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From A to B and not back again
Kasper de Graaf, 16 September 2016

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Nurturing creative projects until they can stand on their own feet is all about relationships, as illustrated by this case study of Design Manchester which I presented at the Complex Webs event organised by the Culture Capital Exchange on 15th September 2016, as part of the Creative Matters conference on London’s South Bank. [City photos by Andrew Brooks. Event photos by Sebastian Matthes.]

The Culture Capital Exchange was established to explore connections between universities and the arts and creative sectors. Design Manchester is an organisation that has grown out of exactly those connections.

We are exploring the conditions in which creativity flourishes. But can you codify creativity? Can you say, do this – and that will happen? Perhaps for every rule you formulate, some disrupter comes along to prove you wrong. That’s innovation. Sometimes creativity is defined by the rules it breaks, the constraints it has to work within and the edges it has to push against.

Yet over the years, as a writer working with other creatives – designers, artists, musicians, photographers, animators, cartoonists, filmmakers and others – on some great projects, I have picked up some useful tips. I’d pick out three factors of many that have played a part in all of these in creating the conditions in which creativity flourishes.

They are politics, patronage and partnership.

By politics I mean understanding stakeholders, and the context in which you work. 

Patronage refers to the double-edged sword of cash – who’s paying? That could be the punter buying tickets or artworks or music, or it can be a client, sponsor or a funding organisation – or combinations of the above. In the end it can’t just be you, if you want to grow your thing into something that can last. 

Partnership, in my experience, is key to almost all creative endeavour – even that of isolated artists sitting in a garret. Partnership means both creative collaboration and understanding where your interests coincide with those of the people and organisations you want to connect with. These three factors go hand in hand.

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My role at Design Manchester is that I am the partnerships director, which means I am constantly working on all these three things in order to get people, organisations, events and funding to come together in a felicitous manner.

Design Manchester came out of a collaboration between universities, the arts and the creative sector. In 2012 it did not exist. Now, we are in our fourth year and our festival next month – from 12th to 23rd October – has 40 events, from workshops and exhibitions to a film series, a public debate, coding and art clubs for kids, walking tours and great parties happening in iconic locations all over the city over a ten-day period.

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We have backing from the City Council, the School of Art and Transport for Greater Manchester. We have the Co-op – a great Manchester brand – as our major sponsor, alongside St John’s Cultural District – which includes the Old Granada Studios – and G.F Smith the paper company. The Arts Council paid for us to develop a business plan.

Big organisations based in Manchester, such as the BBC, HOME arts centre, the Lowry, the Royal Northern College of Music and many others are all involved in organising or hosting events and we have top designers coming from all over the world to speak at our Design Conference and give masterclasses at our workshops. That sounds like quite a lot in just four years, but we feel we’ve only just begun and we want Design Manchester to be one of the great design festivals alongside those in Cape Town and Reikjavik, Eindhoven, Helsinki, Berlin and London.

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Our story started with Professor David Crow, who just a couple of months ago became the new head of Chelsea, Camberwell and Wimbledon Colleges of Art just down the road, and Pro-Vice-Chancellor of University of the Arts London. Back in 2013, David was the Dean of Manchester School of Art and Pro-Vice-Chancellor of Manchester Metropolitan University.

In 2013, Manchester School of Art was celebrating its 175th anniversary and David introduced my creative partner Malcolm Garrett, a Manchester School of Art alumnus who began his career designing record sleeves for the Buzzcocks in Manchester, to John Owens, a young and successful designer whose company Instruct brands many cultural organisations and companies in Manchester – as well, it seems, as most of the bars in the Northern Quarter.

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David asked if they could organise a conference or event of some kind to mark the anniversary. This was the opportunity. For those who could see it, it was a very attractive opportunity, since Manchester is a city of great character with a strong history of design going right back to the industrial revolution and the birth of the Co-op, now the home of the BBC and ITV as well as numerous cultural institutions and an enterprising city government.

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But the best thing was that in David Crow there was a visionary patron, one who as one of the leaders of the biggest university in the country by student numbers was well connected with the levers that make Manchester tick, and whose approach was supportive and never controlling. That first year, Manchester School of Art also gave us some modest financial support – the other key bit of patronage.

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John and Malcolm co-opted the culture publicist Fiona McGarva to help turn that first event into a mini festival, and Fiona is now our festival director. A bit later I was dragged in, to help develop partnerships and build a solid foundation for growth.

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That first year, with just some seed funding from the Art School and a lot of enthusiasm,  we had our Conference at the Town Hall with presentations from five leading designers, an exhibition, talks and workshops.

In the planning for our second year, we focused on the three P’s and in 2014 we launched our annual Great Debate, the purpose of which is to explore the connection between design, the creative industries, politics and the city. Our first debate was on the northern powerhouse, which was then a brand-new concept. 

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The debate was chaired by The Observer’s Robert Yates and the panellists included David Crow, Caroline Norbury the CEO of Creative England, Lou Cordwell of magneticNorth and the Leader of Manchester City Council, Sir Richard Leese. Our basic point was that the regeneration of northern cities can’t only be about train lines, important as they are. It’s about people connecting, and the role of the creative industries as an engine of growth.

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We were placing ourselves at the centre of the discussion about the future, turning up the dial on the politics, developing the partnerships and opening the door to relationships that would lead to bigger patronage from public and private sources, so that we could keep most of the events in the festival free to attend.

For us there were two other key ingredients. 

The first is to look at design as not only cultural but a cross-sector activity and way of thinking – so we have events that explore many different aspects of design from engineering through to fashion, service design through to games.

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The other is connecting with the community. Rooms full of designers talking to designers can be great, but that’s not everything. We design for other people, whether it’s movie viewers or elderly people using hospitals and the care system. Our aim for a city-wide design festival is that it should connect with all kinds of groups in the wider public, from schoolkids to partygoers, businesses to families. Our adidas Spezial exhibition of 600 pairs of classic trainers attracted a huge audience a couple of years ago. This year’s film season at HOME will also appeal to a very wide audience. Constantly we aim to broaden the appreciation of what design is and the role of design thinking in all walks of life.

What I would say is that talking about the conditions in which creativity flourishes is not just about what makes good ideas happen in the first place. It is about the nurturing of those ideas and about creating the relationships and infrastructures that allow them to grow. So it is not so much about the first stage, but the second, third and fourth stages of a project until you have reached success and sustainability. We’re not there yet. We’re growing fast but you can never take it for granted. Growth can be a fragile thing and this is where tools such as the three P’s may come in handy.

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This year our festival is very exciting. The theme is Design City and it starts in just under four weeks: 40+ events, many of them free, in great locations and only a couple of hours away from here, so check them out on the website and see you there.