Rich Warburton engaging in the Community Co-Creation Exchange, Chicago, Nov 2019. Photo credit Erik Peterson.

In November a group of us connected to the Bradford’s National Museum Project went to Chicago with the aim of exploring the cutting-edge participatory, co-creative and community engagement work going on in the City. Some of us also travelled on to Washington DC to exchange ideas with the Smithsonian Institution about the specific issues facing ‘national museums, libraries and archives’ aiming to do place-based work in their local area. In this series of interviews — posted over the coming weeks —participants share with me (Lynn Wray) how their experiences on the trip have impacted on their own working practice in Bradford.

First up is Rich Warburton, Artistic Director of Bradford’s amazing neighbourhood theatre (with global reach) Theatre in the Mill… Rich came to the Chicago part of the trip, as it was most relevant to his practice, staying there longer to connect with innovative theatre and performance art platforms and to participate in workshops at the Art Institute of Chicago.

LW: Did any one moment from the trip stand out for you? 

RW: The highlight for me was the workshop at Stony Island Arts Bank. The venue was inspiring and I appreciated how unapologetic it was about its stance and its mission.

Photograph of the workshop at Stony Island Arts Bank showing participants creating a word map with post its and thread.
Bradford and Chicago: Community Co-Creation Exchange, 20th November 2019, Stony Island Arts Bank. Photo Credit: Erik Peterson

The thing that really stood out in the workshop for me was the idea that collaboration was absolutely essential to the survival of art practice in the American context. I think it was Eric Peterson (Smart Museum of Art) who said “when you have no core funding, there is no choice but to collaborate”.  This opened up questions about philanthropy for me and it made me reflect on the way we are funded at Theatre in the Mill (TiM). What are the pros and cons of private philanthropy vs. state-funding? How can we encourage the artists we work with to be less reliant on the state? We have just begun to tentatively explore these questions.

It also affirmed my belief that in order to build a vibrant and collaborative cultural community in Bradford it is essential to eradicate the kind of zero-sum thinking where we think we are all competing for the same resources. We need to think of how supporting other individuals and organisations in the district, in whatever way we can, whilst being clearer about our own areas of specialism and expertise, will benefit the wider cultural economy. This will ultimately benefit all of us and all our potential audiences/collaborators. We need to be open and willing to share resources without agenda. Shared expertise will also help ensure no organisation is reinventing the wheel.

LW: In the workshop at Stony Island Arts Bank we were asked to pick out three words that are important to our practice. Did you come away with any reflections on the way you use language to describe your practice?

Photograph of paper with word 'Joy' on it and two post - its with alternative defintions of the word.
Bradford and Chicago: Community Co-Creation Exchange, Stony Island Arts Bank. Photo Credit Erik Peterson

RW: The word ‘joy’ came up from the Chicago participants but not from the Bradford delegation. I thought this was interesting as it is such a ‘bullet proof’ word. You can’t kick it as a motivation or rationale for doing what you do. We don’t recognise the importance of ‘joy’ in describing or promoting what we do in Bradford, or the UK more generally.

I also had a good conversation about using the word ‘neighbourhood’ instead of ‘community’. I find the word ‘community’ problematic as often what comes to be defined as a ‘community’ has been imposed on a particular group of people to fit an organisation’s specific agendas rather than being self-defined. The term neighbourhood is more useful for us as it focusses on a specific geographic location rather than putting people into particular boxes. It could also refer to ‘neighbourhoods’ that develop in digital spaces and across digital platforms. I’d like to explore this latter concept further.

LW: What were the similarities and differences between Chicago and Bradford? How easy was it to transfer any learning or ideas between these contexts?

RW: The most obvious difference for me was the sheer scale of Chicago. However, I was amazed at the workshop how closely connected all of the organisations and artists were. How do you build strong relationships when you have to travel across large distances? In Bradford it should be easier because most organisations are so close together. This made me reflect that organisations in Bradford needed to work harder to knit relationships together. Even in our relatively small district we still face the specific challenge of how to encourage audiences to travel at all beyond their neighbourhood. This is something we could work together on.

In terms of the theatre and live art organisations I visited and experienced in Chicago, there were some interesting things for me to contemplate. I had a great conversation with Joseph Raven at the live and performance art platform DFBRL8R (also known as. Defibrillator Gallery or dfb) about their need to keep nimble and be prepared to reinvent and reacclimatise to their context, which resonated with my experience in Bradford. However, the comparison also gave me confidence that what is happening and being produced in Bradford is cutting edge and trail-blazing. We should have great confidence in what we do.

I regretted not also going to Detroit whilst out there as it is more comparable to Bradford in terms of its geography and its economic history. I have heard that there is some amazing work happening there.

LW: Did the trip inspire any new ideas or changes to your practice in Bradford? What will you be taking forward?

RW: (The trip) affirmed and confirmed some of my existing thoughts rather than inspiring new ones.

It was very useful to be able to pull back far enough to have a more objective view of what our (Theatre in the Mill’s) role is — or could be — in the district.

The key thing it reinforced for me was the importance of interconnectedness and collaboration for Bradford as a cultural community. As a district we should be more explicit about the cutting edge work that is going on here. We need to work together to cross-promote each others work so we can collectively grow the number of people in Bradford that get out to try theatre and performance, whether that be here, or Kala Sangam, or the Alhambra. We want to be able to programme things here that are niche. But if you can grow the appetite for any kind of theatre, whether it be panto or fringe, just get people to develop a taste for it, it will ultimately grow the potential audience for all venues. I’ll be taking forward my learning from the trip forward by stressing the importance of being ambitious for the City, in the work we are doing leading on Bradford Producing Hub (a three-year project that will take a fresh approach to developing and supporting live performance in the city).

Speaking to others in Chicago also helped inform my thinking about how we could link with other organisations to better propose an artists’ journey through the district. This connects to another thought I often have but have not yet had time to follow through; that it would be useful to have some kind of visualisation of the cultural ecosystem of Bradford so we can better understand these interconnections and promote the richness and diversity of the cultural scene here more. Something like the ‘The Great Bear’ by Simon Patterson (1992 lithograph, which mapped out the interconnections between famous philosophers, artists, scientists, writers etc. using the motif of the iconic London Underground Map).

It was also really good to spend a sustained amount of time with other individuals and organisations in the City and build those relationships and understanding of each other’s practice in less formal settings. Now, I could walk into the museum (the National Science and Media Museum) and I would recognise a number of people I can talk to and I would know who I could contact to discuss upcoming ideas.

Posted by:Lynn Wray