This post has now been written up formally and will appear in the July/Aug edition of a-n magazine.

The Stage commissioned me to write an article discussing the pros and cons of Festivals from a performing arts perspective which was published in the 16th June 2011 edition.  A downloadable pdf of that piece is available here.

A good discussion at the Founders Room at the Brighton Dome, where we all – panelists and audience – agreed that Festivals bring many benefits to a city but are not unproblematical.

Dr Sassatelli suggested they are useful for local identity and profile, but  that festivals often suffer from a “staged authenticity”.  This was a theme taken up by Professor Steven Miles, who started by questioning whether festivals give more than they take? His view was that the “staged authenticity” of many festivals leads to cities competing with each other for funding and as destinations. This results in issues regarding periphery and core, where city centres are developed by the periphery is left untouched, leading to gentrification, and economic winners and losers.

Andrew Comben, as Director of Brighton Festival, spoke of his view that a Festival has to stand alone beyond the obvious benefits; that the artistic meaning is more important than the instrumental meanings.  His motivation is being able “to offer audiences an enormous cross-section of the artists’ view of the world”.

Questions from the audience raised issues around inclusiveness and participation, about the mainstream and fringe and the ability to stage innovative risk-taking work. A good question was about balancing cultural spend against statutory spend on health, education, housing etc  The panel unanminously agreed that it isn’t helpful to look at this as an either/or question; that many factors influence quality of life, and the arts have a contribution to make to these other agendas.

My presentation was around meaning and lack of it in festivals – here’s a short version of the text:

This is, I think, a fantastic question, and one that is not examined nearly enough by our civic cultures.   I suspect that as we go thru the evening we’ll hear a range of responses relating to the benefits of Festivals  – for city profile, for tourism, for destination marketing, for economic impact, for social cohesion and local identity.   And you never know, some of us might possibly advocate for festivals as a development platform, showcase and paid opportunity for artists, performers and writers.  We will, I hope, argue that Festivals provide pretty good opportunities for professional artists at the top of their game to share their work with us. And by doing so,  delight, provoke and inspire us as audiences.

But too often, I think, festivals are something of a bandwagon that civic authorities jump upon without fully understanding their characteristics, or indeed, how they incubate.  There has been a fad and fashion for festivals over the last 5 – 10 years that is resulting in them springing up all over the place, at any time of year, for  any reason, and for anything from a single day event to a three month blow-out.  To me as an arts professional, this is problematical.  I would suggest we’ve moved from a place of incorporating into the mainstream the best that festivals have to offer, to a situation verging on the ridiculous – where anything and everything can become a festival, with a consequent lack of substance and meaning.  

Credible festivals do come in all shapes and sizes, and originate in many different ways, from grassroots organisations to profit making businesses. But the key question for me is about meaningfulness – and the lack of it.  That is, I think, a concept that is not often part of the debate, but could be tonight and to which I hope you will respond.

I want now to invite you to take a look at these images, which are of artworks exhibited in various large scale festivals, and two of which were site specific commissions:

And now I would like you to compare that  with this image:

Ah yes, Brighton’s latest festival – a Festival of Shopping, which apparently took place over the month of April.  Someone described it on twitter as “scraping the bottom of the barrel of meaninglessness”.  I wonder why?   I’m going to leave it to you to draw your own conclusions about that,  and I look forward to your input into the debate tonight!


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