There are two sets of tents in Manchester city centre at the moment: white expensive ones for the Manchester International Festival and shabby ones for the homeless. The MIF tents are in Albert Square next to the Town Hall while the homeless’ tents are in St Ann’s Square, a script’s throw from the Royal Exchange Theatre, one of the main venues for MIF. The city centre is dominated by billboards and flyers advertising the festival, even though many of the events were sold out well before the festival started.
The MIF website champions its status: “Manchester International Festival is the world’s first festival of original, new work and special events and takes place biennially, in Manchester, UK. The Festival launched in 2007 as an artist-led, commissioning Festival presenting new works from across the spectrum of performing arts, visual arts and popular culture.”
In 2015 the MIF hosts artists as diverse as Damien Albarn, Bjork and Ronni Ancona. All the events are in the city centre and the BBC, as one of its sponsors, has given the festival a national platform. The white tents have offered free performances including the BBC bringing its own arts programmes live from the tent: Newsnight broadcaster Kirsty Wark has fronted programmes about the MIF and indeed asked some challenging questions about the concept of the MIF.
But is the festival for Mancunians or is it another opportunity for tourists with money to visit Manchester and enjoy a festival that could be held in any city in the country? I spoke to Alex Davidson, Secretary of Manchester Trades Union Council, who told me, “MIF is integral to Manchester City Council’s strategy to turn Manchester into a London Mark Two where the city centre is largely lived in, worked in and socialised in by rich people. Funding events like this attracts the kind of people they want to live in the city centre.” Unlike other northern councils Labour-controlled Manchester City has substantial reserves. Davidson reflects; “It is where they decide to put the money; not on defending jobs and services but on concentrating on the narrow confines of the city centre and a specific group of people.”
Funding of the arts is a controversial issue. MIF got two million pounds from Manchester City Council, its single biggest donor, and even £30,000 from poor sister authority Salford City Coucil, even though none of the events were held there.The Arts Council of England rewarded the MIF with a 50% increase to £729,000. With corporate sponsors the budget could hit £12m.
Manchester has a thriving arts scene including the Greater Manchester Fringe Festival which is running events in July alongside the MIF, although not a partner within it. GMFF enables local actors, performers and writers to showcase their work in local venues as far apart as Saddleworth and Salford. Funding is scarce, though. Altogether they have raised several hundred pounds with a small donation from Salford City Council (where several events take place), an advert from a local car company and a one-off donation from one of the venues – the Salford Arts Theatre. Unpaid festival director Zena Barrie explained; “We applied for Arts Council funding but were refused on the grounds that we couldn’t guarantee quality.” Ironic given the whole point of fringe festivals is to give new performers a chance to get their work out to an audience. One of the few dramas about the austerity was showcased at the GMFF, Knock Knock by Love and Light Theatre company, a short play about poverty, sanctions and bailiffs, written by Kate Marlow.
For self-funded and eclectic Three Minute Theatre in the city centre, run by Gina Frost and John Topliff, seasoned performers and teachers, MIF is irrelevant to the work they do throughout the year. Frost comments; “We don’t see them as competitors because we cannot compete with them.” while Topliff adds; “It strikes me that the organisers have a low opinion of what happens in Manchester and it’s as if they are coming in to show us how to do it.”
The MIF does have an elitist profile but Alex Poots, the MIF CEO, explains how they have tried to reach out to the poorer Mancunians. “We run a reduced price ticket scheme for Greater Manchester residents at or below the living wage: 10% of tickets for all price bands across all shows are priced at £12. These are offered on an honesty basis to those with a GM postcode and via existing groups and networks – we have a dedicated member of staff who works to identify those groups and work with them to get the tickets to those that want them.”
What do people living outside the city centre, where the cuts in services and jobs are biting hard, think. I went to one of the poorest areas, Clayton in East Manchester, and asked some of the residents for their views about the MIF. Most of them had heard about it because of the publicity in the media. One person who worked for the Council and didn’t want to be named was outraged about the use by MIF as £14,000 as a benchmark for cheaper ticket prices. “£14,000 will barely cover rent, council tax, food and getting to work, never mind going out”. Ruth Joseph, a wife and mother of four, liked the idea of the MIF and was interested in taking her children along, but when I told her that a child ticket was priced at £12, she said; “I could buy a DVD for that and all of them could watch it.”
Unemployment and underemployment is rife in Manchester and, apart from the money that the MIF has been given by public funds, the issue of the use of hundreds of volunteers to take part in the running and performances is a controversial point. Entertainment unions Equity and Bectu have been running campaigns to stop exploitation, particularly of young people who are desperate to get a job in the arts. Alex Davidson comments; “It’s negative and demeaning of Manchester Council to dress up volunteering as civic minded engagement when it’s only people who come from rich or better off backgrounds with parents subsidising them that can afford to take part in arts activities.”
As the last performances are staged and they start dismantling the white tents of the MIF, the homeless people who have been camping in the city centre face another court appearance as Manchester Council tries to exclude them permanently from the city centre. I spoke to Wesley Duff, a spokesperson for the homeless camp; “I think it is wrong the way Manchester City Council has prioritised giving money to the MIF and it won’t look after their own people; the homeless and people with mental health problems.”
Frederick Engels, writing in 1844 in his classic study of poverty in Manchester, The Condition of the Working Class, could have been writing about the city in 2015.
“And the finest part of the arrangement is this, that the members of this money aristocracy can take the shortest road through the middle of all the labouring districts to their places of business, without ever seeing that they are right in the midst of the grimy misery that lurks to the right and left. For the thoroughfares leading from the Exchange in all directions out of the city are lined, no both sides, with an almost unbroken series of shops, and are so kept in the hands of the middle and lower bourgeoisie”.
Manchester 19 Century
I put these comments about the MIF to Councillor Rosie Battle, executive member for Culture at Manchester City Council, but did not get a reply.