As lockdown ends, Oldham Council’s Heritage, Libraries and Arts Creativity and Culture team put local participation and performance opportunities at the heart of their large-scale outdoor events programme.
Shining a light on culture at the end of the Covid-19 pandemic… audiences are drawn to Illuminate, Oldham’s light night event as it returns after a forced two-year hiatus. As lockdown ends Oldham Council’s Heritage, Libraries and Arts Creativity and Culture team put local participation and performance opportunities at the heart of their large-scale outdoor events programme. By working with internal and external partners, building community confidence and constantly evolving delivery methods the team delivered a safe and successful creative event demonstrating the crucial role publicly funded culture has on national recovery.
Our challenge, following a two-year hiatus due to Covid-19 restrictions on large-scale public events, was to deliver, develop and re-establish Illuminate and ensure a safe and positive experience for visitors and creatives to help support the hard-hit night-time economy.
Prior to the pandemic Illuminate was a key event in Oldham Council’s cultural programme, growing year-on-year since its inception in 2017. It was also the last large-scale event to take place in Oldham prior to first national lockdown back in February 2020.
Since then, Oldham has been identified as a one of the Levelling up for Culture Priority Places by Arts Council England (ACE). Being selected as a priority area, that will be the focus for additional ACE engagement and investment, will enable us to increase levels of engagement with art and culture across the borough.
A key component of Illuminate is to increase cultural engagement for people from diverse backgrounds. The event has traditionally been held over a single Friday night in February each year, linking three key cultural venues in the town centre (Gallery Oldham/ Oldham Library, Parliament Square / Old Town Hall and Oldham Parish Church) by a ‘trail of light’ featuring illuminated artworks and projections, live performances, community parade and participation programme.
From the start it was clear that rebuilding a major cultural event featuring over a dozen lightworks and installations, with an audience of over 5,000 people, would not be a straightforward task, with a number of initial questions needing to be answered.
How do you plan and deliver a major event when restrictions around Covid-19 were constantly changing and evolving? How would audiences react when they had been prevented from attending events for such a long period. And would local and national artists even still be in business and able to produce and safely showcase high-quality artworks?
We were able to call upon the extensive event delivery experience and specialist arts sector knowledge within the Creativity and Culture Team to start planning solutions.
Event planning was supported by a cross section of other key local authority services including public heath, emergency planning, marketing and communications, health and safety and town centre teams to ensure we had the most up to date advise to deliver the safest event possible.
Our event delivery plan included…
Distributing audiences across a wider site-plan with new venues and multiple installations spreading out up High Street extending the light trail by 500 metres.
Hosting the majority of activities outdoors – including the community parade and Old Town Hall projection elements.
Shifting the event date to a Saturday extending time to safely set-up and maintain socially distancing throughout the whole day, as well as creating a more inclusive event.
Employing an external production company to handle technical delivery, allowing core Oldham Council events staff to focus on the safe delivery of activities for audience and participants.
Extending exhibition opening times of Gaia - Earth Artwork by Luke Jerram, with this indoor artwork on display at the Queen Elizabeth Hall for four days.
Implementing a dedicated comms plan to deliver key public messages and marketing information across a range of media and social media outlets.
Maximising opportunities for local creatives with more commissions for local artists as part of the cultural programme, with an emphasis on creatively reflecting the current Covid-19 pandemic.
Expanding the level of evaluation to capture audience feedback at the event.
The team also worked closely with external partners, community groups, creatives and local businesses to listen to their concerns to help create safe participation opportunities and build confidence in the run-up to the event.
Following our dedicated event delivery plan, Illuminate proved to be a qualified success, with headline figures including…
Eight thousand audience for the duration of the event (including additional opening times for Gaia by Luke Jerram installation). An increase of 60 per cent from the 2020 event.
Three hundred participants in the illuminated community parade - 20 per cent increase since 2020.
Eighteen Lightwork installations and performances by local and regional creatives, helping to support and strengthen the arts sector. Fifty per cent increase since 2020.
Eighty-two artist, performers, productions and event stewards were provided with employment helping to support the cultural events industry at a time when many companies were not being supported by the furlough scheme.
Five fold increase in town centre footfall for that day of the week impacting positively on spend for local businesses.
In addition, five days of family lantern making workshops created over 100 themed snowdrops – representing hope as we emerge from the Covid winter – for the community light parade.
Leading creative organisations from across the North West collaborated on a major new work The Moon Gazing Hare, which saw Illuminos and Global Grooves come together to debut a stunning new piece of work that included puppetry, carnival and a 3D mapping projection outside the historic Old Town Hall.
How is the new approach being sustained?
Illuminate met our initial aims of firmly re-establishing its position as a landmark event that now sits firmly within, and will ensure it is sustained, the framework of the new Oldham Council Cultural Strategy 2022-2030.
The strategy has been developed to ensure that culture, arts and heritage are at the forefront of our vision for the borough. The document is a result of an online consultation with more than 800 residents, workers and stakeholders during the height of the Covid-19 pandemic.
The new strategy sets out a long-term vision of how we can use culture to bring residents of all ages and backgrounds together to help and support them to lead more creative, healthy, happy and prosperous lives.
By strengthening and extending our partnerships within the creative industries across the region we aim to create better pathways and progression for talent and career development.
The strategy also looks at how we can make the most of our existing buildings, facilities and indoor and outdoor space to create a calendar of gigs, exhibitions and performances that the Creativity and Culture team are at the heart of delivering.
Following the Illuminate event, we have since delivered a major four-day event in June in Oldham town centre to mark the Queen’s Platinum Jubilee celebrations. The events incorporated the annual Festival Oldham outdoor arts and street theatre festival that has run successfully for over 25 years – once again highlighting our ability to adapt and evolve an existing and successful event delivery model to reflect current themes and be relevant to our residents and visitors.
We are now in the advance stages of planning for Illuminate 2023 with the aim of delivering an ever-improving light-night event with widespread participation opportunities, continued support for local artist commissions and showcasing world-class art installations for our borough’s residents.
The parade was led by world-class illuminated drummers SPARK! to help inspire audiences and participants, with eight community groups from across the borough – including Men Behaving Dadly, Oldham Indian Association and Infinity Dance – producing new pieces to showcase their work.
Feedback on social media was overwhelmingly positive, praising the quality and scale of artworks and how important it was to see events happening and people back on the streets.
Overall, the event saw more people engaged in arts and culture in Oldham than ever before for a free one-day family festival.
Our biggest learning from Illuminate was that, as we emerge from the Covid-19 pandemic, large-scale outdoor events have proven to be more robust in challenging circumstances than we may have initially thought.
Audiences are keen to re-engage and take part in events such as Illuminate provided that there is a high-quality cultural offer that is constantly reinventing itself and is relevant to the current times and to our target audiences. Participation remains key to the ongoing success and local ownership of Illuminate and similar cultural events in Oldham.
The borough has a rich heritage of outdoor celebrations, carnivals and parades – including the annual Festival Oldham, Santa’s Reindeer Parade and Oldham Pride parade – and this, together with accompanying creative workshops, remain a key ingredient in building partnerships and community confidence with participants and audiences.
Local artists rose to the challenge of creating new work inspired by the Coronavirus pandemic. We will continue to support nationally recognised partners as well as emerging creatives from across the borough with event-specific cultural commissions that give a voice to our diverse communities.
Above all we will continue to build community confidence in publicly funded outdoor events and position Illuminate as a unique locally-focused light-night event that offers inspiring, enlightening and engaging opportunities of national significance for Oldham’s residents.