A message from John McGrath

Our Artistic Director and Chief Executive John McGrath shares a personal message


On Saturday my friend the poet Lemn Sissay asked folk on Twitter to suggest ‘songs for when this is over, and we emerge from isolation.’ Lemn’s choice of song was Here Comes the Sun, Nina Simone’s version.

I immediately wanted to hear that song so much it hurt. And in a world of Spotify, I could, so I played it, blasting out throughout my house, on the assumption that the neighbours must want to hear it too! And then I felt guilty. This was supposed to be the song for when it’s all over, and I’d used it up already! I rang Lemn to apologise. He laughed and said how happy he was I’d enjoyed his recommendation and that great Nina Simone voice.

It’s a silly story, but it was a symptom, I feel, of the strange mix of emotions – impatience, longing, frustration, idealism, hope – that we’ve all been feeling as we withdraw into our homes and find a very different way of sharing our lives with others.

At MIF, we spent last week setting up our systems for working online, sadly postponing our world premiere of Riz Ahmed’s The Long Goodbye, and assessing the impact of Covid-19 on plans ranging from our international touring to Manchester International Festival 2021, to the building of The Factory.

Some things are very immediate. We have a number of international shows in the next few months that will probably now not happen. This will have a financial impact for us, as well as being a real sadness for the artists and teams involved. On a positive side, we have already set up daily online get-togethers for artists and freelancers wanting an opportunity to chat, and this week will see the return of our MIF Live digital channel – which usually runs during the Festival – as a space for showing past MIF work, and we’re also planning a series of online commissions. Our popular community programme, Festival in My House, is, with a few tweaks, a perfect fit for this strange moment, and we’ll be launching a new version in the next few days. Anything we can do to provide opportunities for artists and connection for communities has to be a good thing right now.

Other questions are far more long-term. When we ‘emerge from isolation’, as Lemn put it, the world may seem a very different place. What kind of a festival will we need in 2021? For sure we’ll want an opportunity for joy, for connection, but at the moment it’s hard to know how the context may have changed. We are talking with our fellow festival organisers in the UK and internationally to think about the future. And we are in daily contact with our colleagues in Manchester’s arts organisations. In some ways perhaps this may be an opportunity to think very differently about how we collaborate, how and when we travel, what it means to be international now.

As for our future home, The Factory, we can’t yet know what delays and challenges might result from the COVID-19 crisis, but a place for creative gathering, for global connection, for ambitious imagining, will surely be truly needed in the years to come. This space for ‘the art of the future’ will be somewhere we can apply the lessons we will have learned about creativity, connection, and imagination.

There will be sorrow too. This is going to be hard, and I am genuinely scared about the potential losses ahead – of loved ones, of resources, of trust maybe. But there are things that many people are already doing that bring hope, from the amazing selfless work of nurses, teachers, supermarket workers, and so many more, to the global outbursts of creativity, to the daily acts of local kindness.

At MIF we’re committed to supporting our staff team through these uncertain times. Everyone is now working from home, no-one is being laid off, artist contracts are all being honoured. Parents are able to work flexible hours in order to have time for childcare and homeschooling, and we’re supporting staff wanting to do voluntary work during the crisis. We recognise that we are fortunate to be able to do this. This is thanks to the great way our funders have responded, with Manchester City Council, Arts Council England, and Greater Manchester Combined Authority all showing wonderful leadership. Without them, and our other donors and supporters, this would not be possible.

If you want to contact us, or you’re working with us on something, it really is pretty close to business as usual. We are all in our online office each day, working to make great creative things happen – the same as we always do!

It may be a while before we can all meet up and sing ‘Here Comes the Sun’ together, and there may be dark days in between, but at MIF we promise to keep working in every way we can to nurture and support creativity, community, and joy.

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