Knitting together the values of arts and business The Shed Gigs 2008

Ian McMillan

Ian McMillan learns to knit for the performance of HAT - see below

"...The week of events is being organised by Arts and Business Yorkshire, an independent company based at Dean Clough, Halifax, and dedicated to promoting partnerships between arts and business organisations in the region.

NEW The Shed's Spring / Summer Programme 2008

And one of the messages the organisers want to put across is that the relationship is changing. Rather than cash-strapped theatre and dance companies or visual artists asking for hand-outs from businesses in exchange merely for putting their names on programmes, they are creating a two-way process: artists have a lot to teach business leaders about creative thinking, for example, while help from businesses who might not have a lot of spare money to throw about can come by offering expert advice.

A hugely successful spin-off of this new thinking was the show, Hat, an extraordinary celebration, in words and music, of knitting.

It arose from a collaboration between the Wakefield-based manufacturer of hand-knitting yarns, Sirdar Spinning Ltd, and Simon Thackray, of the innovative performance venue, The Shed, at Brawby, in North Yorkshire. He conceived and produced the show, which featured poet Ian McMillan and guitarist Billy Jenkins, and which had the performers taking audience participation to new levels ­ every member was given wool, needles and pre-show tuition, and encouraged to knit throughout the performance.

Hat won priceless publicity for Sirdar, as it was featured on Radio 4's arts programmes, the national broadsheets and magazines as diverse as Time Out and Women's Weekly.

Another Arts and Business project was a musical story called The Hunt For Betty, devised and performed by an orchestra of 120 primary schoolchildren and 15 teachers as part of the Harrogate International Festival and involving staff from the town's famous tea-shop.

Since Arts and Business was formed two years ago, business has invested more than £7.5m in creative partnerships with the arts. "Both parties to the transactions we've helped to broker have reaped benefits," says the chief executive, Tessa Gordziejko. "Businesses have used arts partnerships to help get their name known, change their image, increase their markets, train their staff and invest in their community."

She estimates the knitting show has reached an audience of 8.5 million through the wide coverage it received; there's talk of taking it to London or the US.
"We're trying to get businesses to move out of their comfort zone, and to think differently about how they can learn from the arts," she says.

Even large prestigious arts organisations in the region, like Opera North and the Northern Ballet Theatre, have struggled to get sponsorship recently; but the Leeds-based Northern School of Contemporary Dance has shown one way round the problem.
"We had our awards ceremony at the Northern, including a performance from students at the school and the company, Full Body and Voice," recalls Gordziejko. "There were quite a lot of business people who had never seen contemporary dance before, and their response was ecstatic. As a result, GNER gave financial support for the Northern tour, and John Lee, an ex-director of Human Resources at the Halifax, came to the Northern to develop a mentoring relationship with Gurmit Hukam, the school principal.

"They've both said it's one of the most inspiring relationships they've ever entered into; it's bringing business skills to the arts, while enabling business people to develop their skills in a challenging environment."
She says arts companies are the best places for businesses to learn about innovation at its source: "It's not something they do on a Thursday afternoon, but they manage innovation habitually; it's a cycle of creative behaviour, but business people can help them make creative behaviour into useful behaviour. And the business benefits from subliminal association with excellence."

Yorkshire sales people have already had a course about using theatrical techniques to develop their selling skills; and office staff have developed their drawing skills to help them overcome inhibitions in their job.
"These were the sort of people who wouldn't normally visit an art gallery, nor describe themselves as cultured, but they are learning how to think creatively, and they can transfer that into business benefit," says Tessa.

As part of next week's events, arts and business managers will be offered the chance to swap places for a day, to learn about each other's businesses.
"Companies can have an arts or drama workshop for an afternoon, have a great time and translate what they've learned into business thinking; arts organisations can learn how to re-package themselves in a way that's attractive to business."

And a week of events celebrating the success of Arts and Business in Yorkshire includes a half-day tour of arts organisations in North Yorkshire on Tuesday; a chance for businesses to sample arts-based skills at the Priory Campus in Barnsley on Wednesday; a chance for people to discover hidden artistic talents at Bishop Burton College, near Beverley, on Thursday; and a debate about architecture in the community at Public Arts, Wakefield, on Tuesday, March 11.
Details from Arts and Business Yorkshire, 01422 367860.

© Eric Roberts YORKSHIRE POST ( Published 27 Feburary 2003 )

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