Out of class and into the spotlight

June 22, 2007

Next week’s Manchester International Festival will not only feature original arts performances from around the world — including the premiere of a Chinese “circus opera” scored and designed by innovative British band Gorillaz — it will provide a stage for the region’s universities.

Among the academics taking to that stage is Trevor Cox, professor of acoustic engineering
at Salford University. His crowd-pleasing repertoire includes the “beautiful music, horrible sounds” research project, which investigates why different sounds provoke different reactions. He employs, among other things, a giant whoopee cushion and a barbershop quartet transformed by technology into a rock band.

The person who brought Cox and a host of other academics on board is Jennifer Cleary, who, as the festival’s higher education manager, occupies the first post of its kind created in the UK. Cleary says that she wants university arts subjects to follow the example of the sciences: to step outside the classroom and forge cultural and money-spinning links with the creative industries in a process of “knowledge ­transfer”.

For the past 18 months, Cleary has been working with academic, enterprise and external relations departments at Manchester, Salford and Manchester Metropolitan universities to build relations with business and creative industries within the city of Manchester. She says she is creating a model of lasting partnerships that could be adopted by other major festivals and arts events across Britain. “There was a real feeling that the festival was an opportunity to add to Manchester’s cultural standing, and the universities should be supporting that,” she stresses.

“There are huge opportunities for all of us to benefit if we work together. Because the festival is involved in the creation of new work, there is an inevitable research and development angle, which creates opportunities for the universities. Add to this consultancy work, technical research, evaluation and contributions by the students and you can see the potential there is.”

Cleary won a scholarship in knowledge transfer after gaining a PhD in medical microscopy. She joined the festival from her previous role as technology exploitation manager at TrusTECH — an organisation providing innovation management for National Health Service trusts. She believes that the arts must learn from the way science has become a driver for regional growth.
“Science and technology parks are interacting with the wider community in a very successful way to develop a strong knowledge economy. I’m essentially looking to broker similar relationships with the festival.”

The Manchester International Festival was created by Alex Poots, the acclaimed former director of contemporary arts at the English National Opera. This summer’s festival, which builds on the 2005 trailblazer, has a formidable programme, featuring, in addition to the Gorillaz project, artists such as Carlos Acosta, Ojos de Brujo, PJ Harvey, William Orbit, Smokey Robinson and Kanye West.

But even with these big-name imports, universities have become embedded in the programme. “There is enormous scope,” explains Cleary. “Gorillaz, for example, used a graduate of Manchester Business School as a zither player, and the strings section was from the Royal Northern College of Music. A number of the commissions, such as Il Tempo del Postino , for example, feature visual artists who want to integrate music into their work. They’re working with student musicians and going through a development process to find out how music can feature.

“Another event is The Great Indoors, a fun activity weekend offering free shows, art, music and science for the family. The universities will feature heavily in providing workshops that bring together science and art across the weekend.” This section will include Cox’s sound research project.

Other university collaborations include a film installation by Rachel Davies, John Thaw Fellow at Manchester University, based on her memories of being in the Manchester Girls Choir in the early 1980s, and the Rusholme Project, a South Asian visual arts commission, run in partnership with Manchester Metropolitan University.

Then there is evaluation. One commission, for example, has asked theatre company Oily Cart to create a two-week interactive residency in two Manchester schools for young people with complex disabilities and autistic spectrum disorders. The Manchester Metropolitan University Research Institute for Health and Social Change will evaluate the impact of these performances on schools.
“The universities all have a focus on expanding their outreach capability, so there’s a great willingness to make that link with the cultural sector,” Cleary says. “We’re trying to build Manchester’s reputation on an international stage as being world-class in education, so there are a lot of shared priorities.”

Such lofty aims have received generous backing, too, with Cleary’s post being funded by the Higher Education Innovation Fund and the North West Regional Development Agency.
But as the creative sector across the North-west continues to expand — and the region looks forward to Liverpool’s 2008 European Capital of Culture year — Cleary, for one, believes that it is time higher education became more vocal about its involvement in what Tony Blair has called the “quiet revolution” in UK arts since 1997.

“There are lots of examples of universities working with creative and cultural industries, and the purpose of this post is to build a strong foundation for the future,” she says.

“It takes time to develop trust and understanding of each ­other’s methods, but I think external relations departments work very hard to develop these types of projects. We hope to have all 88,000 students talking about and enjoying the festival. It could be the fillip that universities need to develop other partnerships with creative industries.”

Such partnerships are already under way. Earlier this year, for example, a consortium of 15 northern universities was formed to work closely with the creative and cultural industries. Bringing together expertise in teaching, learning and research in areas such as journalism, visual arts and music, the Northern Edge consortium is funded by Northern Way, a collaboration between the three northern regional development agencies to transform the economy of the North of England.
The consortium will provide a focal point for the development of professional training, research and knowledge transfer in the creative and cultural industries.

“With the BBC move to Salford and the plans for Media City there has never been a better time for northern univer­sities and the creative industry to work together,” stresses Northern Edge’s project director, Ron Cook of Salford University.

But as Cleary’s own pioneering role comes to an end, what teething problems has she identified that could hold back progress? “We need a huge assessment and evaluation to see whether this role is a replicable model,” she admits.

“Because universities are such huge organisations, it’s not always obvious who the right person to contact is. It can be difficult to find the right person, and universities can be a bit inaccessible sometimes. But when you’ve found the right contact they’re usually incredibly willing to help, and things progress very quickly.”

The Manchester International Festival runs from June 28 to July 15.

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