Darko Brlek about being a festival manager, artist, and cultural network president

10 March 2015

In 1992, Darko Brlek became the youngest artistic director of the Ljubljana Festival, taking over as executive director of the country's most important cultural festival in 1995. He became Vice President of the European Festivals Association (EFA) in 1997 and has served as EFA’s President since 2005. What’s more, Darko Brlek is a renowned concert clarinettist, regularly performing on stages around the world. In this interview for “The Slovenia Book” (released in 2015) he speaks about the parallels of managing a major festival and making music, and why international collaboration is crucial.

How much does your personal taste influence the programme of the Ljubljana Festival?

It would be dishonest of me to say that it does not influence it at all. In a certain way, all artistic directors let their personal taste have some influence. But when preparing the Ljubljana Festival programme, I am guided mostly by the budget, availability of artists, audience’s tastes and, of course, trends in the festival business. When I am in doubt, I ask my colleagues, who have experiences in various fields, for their opinion. A great support, too, is the network within the European Festival Association (EFA), a special platform that unites more than 100 festivals.

What is the process of preparing the Ljubljana Festival programme like? How far in advance do you plan and create ideas?

It is a continuous process. I might have some ideas and wishes, but then we are only able to realise them in four or five years, while some other ideas can be realised the following year or even just before the upcoming festival. So it is difficult to say. I am not one of those people that do everything mathematically. Of course, there is a certain clear structure of the festival which has been followed for decades, but we have to be flexible and adjust to the current situation. Festivals reflect the current time and space as well as changes in society and the economy.

Are there any parallels between managing a major festival and making music?

Yes, there are and I enjoy doing both. In both cases there is not much space to correct mistakes, or maybe even no space at all, and there are certain responsibilities to the audience. But as the manager and artistic director of the Ljubljana Festival I have even more responsibilities and obligations than as a musician. I do not only depend on myself. Then there is also the aspect of organising a festival, and this aspect is very different from just playing music. My obligation is also to put together the budget for the festival and to find the money for the programme.

How has the festival changed since you became the festival director in 1995?

It has changed significantly. First of all, it has become larger in all aspects: larger audience and venues, more extensive programme and visibility, more co-productions and international collaborations. The Ljubljana Festival has a very long history, ie more than sixty years, and it has always played an important cultural role not only in Slovenia but also Yugoslavia and in the wider region as well. Being a member of the EFA since 1977, it is internationally renowned and has an important impact on European cultural policy. I always say that festivals are like litmus paper, by which I mean that when society changes, festivals change. They reflect society. And we are constantly changing. I recently told a colleague that even after two decades of working for the festival I still feel like a complete newcomer because of completely different circumstances - such as the financial situation in the country and Europe, changes in the educational system, the reaction of society to various cultural events, the popularisation of the internet, electronic communications and social media - this is a real revolution. It is like Big Brother, now everybody can see what we do all the time. However, this increase in the accessibility of information does not guarantee that we will have larger audiences, quite the opposite, now we have to work even harder to gain the attention of audiences, especially the younger ones.

One thing that hasn't changed over the years is the venue. What makes Križanke such a special place?

It is in the very centre of Ljubljana. It has a long and remarkable history, which is still very mysterious and undiscovered. The old buildings have a certain charm that awakens special feelings in visitors. Some of them, and even some of my co-workers, believe that you can feel the presence of ghosts too. It is very important that the premises were originally built and for a long time served as a monastery, which still gives the whole space a really good feeling. When you enter the courtyard of Križanke you just feel good, in part because of the architecture which was reconstructed by renowned Slovenian architect Jože Plečnik, and because, of course, high quality shows and performances.

What are some of the difficulties and challenges of organising such a major event like the summer festival?

There are many difficulties and challenges, but the main concern is funding. We were founded by the City of Ljubljana, so it has been providing approximately 55-60% of our funding in recent years. But the remaining share must be earned from other activities, such as ticket sales, renting the premises and finding sponsors. The Ljubljana Festival has the highest level of funding from sponsorships among cultural institutions in the country. We are very proud of it and very grateful to sponsors, such as Telekom Slovenija, Spar, Tilia Insurance and Riko, which have been with us for many years.

What is the role of the European Festivals Association?

This is a question I always ask myself, and I also ask my colleagues on the board, and other members. First of all I think the most important thing is that the festivals have a network, to communicate, to exchange opinions, experiences and ideas. Second, and I don’t like to use this word, but maybe sometimes I should, it’s a platform or a space for getting information, and also for being in contact with policymakers. That I think is the main benefit, being able to influence their decisions. Sometimes we complain about them, but still if we don’t communicate with them how can they support culture, even if they like culture? And if they don’t like culture then it’s even more difficult.

People like to identify ‘best practices’, examples where you see what works well in one festival in order to implement something similar in others. How does it work in reality?

Yes, you can identify best practices, but you usually can’t just take something from one place and implement it somewhere else, it must be modified a lot. You can see what is working somewhere, but mentalities are different, audiences are different, economic situations are different, so you have to take all of these factors into consideration and then after all of that maybe you can find something useful. And a lot depends on the strength and work of the team that is organising the festival.

And finally, what does the future hold for the Ljubljana Festival?

It has a bright future. We have huge support from the current mayor, Mr Zoran Janković, and the festival has always had strong support from the municipality as well. Over the last 60 years, perhaps thanks to the cultural orientation of the city and also the mentality of its citizens, the local authorities have always supported the festival, so I hope this will be the case in the future too. And with all of the contacts that have been established with the rest of the world, as well as the increase in visibility and respect among local and international artists and audiences, I see a very bright and promising future for the Ljubljana Festival.