Minding the makers: the cost of resilience and innovation in the Irish festival sector

Dr David Teevan

Irish Arts Festival Archive Co-coordinator, University College Dublin

Since 2016, I have worked as a festival studies researcher in an academic context, while also acting as Festival Advisor to the Arts Council/An Chomhairle Ealaíon. This dual role, and my previous professional experience as a festival maker, puts me in a very particular locus within the Irish festival ecology; one that afforded me a privileged perspective on the challenges facing festivals during the last two years. Working independently as a researcher, I have completed a number of in-depth studies of the changing operating models of festivals in Ireland during the Covid-19 pandemic (Teevan 2021; 2020). Concurrent with this work, I was tasked by the Arts Council with curating and moderating webinars that were aimed at helping the festival community sustain their organisations during this unprecedented time -Talking Festivals (May/June 2020) and Pathways 2021 (March/April 2021). Together these documents form part of an important archive of the Irish festival sector’s struggles and evolution during this time. It was in this context that Dr Aileen Dillane and Dr Sarah Raine invited me to write a guest blog for Festiversities – to provide an overview of Irish festivals’ metamorphosis over the last two years.

Dr David Teevan

In Ireland, as elsewhere, the number and diversity of arts festivals grew exponentially over the last forty years. While not all festivals that include the arts in their programming are funded, it is a measure of the growth and importance of festivals in this country that support for festivals by The Arts Council/An Chomhairle Ealaíon increased from 12 events in 1977 (The Arts Council 1978) to 173 in 2018 (The Arts Council 2019).

Before the arrival of the pandemic, there were few weekends in the year that did not have an arts festival somewhere in the country, with a diversity of festival types catering for a wide variety of interests. In the field of music, which is the focus of the Festiversities research, this ranged from the world renowned Wexford International Opera Festival, to the Clonakilty Guitar Festival, Limerick Jazz Festival, Claremorris Folk Festival, Cork International Choral Festival, Killaloe Chamber Music Festival and any number of festivals that focused on Irish traditional music, like Masters of Tradition in Bantry and Traidphicnic in Connemara. The diversity of this sector is not confined to artform or genre differences, but extends to the operating models of the festival organisations. So, while some of these festivals have full-time professional management teams working all year round, others are managed by professional arts workers on short-term or part-time contracts, and still others are run by voluntary committees.

Over the last eighteen months I have observed Irish arts festival organisations with awe and admiration, as they worked tirelessly to operate in the face of unimaginable obstacles presented by governmental restrictions imposed to stop the spread of Covid-19. During this time the festival community demonstrated resilience and innovation as they cancelled, reimagined and reworked plans to enable festival events to take place in spite of the restrictions, all the while learning new skills and adapting their operating models to accommodate the transformed and everchanging reality within which they found themselves. As documented by the Festiversities research teams, similar stories of resilience and creative management were happening across Europe. In my own research, I documented organisational changes required to enable four case study festivals to successfully present programmatic content online, the challenges these organisations had to overcome to operate effectively during this period and the impact this period had on organisational planning for the future (Teevan 2021; 2020).

While it is still too soon to determine with any degree of certainty the longer-term implications for festivals of the upheaval caused by the pandemic, it is certain that the impact of the last eighteen months will have long-term consequences for this sector. For example, there is evidence to suggest that the digital dissemination of work that was so critical to festivals – particularly in 2020 when severe lockdown prohibited live performances of any kind – will remain part of many festivals operating models. This can be justified in terms of the wider access online presentation of programming facilitates, but it is also probable that the festival makers and artists that have developed digital skills, will be keen to persist with the use of these tools and platforms, which have opened up new creative possibilities and facilitated connections with new audiences.

Michael Gallen performing in ‘The City is Never Finished’, a site specific multi-media performance in the ruins of a Franciscan abbey as part of Kilkenny Arts Festival (August 2021)

The restriction on indoor live performances in Ireland during much of 2021 and a series of grant schemes for funding outdoor events, encouraged many festival organisations to discover and develop new venues in parks and other public spaces. Unable to run concerts as per usual in the Town Hall Theatre and Abbeystrewry Church, Skibbereen Arts Festival (an annual multidisciplinary arts festival in West Cork) had a stage built in a small enclosed park at the edge of town where it ran a series of concerts. The venue proved to be ideal, and Festival Manager Declan McCarthy admitted that without the restrictions they may never have discovered this facility. Taking advantage of a capital investment funding programme for outdoor infrastructure, Galway Local Authority Arts Office purchased a stretch tent with capacity to accommodate a stage and a seated audience of 300 people. According to Arts Officer Sharon O’Grady, this was a long-term investment aimed at being able to provide a weather proof performance facility for festivals throughout the county for years to come.

An audience enjoying early evening sunshine in the Skibbereen Arts Festival’s newly created outdoor venue in O’Donovan Rossa Memorial Park.

Another noticeable development in the festival sector in Ireland over the last eighteen months has been a much greater tendency for festivals to work together. Within days of the first lockdown being announced in March 2020, festival organisations realised the need to share intelligence to deal with the unprecedented challenges that they were facing. Over the following months different groupings of festivals began meeting online, some self-organised, some organised by Local Authority Arts Officers, others facilitated by the Arts Council. Over the following year different conflagrations of festivals emerged as consortia intent on sharing marketing, infrastructural and/or human resources.

As festivals embark on putting in place plans for 2022, the shadow of Covid -19 still hangs ominously in the ether demanding that festivals remain flexible in their planning. However, this planning is being done by organisations with very different capacities to the organisations that faced the first lockdown. Resourced with digital skills, newly discovered venues and flexible infrastructure, and working in solidarity with other festivals has greatly strengthened the arts festival ecology in Ireland.

While recognising the value and importance of these gains, it is also important to acknowledge the burden the pandemic has placed on festival makers, and the potential for long-term damage to this important feature of Irish social and cultural life. In September 2021 when restrictions had eased, I was able to travel to a number of festivals around Ireland. After over a year without live entertainment, there was great excitement among the public to be out at cultural events, and in particular, being able to discuss the artworks experienced with friends and strangers. Among the event organisers however, the mood was not so ebullient. Without doubt there was satisfaction in presenting events and seeing the public’s delight, however, there was also, in many of the organisers I encountered, a weariness that was troubling.

Over the previous eighteen months working in isolation much of the time, festival makers had invested time and energy learning new skills while undertaking additional administrative and logistical juggling to keep pace with changing restrictions. They also had to strengthen health and safety protocols to ensure a safe space for artists to work and for the public to enjoy the work. Whether professionally or voluntarily run, the human resources of festival organisations are invariably stretched, reliant on a small group of committed individuals. While the committed individuals I met were, in the inimitable fashion of festival organisers, being positive about the future, there were also signals of distress, with festivals reporting concerns about fatigue and burnout. Among the voluntary run festivals, which are a crucial part of the festival ecology in Ireland, there were reports of a noticeable drop off in people’s availability, resulting in an unsustainable situation where more work was being undertaken by fewer people.

Attending the EFA (European Festivals Association) Summit in Galway (22-24 Nov 2021), I had the opportunity to meet with representatives from European festivals and festival resource organisations. The European festival makers spoke enthusiastically about opportunities the pandemic had provided, with many noting that lockdown afforded them time to re-evaluate their organisation’s mission. In particular, this enabled festival organisations to integrate issues of sustainability and inclusivity more centrally into their operating models. The exponential rise in the use of digital technologies by festivals was another recurrent theme. While the value of transmitting festival programming online was applauded in terms of the access it provided, opinions differed about the merit of digital dissemination in a festival context, where there is an expectation of a ‘concentration in time and place’ that digital media does not replicate. Mirroring the Irish festival situation, there were also many delegates who spoke about fatigue due to the extended duration of the pandemic and the demands of working with such a high level of insecurity.

In conclusion, I would add my voice to those who have rightly applauded the resilience and resourcefulness of festival organisers in villages, towns and cities throughout Europe. However, I would also caution that due care and attention be given to consider the long-term sustainability of the sector at this time, and in particular the importance of supporting the people that deliver for us each year these indispensable social and cultural events.

References

Teevan, D. (2021) ‘Online and on land: an examination of Irish arts festivals’ response to Covid-19’. Irish Journal of Arts Management and Cultural Policy, 8: 133 – 157.

Teevan, D. (2020) Digital needs?: supporting arts festivals’ transition to programming a blend of live and digital experiences. 11th Annual ENCATC Conference Proceedings, Cultural management and policy in a post digital world – navigating uncertainty, pp. 129-147.

The Arts Council (1978) Annual Report 1977. Dublin: The Arts Council/An Chomhairle Ealaíon.

The Arts Council (2019) Annual Report 2018. Dublin: The Arts Council/An Chomhairle Ealaíon.

Irish Arts Council Pathways 2021 – A view from FestiVersities

Sarah Raine and Aileen Dillane

University of Limerick, Ireland.

As researchers interested in European music festivals, public spaces, and diversity, the past twenty months have been disruptive, challenging and at times emotional. Like the festival professionals we had hoped to work closely with during FestiVersities, we had to transform our plans, create new strategies of engagement and production, and to ask ourselves what really lay at the heart of the project, pandemic or no. Our emerging answer to this final question coalesces around the concepts of collaboration, shared practice, compassion, creativity, and optimism.

In attending the Irish Arts Council Pathways 2021 webinar series run between March and May 2021, it was clear to us that these five elements were threaded throughout both the intentions for and contents of the sensitively facilitated panel discussions. Curated and hosted by Dr David Teevan, (Festivals Advisor to the Arts Council) and under the stewardship of Karl Wallace of the Arts Council, Pathways 2021 aimed to provide a space for critical conversations between festival makers and their stakeholders. With festivals cancelled across Ireland and public events paused for over eighteen months, never has such a space been needed more, not simply to touch base and connect with likeminded people but also to find strategies to cope and, potentially, thrive.

In our research to date, we have noticed an increased level of communication between festival teams as they struggle to make sense of conflicting information, ongoing uncertainty, and a prevailing sense of care for their communities. Platforms like Zoom and Skype have become a lifeline, bringing together festivals – in Dublin and Chicago, Cork and Copenhagen, Limerick and Liverpool – as they reimagine their forms, processes, and function in a very new and different world. In the case of the Pathways 2021 series, participants in each seminar were warmly welcomed in by David and the panel team, and made to feel that their experiences and creative solutions to the challenges of COVID-19 were valued and of value to other arts professionals. Having “attended” many arts sector virtual panels and workshops throughout the pandemic, Pathways 2021 offered festival and arts professionals access to a wider and more diverse network. Equally important and new was the manner in which Pathways offered a space for both sharing everyday practices and for considering larger philosophical questions.

Inge Ceustermans of The Festival Academy pointed out (Session 1, March 10th 2021) that different people in different places experienced the impact of lockdown to varying degrees, but that many had used the opportunity to consider the efficacy of the digital festival platform, not just in communicating with older audiences but also in finding new ones. Such speculations were married with ruminations on sustainability and care, in particular of artists. John Crumlish (Galway International Arts Festival) asked attendees to consider “what happens when you take the place away” from festival experiences (Session 2, March 24th 2021). In a similar theme, Avril Stanley – the director of one of our FestiVersities festival sites, Body & Soul (panel 2) –asked, “how do you take the festival experience and the beauty of an area, create a narrative, and turn it into a story that has meaning?”. And in bridging theoretical questions and everyday practices, Ruth McGowan used examples from Dublin Fringe Festival to consider possible models for creating tactile, sensory and intimate audience experiences in digital spaces (Session 3, April 7th 2021). Each of the four panel sessions were well balanced in terms of art form, location, festival model and experience, including a wide range of arts festivals from across (and beyond) Ireland. For many of the attendees, the Pathways 2021 panels offered a number of creative, successful, and well-considered models for future practice and inspiration for Arts Council Ireland funding applications, as many of the represented festivals reported on previously funded events.

Pathways 2021 was unafraid to venture into terrain that is often seen as anathema to ‘creatives’, with Conor McAndrews from Accenture (Session 1) offering strategies from RND and future planning (typically applied to corporations) for the festival context in order to enable better decision making. The presentation focussed on grounding any business model in human-centric design, that ultimately had considerable resonance with the attendees, generating excitement about how to apply scenario-making for future resilience.

It was this seamless blending of arts industry, non-arts expertise, and scholarship that was particularly compelling in this suite of seminars. Common issues were highlighted and framed through research and theory, in addition to experience, by David Teevan, who (in Session 3), borrowing from Victor Turner (1969), summarised the focus of the festival as creating a space for “communitas”. A well-used term by scholars, but the (2012) work of anthropologist Edith Turner is particularly apt here: she views communitas as an “inspired fellowship” and an instigator of collective joy. Illustrated by the examples provided in Pathways 2021, both fellowship and joy persisted in the festival offerings of 2020 and 2021.

Reflecting on engaging with audience and performers, Pathways considered both the local and the global. Lorraine Maye (Session 4, April 21st 2021) talked through event examples that were rooted in local communities and spoke to the ways in which Cork Midsummer Festival had reimagined annual events during national lockdowns. Although creating the same levels of trust with local and international partners over Zoom calls was explored as an issue throughout the Pathways sessions, it was clear to see that many festivals had mindfully engaged with local and international audiences, partners, and performers in compelling and efficacious ways. 

In our own FestiVersities research, we are interested in tracking the ways in which issues of Diversity, Equity and Inclusion have continued to thread through the activities and future plans of festivals during the COVID-19 pandemic. This was most clearly explored in Padraig Naughton’s (Arts and Disability Ireland) presentation, with Naughton observing that a movement online does not naturally translate into increased access for all (Session 3). Whilst few online performances have offered audio description, captioned events, included sign language interpreters, or organized relaxed performances, in our own research we have experienced festival platforms that do offer a range of access-focused personalisation options, to include those which support neurodivergent audience members. However, as Padraig made clear to us all, digital spaces and festival models offer both solutions and further issues in relation to access, and that we must all be careful to question our assumptions about who is included and excluded. And when the time comes to pivot back to live offerings, we should all be asking what elements could we maintain for optimum inclusion.

As any associated professional or research will attest, the role of the festival is multifarious; from providing an immersive and multisensory audience experience to acting as a seasonal employer. Most significantly for the context within which we all find ourselves this year, the festival as an instigator of positive change within society was clearly articulated by both the framing of the Pathways 2021 series and throughout the presentations. A pervasive and declared emphasis on supporting performers and suppliers by many of the festivals demonstrated a keen awareness of the difficult times that many have faced. In a similar vein, issues of sustainability were raised, with the pandemic period representing an opportunity to establish new practices and processes with reduced carbon footprints or that allowed festivals to establish more secure positions within wider arts ecologies. Amidst all the continued uncertainty and worry, it was heartening to be immersed in a community that looks forward to not only a post-pandemic world, but a world of increasingly mindful and considered festival production which places collaboration, sharing practice, compassion, creativity, and optimism at its core.

References

Turner, E. (2012) Communitas: The anthropology of collective joy. New York: Palgrave Macmillan US.

Turner, V. (1969) The Ritual Process: Structure and anti-structure. Chicago: Aldine Publishing.