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> > > Interview: Ruth Gould on DaDaFest's 'Outrageous Ambitions'
screenshot of the DaDaFest website

Screenshot of the DaDaFest homepage

‘How do major arts organisations in the UK continue to survive in times of recession?’ I asked Ruth Gould, Chief Executive of Dadafest in Liverpool. "By having Outrageous Ambitions," was the immediate response.

“We aim by 2014 to make DaDafest more international by linking with Global Disability Arts and Rights organisations. By 2016 we want to have DaDaFest content at the Rio de Janeiro Olympics so that by 2018 we will be able to show the world what we can achieve through international collaboration.”

Listening to Ruth talk with such energy on a wet and dismal November day in her office in the Bluecoat Arts Centre in Liverpool, you can see why DaDaFest has been so successful. She is herself a deaf woman and performer who knows first hand how exhausting it is to function at a fast pace in the commercial world of big arts businesses, yet she still radiates much passion and enthusiasm.

It is largely due to Ruth that DaDaFest is a National Portfolio Organisation for the Arts Council and is one of only seven top arts organisations to be funded as a Cultural Driver by Liverpool City Council alongside heavy weight partners like the Liverpool Philharmonic, the Everyman/Playhouse Theatre and the major museums.

And DaDaFest is about to start work to develop programming and marketing of Disability Arts at venues across the UK from 2013 – 2015 bringing together partners in Northern Ireland, Preston, St Helens, the West Midlands and the London Borough of Newham funded by the Arts Council England’s strategic touring programme.

So how did DaDaFest arrive in this enviable position despite tough times and recession?

"By being willing to change, to reflect on what works and doesn’t, take hard decisions and remodel, being flexible enough to respond to changes we can’t control, developing partnerships not just across the arts sector but with businesses and, most important of all, aiming high."

“Michaelangelo has always been a source of inspiration to me. When it gets tough I always think about his famous saying: ‘The danger is not that we aim too high and miss, but that we aim too low and hit…’”

Ruth, her strength and leadership are also clearly a huge part of the winning formula. She has a total belief that Disability Arts are vital to today’s society in that they can influence and save people’s lives. She spoke of the many people whose realities have been fundamentally changed by their experiences of Disability Arts to the point where some admit it turned them away from suicide. People have regained self-belief, realised their lives are valid and found ways of expressing their worlds which are recognised and celebrated.

But it has not been easy for Ruth or DaDaFest. Many hard decisions have had to be taken, bold strategies implemented and uncomfortable realities faced.

DaDaFest started off as Arts Integrated Merseyside in 1984, became the North West Disability Arts Forum (NWDAF) in 1991, DaDa in 2008 and is has been officially known as DaDaFest since April 2012.

But what have they had to do to survive - and thrive?

In 2007, before the recession was recognised as such, Ruth and trustees commissioned work to review the organisation because there was public and stakeholder confusion about NWDAF and DaDaFest. ‘It was not only the Festival we were responsible for at NWDAF, but many ongoing projects and it is this that people just did not get,’ says Ruth.

"We knew we needed to become more ‘fit for purpose,’ recognised and branded clearly as a single organisation in the rising world of opportunities both pre and post the European Capital of Culture year for Liverpool in 2008."

Armed with unique funding secured through business sources available during the lead up to the Capital of Culture they employed a consultant who worked with staff, stakeholders, trustees, partners, artists and community groups. Together they developed a strategy to re brand the company, put a lot of effort into pro active marketing, restructured the staffing model to make sure they could deliver their clarified vision and developed a new website to tell the world what they did and why.

They were also able to bid for funds against other organisations, because they could prove the impact and positive outcomes of their work long before the word ’Outcomes’ became fashionable for funders to demand evidence of as a condition of future support.  DaDaFest had been supplying data to the city council about the economic impact of Arts in the city for some time and were well able to show the power of a organisations and DaDaFest to bring both disabled and non-disabled visitors and prosperity to the city and region as part of the Capital of Culture: “Disabled people can be tourists too and spend money in the city…” reminded Ruth.

On the back of this 2007 review, NWDAF became DaDa in 2008, the staffing restructure took place between 2009–2010 and a new delivery model was put into place. But not without pain, though no staff lost their jobs, posts were realigned and new ones created.

And it paid off. In 2008 alone DaDa was featured in a 30 minute ‘See Hear’ BBC programme and attracted national radio and other media coverage for their part in the Capital of Culture events.  They were shortlisted as a ‘Best Tourist Event ‘ in Liverpool and honoured by the Arts Council for putting the North West on the Map.

In 2009 DaDa worked again with the BBC to produce five films, which were shown on their big screens in cities across the country.

2010 brought invitations to DaDa to the Vancouver Winter Olympics to speak about their cultural work and from the British Council to visit Rio de Janeiro in Brazil for three weeks to work with organisations such as the Palavras Visiveis (Visible Words) deaf theatre group.

Also 2010 Ruth finally finished her Masters degree in Social Enterprise Management and with the help of a business coach, the organisation was ready to move from picking crumbs up from the table to being one of the seated big players. Helped by a newly recruited Operations Director they set about changing their organisational perspective from that of a small arts set up to one with a commercial attitude and approach to delivery with active links and networking partnerships with businesses in the area.

Even during the worst of recession, DaDa forged forward to realise their ambitions and in 2011 they organised a business breakfast for local businesses to introduce them to what they could offer as a partner and to forge the links they saw as being vital in order to survive and thrive as an arts organisation in challenging times. This led to numerous projects, one of which was delivered with local solicitors to de-jargonise legal terminology by holding a poetry workshop. Innovative and successful!

“Working together is essential for organisations to survive recession,” says Ruth. “We are active in many consortia including the Liverpool Arts Regeneration Consortium (LARC) along with the Tate Modern and Liverpool National Museums. We are also part of a smaller group called Creative Organisations of Liverpool. COoL is a collective of 31 not-for-profit arts organisations based in the city. Rooted in Liverpool, they work closely with local communities in every corner of the city and the impact is felt around the world.”

“We work with Business in the Arts North West and our staff have benefitted from having mentors from local businesses and in turn mentored other small groups. We have good working relationships with local PCTs, housing organisations, schools and communities and work on the principal that spreading out and sharing our collective expertise is one of the best ways to be sustainable.”

In April 2012, DaDa officially became known as DaDaFest. The organisation presented Niet Normaal: Difference on Display exhibition, the very successful 2012 DaDaFest and  also won the 2012 Lever Prize award and £10,000. You would think Ruth might be having a rest but no.

“We have to make sure we can keep skilled workers in our disability arts work. To do this we have to be capable of continuously re-inventing ourselves so we can deliver high quality arts both nationally and internationally.”

“We at DaDaFest are now at a stage in our continuous development where we have invested time in both our Trustees and Staff so that with recession we do not become insular and mediocre.”

New trustees have been appointed and more are sought for their understanding of business, powers of influence and passion for the Arts. A new chair, Jane Cordell, a former diplomat with the Foreign and Commonwealth Office, whose appointment as the United Kingdom's deputy ambassador to Kazakhstan was revoked after the FCO said that her deafness made it too expensive to send her to the country, brings her not inconsiderable expertise to DaDaFest and takes up post in December 2012 - and next DaDaFest is already being planned for 2014.

But where does Ruth get her strength from and extra daily energy needed to do all this against rising expectations, a huge work programme and the challenges of impaired hearing?

“It is my belief that Disability Arts are the most exciting art forms in the world. They are dynamic and the most life changing relevant arts on the planet today.”

With this quality of leadership and motivation then maybe these DaDaFest ambitions aren’t so outrageous after all.