five unitary authorities, each with their own distinct approach to arts development which makes negotiation time-consuming with little reward as regards obtaining additional funding. This is underpinned by a tendency to support product rather than process-based activity - thus, a festival or a performance by a well-known company, has far more appeal than a longer-term initiative. In practical terms, this means that projects can become too ambitious as we (the instigators, producers and creators) become conscious of the outcome (ie. the performance) rather than the equally valid processes that are engaged in to reach the resultant event.

Within such a climate, this inevitably raises a number of questions such as: How do you create quality leading-edge work and at the same time devise new and sustainable opportunities for participation and performance whilst building a new audience base? One approach and a route that we have embarked upon has emerged via central government. Economic regeneration aims to produce a more buoyant and sustainable economy in a specific geographical area. Translated, regeneration can literally breath new life and lasting change into a flagging community with startling effect - it can re-establish, rejuvenate and restore. All are facets that we as an industry believe dance can achieve, and so it was that we explored the untrodden territory and for some, the unlikely alliance, between dance and economic regeneration.

It often occurs to me that my role is more akin to that of a sales representative - liaising with local authorities, sponsors and potential partners - extolling the attributes of dance, whilst emphasising the most appropriate menu for their constituency ie. whether the proposed dance activity would promote health, tourism or business. And so began my journey into the uncharted waters of economic regeneration. A chance meeting with Richard Tracey, manager of New Wallasey Regeneration (a Single Regeneration Budget [SRB] project based in the Wirral, established to deliver specific outputs in six areas of Wallasey and linked to the economic development of the area), was to lead to the creation of the Dance About Wallasey project. Tracey, already convinced of the ability of the arts as an effective tool was open to the use of dance within the Delivery Plan for this particular SRB initiative. A Delivery Plan outlines specific strategic objectives set by the partnership board. They can include specific outcomes such as the:

  • Employment of local people

  • Skilling-up of young people

  • Promotion of equality of opportunity

  • Targeting of activity particularly the leisure and tourism sectors.

Each objective is linked to quantifiable outputs - number crunching processes in order to assess key performance indicators.

However, like all worthwhile partnerships, it took time to come to fruition, for although Tracey was committed, he had still to persuade the partnership board, made up of local people from the community, voluntary, private and public sectors. It was at this juncture that Kevin McManus from Merseyside Arts, Culture and Media Enterprise (ACME) came to our assistance. ACME is an economic development agency funded under the Merseyside Objective One Programme. Their key objective is to stimulate and support local businesses within the creative industries and work with companies in both the public funding and commercial sectors; and they are supported by a partnership of the five Merseyside local authorities and North West Arts Board.

A major part of ACME's work has been a Community Access and Participation Programme supported by £500,000 of funds. Through a process of consultation, developmental work and financial commitments ACME hopes to demonstrate the ways that arts and cultural activities can be used to support local regeneration programmes. This method of working is likely to become more common given the findings of the recent report on Social Exclusion from the Department of Culture, Media and Sport, as it emphasises the importance of creative activities in combating social exclusion.

Having a resource like ACME, enabled MDI to fast track the process, as they acted as brokers, providing crucial advance funding which in turn allowed us to liaise with New Wallasey Regeneration to secure a further £3000. But by endorsing MDI, ACME also helped build our profile in that community far more rapidly and with greater effect.

In order to meet specific objectives from the Delivery Plan, New Wallasey Regeneration had identified a need to target activity in both the leisure and tourism sectors under the auspices of Building a Brighter Future - a development project using dance as a way of combining them. And so a locally based dance company Rebound, was contracted to deliver the project which was managed by MDI.

As part of the process it was essential to familiarise ourselves with the Delivery Plan and anticipated outcomes, and to identify with Rebound what it was that dance was capable of achieving in such a context. The agreed priorities were to provide an infrastructure for dance activity in New Wallasey, linked to the Delivery Plan, with specific outputs which were devised in discussion with Tracey - the results of which formed the basis of our application to ACME and the partnership board.

Immersed in the ideology of community dance practice, Dance About Wallasey comprised a consultative process with local people and meetings with key groups and areas in order to identify participants and suitable working spaces. Rebound subsequently offered taster workshops in different dance styles, to a range of groups, 12 in total. This was followed by a further eight week programme whereby participants worked choreographically to a score devised by Ciaron Bell, which combined local sounds with poetry, reminiscence material and a range of contemporary and hip hop tracks. The work culminated in an evocative and powerful performance which impacted strongly on all who watched. In addition, a photographer tracked the project's progress with an exhibition; and an independent evaluator reported on the process. Additional strands, which when combined, produced tangible evidence of the value of such a project and so created an exemplar model for future projects.

Crucially, this initiative directly engaged strategists, planners and economists who previously may have been unconvinced of the impact of this kind of initiative. Agreed outputs were met and exceeded. In fact, so delighted was New Wallasey Regeneration with the results, that they invited Rebound to extend the project over the summer period. Working with those young people who were either first time performers and/or inexperienced dancers, to perform as part of Liscard Live 99 - a day festival with a reported attendance of 50,000.

The project has also been of significance for ACME as it has provided a model of how dance can be used to support local regeneration. Part of ACME's role will be to carry out a major monitoring and evaluation programme which it is envisaged will prove the value of this work to key decision-makers; and which will enable others to learn and/or benefit from the model, using it a blueprint for further projects on Merseyside. Decision-makers in New Wallasey Regeneration have also witnessed the value of this work. It is difficult for a statutory body to engage with local people, particularly young people, but this project has now shown how this complex task can be achieved through dance and other creative activities. Crucially, Wirral Borough Council may now be willing to support future projects of this nature with mainstream funding. If we as an industry want to continue to deliver the kind of quality work we do so well and that can effect both artists and communities, we need to engage with the changing funding marketplace to collaboratively find new pathways to travel and explore.

Karen Gallagher, director, Merseyside Dance Initiative in collaboration with Kevin McManus, project officer, Arts, Culture and Media Enterprise. Contact MDI on +44 (0)151 708 8810.

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Animated: Issues 1996 - 2001