On February 14, 2020 over two hundred festival makers and stakeholders (funding agencies, resource organisations, academics) came together in Limerick for the Change Makers conference, a joint initiative between the Arts Council and the MA Festive Arts at the Irish World Academy of Music and Dance, University of Limerick. Conference delegates engaged in ideas about creative festival making through panel discussions, workshops, clinics, and an inspiring key note address from festival maker Jude Kelly. Topics included approaches to working with artists, the festival sector’s role in artform development and the myriad of opportunities festivals provide for the public in making and experiencing the arts. The mood was energetic and full of optimism about the coming festival season.
The Change Makers Festivals Conference 2020: A gathering of arts festival stakeholders to map and take stock of festival practice in Ireland in partnership with the MA Festive Arts (University of Limerick)
Within one month of this event the full reality of COVID-19 had become apparent, and Ireland entered lockdown. Festivals scheduled for late spring had little option but to cancel. However, as the period of isolation extended, festival makers began turning to digital technologies to allow them to fulfil their commitment to artists (to present work) and to the public (to be an access point to participate and encounter the arts). In the early months of the summer many festivals delivered programmes online using different technologies and social platforms; the global reach of this medium of transmission enabling the work to be seen by audiences far beyond the locality where festivals, and in most cases artists, were based. As social distancing regulations eased, live performances began to reappear in festival programmes alongside, and in some cases interwoven with, work that was to be experienced digitally. Approaching September, more festivals launched programmes promising live events. This was ultimately stymied by the introduction of public health measures which limited gatherings and public attendance of cultural and arts spaces.
A mother and child enjoy one of Tom Lane’s audio walks created to be experienced by the public as they walk by the river Lee. Both The Shakey Bridge Listening Project (2013) and Hidden Currents (2015) were commissioned by Cork Midsummer Festival and re-presented as part of the 2020 festival.
In order to better understand the changes to festival making during this time, the Arts Council initiated the Talking Festivals series. These online gatherings began as six ‘Curated conversations’ for festivals that shared specific operational concerns. This was followed by four ‘Live and Digital’ larger gatherings at which festival makers were invited to share their challenges and needs. The series ended with an international webinar attended by over fifty delegates from ten different countries, who discussed ‘planning in the face of uncertainty’ and the challenges faced by festivals committed to international collaboration.
Common themes emerged over the course of the eleven gatherings. The initial lockdown caused a slowing down that many welcomed as an opportunity to reflect upon core values and reassess operational practices. However, as festivals turned to creating deliverable solutions, increased demands on limited human resources and knowledge gaps emerged, causing new strains that needed to be addressed to ensure the sustainability of the sector. Anticipated decreases in revenue for 2020 and the coming years was a cause of concern for many, as was the damage the absence of festivals from our towns and cities would have on the social and economic fabric of the places where we live. The impact cancellation was having on production professionals, small service businesses and volunteer teams that serve the festival sector, was also a concern.
Little John Nee performing an evening of song and story on a demountable stage that toured to venues between Malin and Rathmullin playing to socially distanced audiences as part of Earagail Arts Festival 2020.
At such a time of flux and instability, festivals found themselves in a place of vulnerability but also a place that offered an opportunity for reflection and change. Recognising that the way the public interact and experience the arts in the short to medium term would have to adapt, festivals have been exploring new models of practice. As part of the Talking Festivals series the terminology ‘slow festivals’ appeared as a way of expressing a future festival model that focused on more in-depth work with communities over time - work taking place over longer periods, programmes focused on quality over quantity, and finding new safe spaces for audiences. There was also the realisation that these new programmatic models were likely to reshape the business models of festivals into the future, and that this presented a challenge that was not without risk.
During the different phases of the pandemic since mid-March, I have observed the ingenuity of festival makers around the country as they responded to such adversity with imagination, determination and what appears to be an unquenchable enthusiasm and resilience. Over this time festival teams have dismantled planned programmes, while simultaneously conceiving (in collaboration with artists and other stakeholders) new programmes that were affordable, deliverable and accessible. In many cases having to rework programming days before, or during a festival as public health measures changed. The diversity of the innovative festival offerings that emerged during 2020 is evidence of the sector’s ingenuity in overcoming obstacles and capacity for creative curation and ‘nimbleness’. It also speaks of the enduring importance of festivals to the fabric of Irish cultural life today.
In his welcome address to the Change Makers Conference, Professor Kevin Rafter noted that festivals were a hugely important part of the Irish arts ecology, responding as they do to both of the main pillars of the Arts Council’s strategy. Based on the sectors response during the COVID-19 pandemic of 2020, festivals have provided evidence of their resilience and resourcefulness, and their capacity to assist in the recovery of arts provision in this country. In the words of one of the delegates to the International Webinar, festivals “had provided a glimmer of hope for artists and the public in an otherwise very challenging landscape”.
—Dr David Teevan,
Festival Advisor to the Arts Council/An Chomhairle Ealaíon &
Co-founder Irish Arts festival Archive, UCD Cultural Heritage Collections
The Talking Festivals series took place between April and July 2020 attended by over 150 festival makers, festival artists and academics. The series was delivered and moderated by Dr David Teevan. A short essay, commentaries and reflections also accompany the minutes of each session.
On foot of the Talking Festival series is the development of guidelines and initiatives for arts organisations, festival & event organisers to support their survival and recovery due to COVID-19
The Arts Council and Fáilte Ireland will develop, deliver and disseminate: clear, easy use and regularly updated guidance for arts and event organisers based on current public health measures and in developing such guidance will share, inform and be informed by relevant stakeholders and seek advice and expertise as required. This work is currently in development.