Mintfest's Julie Tait on this weekend, Comic Fest, politics and being called 'an obsessive perfectionist'

The Westmorland Gazette: Julie Tait pictured at Kendal Castle Julie Tait pictured at Kendal Castle

GO back to 2006 and Mintfest was just an idea in the back of someone’s mind...

There were no artists in the street, no visitors and no ringing tills.

Just the same old shoppers doing the same old Saturday slog up Stricklandgate.

Fast-forward to 2013 and Mintfest is now firmly on the cultural radar as families mark it on calendars and tourists plan trips around it.

The three-days of street madness starting today (Aug 30-Sept 1) is hailed in the same breath as some of the big budget European festivals.

And that was always the grand plan of festival director Julie Tait, the diminutive dynamo who moved to Kendal 12 years ago and with a small team has been working her socks off ever since.

Mintfest costs £250,000 to stage but brings in far more – with many shops regarding it as the best weekend of the year. And it’s all down to Julie.

Five feet nothing she slides into her seat at the Waterside Cafe in Kendal four our talk and admits to feeling ‘knackered’.

She’s fresh from a pair of Lakes Alive events at Brockhole and Cleator Moor with Mintfest looming large in her thoughts – 60 acts, 260 artists, 60 volunteers, and thousands of visitors.

Is it going to chuck it down, she wonders.

Also bubbling on her ‘stove’ is the first ever Lakes International Comic Art Festival, due to take place from October 18-20.

Involving more than 60 global comic greats, it has never been attempted before, anywhere.

Julie, 47, is also mum to teenager Finn, who has Asperger’s Syndrome and despite all the demands, she tells me: “I’m not good at talking about myself. I don’t enjoy it at all. Being in a large group of people and being asked ‘what do you do?’, I have no idea what to say.

“Producer seems the best fit. I form the glue to a project. I never claim to be an expert in any particular area and am happy to defer to other people, but I’m maybe overly rigorous in what I expect from them.”

Recently a local councillor called her an ‘obsessive perfectionist’, and she certainly possesses an underlying steely-determination – totally necessary when a major part of the job is winning grants and influence.

I push her to describe herself.

“I get people to believe,” Julie says after deep thought.

“I find my vision and want to influence other people with it, by hook or by crook.”

She grew up in Manchester and says she was ‘brought up’ on Monty Python.

A few years ago, she was named as one of the top 50 women to watch in culture.

She went to the School Of Music in Birmingham and has been involved in the arts for 20 years now.

What few attending Mintfest consider is the immense preparation that sometimes leaves her sleepless... the booking of spaces, toilets, first aid, contingencies for weather and a thousand more details.

“Whenever you go into an outdoor space there is always a risk and we live in a risk averse society,” says Julie.

“There is detail and a process and it relies on trust from some of those official organisations or public sector collaborators.”

I’ve heard that working with performance artists is like herding cats – what’s her view?

“Working with artists can be frustrating but it’s also fantastic. What’s great about it is that they’ve generally made a choice to work in this environment. It’s not about celebrity but they do what they do because they want to be challenged by the public.”

I ask her if ‘taking arts to the masses’ is too trite a definition to describe the intention of Mintfest and Lakes Alive?

Julie cites the recent example of a bystander at an event in Cleator Moor who thanked her for going ahead despite a downpour.

The woman told her: “You’ve brought a bit of sunshine into a dull day....well, a dull life to be honest.”

Julie says: “The Arts Council is our major funder. Its mantra is great art for everybody and that’s exactly what we do.

“You don’t have to be arty-farty to like Mintfest. When people go into a theatre, there’s a language and a culture and you’re either comfortable with it or not. People at MintFest will come out just be outside in the street with their mates.”

And what of MintFest in future? Is it for the chop with funding hard to find?

Julie says: “This year we have had to take our share of cuts. The budget has grown but it can’t get any smaller if it’s going to continue being one of the top in the UK.”

Essentially, she would rather walk away than put on a bad show – she lives in Kendal and wants to hold her head up.

“The plan is to carry on,” she says confidently.

“We are in it for the long haul and we have loads of ideas.”

Asked what is worst and best about the event, she says: “The worst is the money... and the politics, which I really wish didn’t exist. The best is when it’s happening, it’s fantastic!”

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