Founded in 1981 by Rose Fenton and Lucy Neal as the London International Festival of Theatre, LIFT has been under the artistic directorship of Mark Ball since 2009, although by the time of this report’s publication he will have moved on to a new role as associate artistic director at the Manchester International Festival. A biennial festival, LIFT has a core staff of 10 which increases substantially with freelance and contracted staff in the six to nine months leading up to a festival. Its turnover similarly rises from roughly £1m in an off-year to £2m in a festival year; of the two-year total, 35% is received from Arts Council England, while the rest is split fairly evenly between fundraising and box office income. LIFT also benefits from substantial co-investment from cultural partners, and a £150-200,000 investment from the EU.
Mission: global stories for a global city
As a programmer of theatre, LIFT seeks to “share the stories of the world, focusing on territories of the world that have little mainstream cultural representation in London,” says Mark Ball. And it wants to share them with “all Londoners – which means working across London, not just within the four walls of cultural institutions”.
For Ball, this sharing of stories plays a civic role in its own right – but for the festival to have a “meaningful social impact” it also needs to offer co-creation opportunities, which require “long-term investment, long-term engagement with a particular set of people or a particular place. The thing that enables organisations like LIFT to have impact is when we give power away, and we give power away through the process of allowing the people that we’re with to exercise their creativity and to value that creativity as much as anyone else’s.”
“The thing that enables organisations like LIFT to have impact is when we give power away, and we give power away through the process of allowing the people that we’re with to exercise their creativity and to value that creativity as much as anyone else’s.”
Previously, LIFT has offered those co-creation opportunities through the programming of large-scale participatory work across the footprint of London. The aspiration there was “around giving people more agency, and developing a more culturally democratic London”. However, Ball felt that it was hard to trace the legacy of this nomadic approach, and that it did not fundamentally affect LIFT as an organisation.
A focus on Tottenham
In 2013, LIFT took the decision to focus its participatory work in a single area of London. Tottenham was chosen because the local authority was amenable to collaboration, and it matches LIFT’s global mission: “Tottenham has a very international community, everything from an established ultra-orthodox Jewish community to a long-established African-Caribbean community and more recent Eastern European and Somalian communities. It’s also the centre of London’s Filipino community. Although there is tension in that community churn, the tension is an interesting, creative, healthy one.”
For six years, 2014-2020, LIFT is committed to doing all of its participatory work in Tottenham. So far, this has involved three strands of thinking:
1: Connecting the artist community
LIFT’s first step was to think about building “an active community of artists who feel that there is a future for them in their creative practice in Tottenham”. Ball describes National Theatre Wales as “a particularly important touchstone” in deciding how to begin: “If you want to develop a project in a place, you can’t go in with an existing idea, you have to sit in that space for quite a long time, talking to people and really understanding what makes that place tick. That first year in Tottenham, 2014, from the outside looking in, we didn’t do anything. We were just talking to people, or bringing artists in to talk to people.”
Through these conversations, LIFT encountered “lots of artists – music producers working out of their bedrooms, choreographers, actors, designers – who were not connected with each other”. It now hosts quarterly “hang-outs” where 60-80 people gather to discuss their work and the area.
2: Raising the profile of the area through programming
Increasingly LIFT seeks opportunities to programme work in Tottenham, for instance presenting Jerome Bel’s dance work Gala at the Bernie Grant Arts Centre as well as Tate Modern and Sadler’s Wells. For Ball, these one-off projects raise the profile of Tottenham itself, create opportunities to raise the profile of LIFT’s work in less visible community settings such as schools, and contribute to the building of the artist community.
3: Organisational change within LIFT
Central to all this work is the thought: “It’s not just what we can do for Tottenham but what Tottenham will do for LIFT. It’s part of the thing about giving away power: at the end of the six years LIFT has to look and feel different.” This is already happening in three key ways:
i The governance structure now includes a Tottenham board, whose chair will be invited to join the main board.
ii LIFT is actively seeking to offer people in Tottenham paid opportunities: “A lot of the artists we’ve met, we’ve recruited to work on projects. And every time we are looking for freelance jobs or technicians, we start in Tottenham. That is already meaning our workforce is more diverse.”
iii Crucially, LIFT doesn’t employ separate Tottenham staff. Instead: “Everybody from the executive assistant to marketing is involved in Tottenham. Our full board of directors meet there at least once a year. This is very time-consuming, it requires listening and patience and porosity, and within a sector where we’re increasingly focused on delivering targets, or over-stretched, that’s quite hard. But this work is only successful if it’s not siloed.”
Although dedicated to a single area, LIFT is still nomadic in Tottenham, in that it doesn’t have its own space there. On the one hand this presents a challenge: “Every space in the community is politicised, so whichever space you work in, you’re perceived to be buying into the politics of that space.” But this is also an opportunity, in that it demands the forming of partnerships – and that collectivity can be profile-raising in its own right.
Profile-raising is particularly an issue when the arts media sees this kind of participatory practice as “worthy community work. We try and profile it very strongly, and one of the great things about this work is that it gives us a narrative on a year-long basis. But it’s hard to get arts journalists out of their box.”
Ball may be leaving half-way through the Tottenham programme, but LIFT itself is committed there until at least 2020: “This is an organisational commitment, it lives beyond the particular likes and dislikes of the artistic director. There’s always one of our staff in Tottenham on daily basis: everybody in the organisation is engaged.”
“This is an organisational commitment, it lives beyond the particular likes and dislikes of the artistic director.”
Over the next three years, he says, the organisation needs to think about legacy, in two ways:
1: Avoiding gentrification
Tottenham is going through a period of change, and Ball is aware of the negative impact that LIFT’s activities could have, in opening paths to private development. To challenge this, LIFT is one of a number of arts organisations talking to the local authority for Tottenham about the risks of short-term investment in local artists, and arguing the case for “long-term, low-cost accommodation for artists at capped rates” to support a sustainable artist community there.
Already LIFT are working with external evaluators to build an evidence base of the impact of this work. This will help ensure that the programme is not “hermetically sealed” and makes it possible for LIFT to share its experience in Tottenham with the wider arts sector.