How 10 local authorities explored joint commissioning and were able to connect with communities through a world class cultural offer with local relevance.

The challenge

Greater Manchester is a geographically large and diverse city region, with 2.78M residents and great disparity in the infrastructure, provision, quality and profile of culture across the 10 boroughs. The City of Manchester is a centre of excellence and innovation and receives 80% of Arts Council NPO investment in GM. Tameside, Trafford, Wigan, and Stockport receive no regular funding.

Greater Manchester Arts (GM Arts) is a network of local authorities and cultural trusts who provide cultural services across the city region. Their aim is to work together to build a more joined up offer, with a particular emphasis on connecting with communities who might not be engaging with a ‘bricks and mortar’ cultural offer.

As part of Great Place GM, GM Arts wanted to test new ways to build capacity in its members, explore ways to share expertise and resources and to co-commission new work at a scale unachievable by individual members. The resulting commission was Cap and Dove (for the promotion of human happiness). This was designed to develop a collective sense of place among residents, maximise existing cultural assets and create a space for each district to commission local artists and specific local content. 

Cap and Dove set out to test a new and collective approach to joint delivery. It hoped to:

  • build and test new partnerships linked to placemaking 
  • bring a cultural offer to those residents who currently did not engage
  • involve residents in exploring local micro-histories
  • deliver a GM wide programme with local iterations in each locality, reflecting the diversity of place and heritage 
  • provide opportunities for local artists and community groups in each locality
  • explore joint commissioning opportunities and encourage cross-locality working
  • explore the logistics, challenges and efficiencies of joint working.

‘Linking the Cap and Dove premiere with the 125th anniversary commemorations of the Winter Hill Mass Trespass gave the event a much stronger local resonance. The Cap and Dove team, the arts centre and [company] performers also brought something unique to the event – and provided a space/focus for the local “performers” such as the City of Sanctuary writers group.’

GM Arts Lead Bolton

Our approach

A shared heritage

All 10 districts needed to agree on a shared theme. The Peterloo Massacre took place at St Peter’s Field, Manchester on Monday 16 August 1819. The anniversary of this event in 2019 was a natural starting point. Plans to mark the anniversary were already underway across Greater Manchester and the themes of power, democracy and revolt were ideal for a project drawing on both arts and heritage practice. 

Joshua Sofaer was appointed through an open tender process. His proposal Cap and Dove was selected as it involved numerous commissions and opportunities for local artists, had a strong visual identity and was flexible enough to encompass 10 localised iterations.

Cap and Dove is a tiny travelling arts centre, housing a one-window museum, a theatre, and a shop. It champions protest, collaboration, equality and liberty. The structure and decorations tell stories about the 10 Greater Manchester districts: Bolton, Bury, Oldham, Rochdale, Stockport, Tameside, Trafford, Wigan, Manchester and Salford. Everything from the paintwork, which is based on Regency-period textile samples and the river system that powered the region’s pioneering industrial identity, to bespoke wallpaper celebrating the first NHS patient, refers to Greater Manchester’s rich and radical history. The striking, sol-id brass nose door handle is cast from the Middleton Cemetery memorial to the author, Samuel Bamford who, being an advocate of public defiance, led Rochdale’s people to protest at Peterloo.

A decorative, tiled floor, using natural dyes including red cabbage and onion skins, is inspired by techniques of traditional Salford tile-makers of the Victorian era. 

Cap and Dove refers to both the ‘cap of liberty’ and the ‘dove of peace’, two symbols of protest. 

Cap and Dove – The Tour

Cap and Dove toured to 10 locations across GM and accompanied by an ensemble of six theatre makers/performers who provided 75 minutes of programme content which varied from fun and joyous to more thoughtful and considered pieces. This was supplemented by three elements of locally developed content relevant to the touring location:

Museumshowcasing artefacts from local collections

Informproviding a platform for local charities and not for profits to engage with the Cap and Dove audience to promote local initiatives 

Communityshowcasing the range of locally-based talent, both community based and early-stage emerging artists.

Cap and Dove also supported a volunteer programme with volunteers acting as ‘guides’ to the work. 

‘The planning and commissioning felt very collaborative and it has enabled more dialogue about the potential for cross borough work.’

GM Arts Lead Rochdale

Managing Cap and Dove delivery

Cap and Dove is best understood as 10 one day events, or ‘premieres’. Each event had a local project team supported by a central production and marketing team to shape a programme fitting local priorities and aligning with the aesthetic and objectives of the broader project. The central marketing lead also provided a toolkit to activate content at a local level and gave ongoing support.

Local content included; dance groups, youth theatre, women’s groups, spoken word artists, Lancashire dialogue broadsheet singers, local YouTube stars and viral tiktokers, brass bands and cover bands. Giant polyurethane biscuits, historic ice cream horns and Peterloo bugles, a Peterloo cartoon, Andy Warhol prints, Humphrey Spender photographs and the last surviving Peterloo banner were taken from their usual museum homes into the shared space of Cap and Dove. 

10 Lead partners

30 plus delivery partners

23 Community Partners

10 volunteers

What we achieved

A cultural offer was more visible to those residents who might not currently engage.

This was a highly visible project that presented new ways of engaging with residents and extending the footprint of the existing bricks and mortar cultural offer in a local area. This approach will be even more relevant as places and organisations continue to navigate recovery post-pandemic.

Numerous opportunities for local artists were created.

This has been a very successful element of project delivery. 12 commissions were given out, with a further 10 artists selling work via the shop. 

The project allowed members to build and test new partnerships linked to placemaking and explore new venues for cultural engagement. 

Locations for activity broadly fell into the following categories;

1. Existing retail/public realm offer

2. New retail/public realm offer

3. Parks

4. Existing Local Authority assets.

‘‘Promoting happiness starts with smiling and this has put a smile on my face.’

Member of the public Bury

Highest footfall was achieved in high streets and public realm areas. However, the conversion rate relating to dwell time of visitors with the artwork was lower than in other spaces. For example, the total Rochdale audience of 1,000 converted to 30 people going inside the work on a ‘tour’. This compares with Sal-ford, where an audience of under 300 converted to 60 ‘tour’ participants.

When the work was located in shopping areas, including high streets, feedback from businesses was highly positive. Partners valued the impact of cultural animation on their local areas, but for this to be viable as a continued approach, it would need to link to local cultural infrastructure. 

The project supported the telling of hyper-local histories, celebrating the diversity of heritage and people across GM.

Museums and archive services in every district were engaged and districts worked hard to connect Cap and Dove with locally relevant and specific histories.

In Bolton the premiere provided a means of exploring a little known though significant event in the history of the local area – the Winter Hill rights of way battle of 1896 which remains Britain’s biggest mass trespass. 

The delivered programme was also different in every location, recognising the diversity of assets and audiences. It was important to the artist and delivery partners that audiences could recognise themselves both in performance, per-formers and other programmed content.

5,100 audience

266 participants

What we learned

The project supported useful insight into the opportunities and challenges of joint commissioning.

The project resolutely demonstrated the value and efficiency in collective commissioning and members of GM Arts would like to see further collaborations across GM. However, managing 10 delivery partners was hugely ambitious and one of the biggest challenges of this project. Future joint projects could be de-livered between fewer districts.

The project has highlighted the potential for more efficient working through partnership and collaboration. GM Arts members are now exploring how they can maintain a shared commissioning function, share production expertise, jointly procure marketing and other production support and create a shared touring work. 

‘For Rochdale, the project was a huge success with high visibility and audience figures. It felt joyous and because it became part of the reanimation of the town centre and came to the new shopping centre, it became more relevant in terms of building back.’

GM Arts Lead Rochdale

Covid 19

From April 2020 many GM Arts members and project stakeholders were furloughed or redeployed to support public health campaigns, registrar offices, vaccination efforts and other Covid 19 responses. Those who remained in their substantive posts were occupied pivoting existing activity to digital platforms. The project was delayed for a year and in late spring 2021, it was decided that Cap and Dove would tour that summer. The project team describe Cap and Dove as both a marathon and a sprint. A project that was two and a half years in the making, had to be fully realised in eight weeks.

The effects of Covid 19 are long term for the cultural sector. However, the joy and enthusiasm with which groups experienced performing again for an audience was incredible.

Democratised culture

Taking collections and performances to ‘where people are’ was a crucial element of the project. The network intends to explore this practice further. Cap and Dove addressed some of the nervousness around taking collections ‘into the street’ and demonstrated for example, that with the right preparation, it is possible to take an original Andy Warhol artwork onto the streets of Bury and that public response it positive and worthwhile. 

‘This is the busiest we’ve seen the market since 2019, we need more stuff like this here.’

Trader Bury Market

New delivery models

Particularly within the context of Covid 19 and the impact this had on the project, it is acknowledged that success only came about as a result of goodwill and trust between GM Arts members and commissioned artists and production staff. Whilst this was stressful, it also resulted in learning through problem solving for all members and a strengthened network of cultural professionals with the will to work together for the benefit of Greater Manchester residents. 

The delivery model that was used relied on a centralised production hub with 10 local delivery spokes. This placed a heavy burden on local teams, particularly when events had to be rescheduled during the pandemic. Future collaborations will invest a larger portion of the budget into central functions, ensuring greater

continuity and the potential to build knowledge and expertise throughout the tour. Local teams should focus less on production and more on relationship management and specific content development.

‘This has been a fantastic experience, as it has given us an insight into what it is like actually in an industry setting, working to a specific brief and then producing a design within time constraints. I have really learned a lot.’

Zaynah Arif, Student Bolton University, Awarded Curtain Commission

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All images © Richard Tymon