A study on sustainability and festival networks

PAULINA MÁRQUEZ

ABSTRACT: A study on sustainability and festival networks: Are festival networks a strategic asset for small-scale, non-profit, arts festivals to achieve a more resilient sustainability? A study based on the ICAS (International Cities of Advanced Sound) network and its foundational project ECAS (European Cities of Advanced Sound).

 

© ICASnetwork / Katharina Meissner

© ICASnetwork / Katharina Meissner

 

Festival networks have been the structure under which non-profit arts festivals, among others, join forces through international collaboration and cooperation in face of a fast paced and vulnerable industry. These networks bring different benefits to their members and can consequently help them enhance their capacities as well as increase their competitiveness, but are they a strategic asset for small-scale, non-profit, arts festivals to achieve a more resilient sustainability?

To determine whether festival networks enable members to develop their sustainability, it is necessary to analyse the benefits offered to members in relation to the elements that support the sustainability of these types of festivals. In order to focus this analysis, a festival network and its foundational project were taken as case studies: ICAS (International Cities of Advanced Sound) and ECAS (European Cities of Advanced Sound).1

Analysing the ways in which festivals can strengthen sustainability is crucial. As Foccroulle (2009: 16) points out in his article “At the heart of European identities,” ‘The amazing diversity of festivals reflects Europe and its culture’. In a time when funds for culture are scarce, when resources are harder to grasp, it is fundamental to think creatively, in order to attain sustainability (Arts Council Chicago, 2013: 1).

About the sustainability of small scale, non-profit, arts festivals

Sustainability can be defined as the ‘ability or capacity of something to be maintained or to sustain itself’ (LandLearn, 2015). Historically, non-profit arts festivals have struggled to achieve sustainability. This is because they ‘are driven by a mission and not by profits making, they are quite dependent on public funding, they have difficulties to generate surplus from their core activities and they are undercapitalized’ (Rodríguez, 2015: 11).

The core teams of these festivals are charged with obtaining all the necessary resources to develop the festival. How is it possible to access these resources? In the case of non-profit organisations, ‘many organisers are dependent on contributions from donors or on exchanges with sponsors. In other words, they have to mobilise resources through other actors’ (Getz, 2005 cited in Elbe, 2009: 232). Non-profit festival organisations access resources through the relationships they establish.

Managing to finance a festival exclusively from its own revenues, meaning tickets, merchandise and, if possible, bar sales, is hard to imagine. Generally, festivals are expensive to produce, their sources of revenue are limited, and the time span in which they are active is quite short. In most cases, festivals cover two-thirds of their global budget with public and private funding.

Despite the negative connotations that public funding and sponsorships may have, there is no doubt both are valuable resources. The problem is that most non-profit festival organisations rely too much on these sources of income. Festivals must lower their dependence on these sources of funding and rethink their business models because at the moment, ‘everything points out to the standard arts festival model becoming harder to sustain in an increasingly competitive market’ (Palmer and Thelwall, 2013: 3-4).

There is no precise formula for non-profit arts festivals to become more stable and sustainable, not only because each festival is organised and managed differently, but also because festivals are affected by their context and the place in which they develop, making each case unique. Nevertheless, there are some assets that are indispensable to strengthen sustainability: innovating (Carlsen, et al, 2010: 121), achieving strategic partnerships (Klaic, 2009a: 103-111), collaborating (Rodríguez, 2015: 9), being flexible enough to cope with change (Getz, 2002 cited in Carlsen, et al, 2010: 123 – 124), having demanding programmes and expanding audiences (Krijanskaia cited in Pejovic, 2009: 193).

How participating in a festival network can support a festival’s sustainability

To understand how being part of a network can help festivals to enhance their sustainability, this section correlates the benefits of network participation (based on the information collected from the ICAS and ECAS research) with the assets that can strengthen sustainability.

Strategic partnerships

  • The gathering of like-minded organisations working within the same field and sharing similar interests under the umbrella of a network lends strength to the group that can facilitate lobbying in order to support this specific sector of society.
  • As Elbe (2009: 232) points out, legitimacy is an indispensable asset for the development of any kind of festival. For young festivals, this is a particularly delicate issue, as they have not yet gained recognition by their own means. Joining a festival network such as ICAS brings legitimacy to its members. It is the legitimacy of the network and its most established festival members that expands and consequently ‘legitimates’ the activities of the younger members.
  • Through the gathering of international festival organisations, festival networks enable the mobility of artists and artistic programmes at an international level. The different festival members create a circuit that facilitates the touring of different artists and projects. This expansion in mobility naturally increases the visibility of such projects, at both local and international levels.
  • Festival networks can also enable the mobility of cultural workers, generally in the form of cultural residency programs. According to Oliver Baurhenn, co-director of CTM, this is the best way in which cultural workers can learn from other organisations and share their knowledge in return, because residencies give enough time for people to get to know each other and to assimilate and apply that knowledge.
  • As Klaic (2009a: 104) points out, the more international a festival is in its programme, the more aware it must be of its local context. Local support is essential for the successful development of festivals. Most of the interviewees confirm that being part of the network has increased their local profile. For both partners and local funders, an international network represents the possibility to promote and give visibility to local talent abroad.
  • Most of the interviewees confirmed that being part of the network facilitated access to new funds: locally, regionally or internationally. The reasons for this vary depending on the festival and its context. In some cases, the network legitimated an organisation in the eyes of potential funders, in other cases promoting local talent abroad aroused the interest of public institutions, and in others the international character of the network helped to access funds abroad.
  • Festival networks support and promote the development of new collaborative projects and exchanges between organisations at different levels. At this level, the network works as a space of encounter, where cultural workers can meet with others and identify potential partners for their projects.

Collaboration

  • Constant exchange with people from other countries allows the network members to better understand and appreciate different contexts and realities, and increases the international and intercultural competencies of cultural workers.
  • Some of the network members are organisations that have more than fifteen years of experience, whilst others are young festivals run by young entrepreneurs. Sharing knowledge across generations, nations, and organisations of different sizes, is an asset that is not always easy to grasp outside of this type of structure.
  • Joining a network of like-minded people working to achieve similar goals and facing similar challenges gives the members a sense of community and solidarity within their field. This sense of community gives internal strength to the network and its members.

Innovation

  • Exchange with like-minded professionals from different backgrounds is the perfect incubator for new ideas and exchange of information, and organisational knowledge facilitates the development of various projects.
  • Getting to know different points of view allows festival organisers to question themselves.
  • The connections between people in the network generate a stimulating collective intelligence, which is enhanced when members physically meet.
  • In a fast-paced industry, the network represents a space where members can stop and think about where the network and its members are heading, what they are doing and why.
  • Trust among individual members of the network allows people to be open about their thoughts and to give critical and honest feedback to others, provoking reflection on the work developed by different organisations and cultural workers.

Demanding programmes, expanding audiences

  • The intercultural diversity of the network can have an important effect on the uniqueness of the programme and the international profile of the audience. It increases the international profile of its members, especially the less established or younger ones, and promotes the discovery of international artistic talent.
  • Festival members involved in co-productions with other network members emphasized the network facilitated and enriched the process of creating new artistic work. Exchange within the network gave them access to expertise, a wider artistic choice, a wider touring network, and access to different types of support.
  • Joining an international network can also raise a festival’s profile with its local audience. As Tim Terpstra, former curator of TodaysArt, affirms, working with a variety of festivals from different countries allows for unique programming. For a curious and bold audience, having access to a unique programme is of great value.

Flexibility to cope with change

  • Through networks, festival organisers are able to gain organisational knowledge by learning how other festivals operate and by sharing strategic information, which allows them to rethink the way their own organisation operates and to find diverse alternatives when faced with different challenges.
  • Having the capacity to find different solutions to potential problems by learning through the experience of others also enhances the flexibility of these organisations, an indispensable asset for facing the changing nature of the festival industry.
  • By being exposed to different realities and ways of doing things, it is possible to recognise things that could be lacking or failing in one’s home country. This intercultural exchange makes it possible for cultural workers to recognize and evaluate models that could potentially be imported and applied in their home countries.

Conclusion

Although the present study has its limitations and is not representative of non-profit arts festivals or of festival networks overall, it is a small sample aiming to measure the different benefits that festival networks bring to their members. It also demonstrates the importance of further research in this area.

Festival networks are platforms that can allow festivals to achieve a more resilient sustainability. Nevertheless, these networks can only offer tools to make this happen. Sustainability is a hard thing to accomplish, and relies heavily on the creativity and the ability of festival organisers, with shared effort and open collaboration between sectors. As Rodríguez (2015: 9) affirms, ‘the new contemporary paradigm requires all type of organisations –public, non-profit and for-profit–to cooperate and work across sectors and working fields in order to have a more holistic approach to reality and more efficiently tackle the pressing problems that our societies are currently facing at all levels’.

It is important to acknowledge that the benefits a network can offer will also depend on the specificities and operation of each network. ICAS is a medium-sized network that facilitates communication and encounter, which is not always the case. There are, for example, larger, extensive networks where communication and organization are not always easy to establish and maintain.

Nevertheless, festival networks can be agents of change, of creation, of mobilisation and connection. Their essential value is not measurable in economic terms, since it lies in the ‘environment’ they create, in which innovative projects can be developed. They are dynamic and inclusive structures of cooperation where communication is horizontal, and where differences between cultures are appreciated as an asset and not as a threat.

We are living in a time when nationalism is expanding. In times such as these, where exclusion is becoming the norm, inclusive structures like festival networks where creation is collective, knowledge is shared, and diversity is cherished, are not only beneficial for cultural workers or the organisations of a specific industry, but for society itself. As Foccroulle (2009: 16) points out in his article “At the heart of European identities,” ‘The amazing diversity of festivals reflects Europe and its culture. Yet are we aware enough of that wealth? Will we be able to help it to grow and take advantage of all of its promises? Will we be able to gather into dynamic networks and leverage all its resources?’’ Festival networks are great structures to collectively rethink and reinvent not only the festival model, or to shape the future of an industry, they are also a strategic place to rethink the way in which we want to influence the world we live in.

 

ENDNOTES

1  ICAS is an international network dedicated to advancing sound cultures, music and related arts. ECAS was the project that initially triggered the creation of ICAS and later on became a project of nine partners of the network. Both developed from a natural collaboration among independent festivals and dedicated persons that shared an interest in promoting and creating projects related to experimental music, sound and new technologies with a trans-disciplinary approach. ICAS has been working as an informal network for over nine years and is formed of thirty-one active members across Europe, America and Australia. ECAS was a five-year initiative co-founded by the Creative Europe programme that ended in 2015. It was formed by nine partners of the ICAS network.
In order to analyse the benefits that the festival members have achieved through participation in these networks, a qualitative study based on interviews with nine of the festival members was developed. This research is based on the study developed by IETM – Informal European Theatre Meeting (2001) in relation to the importance of artistic and cultural networks, How Networking Works.

 

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