The Festival Cities Round Table at a glance / Arts Festivals Summit 2021

30 November 2021

The Arts Festivals Summit in Galway in November could prove to be a seminal moment in the relationship between arts festivals and the places that host them. At the heart of the discussions was an afternoon devoted to discussing the progress of EFA's Festival Cities Initiative and the launch of the EFFE Seal (long title - the Europe for Festivals, Festivals for Europe Seal for Festival Cities and Regions). This is the initiative that commits cities and regions to invest the potential of their festivals as partners in reasserting open democratic and liberal ideas through the arts. Seal, remarked Peter Inkei of the Budapest Observatory, can be either a noun or a verb in this context. It is a seal of approval but it can also be a means to seal the commitment to live up to the ideals enshrined in the protocols the participants will sign.

The founding group of cities comprises Bergen, Belgrade, Edinburgh, Krakow, Ljubljana, Leeuwarden and Ghent. Each has a rich history of hosting festivals - some organised through the city itself (as in Krakow), others with a tradition of enhancing the international reach and reputation of their cities through becoming known as festival hubs (like Edinburgh and Ljubljana). The idea is that the EFFE Seal's adherents will expand to include a multitude of places - not just cities but towns of every size, the wide variety of regions and rural areas like individual valleys - that express the specialness of their identity through arts festivals.

Julia Amour and David Waddell from Edinburgh summed up the intentions in a few simple sentences. The EFFE Seal demonstrates clear support for the wellbeing that festivals bring to their communities, creates a network for like-minded places, and reaffirms their European commitment. It aims to change the psychological geography, putting the emphasis on people and their experiences, not things, as part of an agenda that looks to contribute to ecological sustainability: people, place, planet.

Robert Piaskowski, from Krakow, described festivals as barometers of change and catalysts for strategic thinking. The Seal, he said, gave them all an incentive to work together more and to gain the maximum benefit from partnerships. Hester van der Werff from Leeuwarden observed that, in her experience during the city's year as European Capital of Culture, the bonds formed between colleagues and the benefits felt through the small festival programmes were as important as the big events. Taking the Seal 'proves that we take the process seriously'.

Georgio Guazzugli Marini, speaking for the European Commission, said how much the initiative shown by cities and festivals during the pandemic was appreciated in terms of holding Europe together, a point reiterated by Peter Inkei. 'Anything that sets European cohesion against the forces of disintegration, physical or political, is enormously valuable'. As Marteja Demsic from Ljubljana said, 'this is a symbol of commitment and solidarity'.

There were caveats too, though. It was pointed out that not all district administrations share the same values of openness and European aspiration. When one city official mentioned that he expected festivals to align with the city's political agenda, it was protested that, while that was fine when the agenda was liberal but when it was despotic the festivals could become the agents of dangerous propaganda. As one theatre festival director put it, 'if you have a pathological system, everything that happens within it becomes pathological too'. Another asked, 'how do we maintain a common set of values when the politics are leading in the other direction?'

Some of the answers were perhaps provided by the Belgian artist living and working for the present in Ireland, Els Dietvorst. She use site specific structures to express community fears and concerns, whether they be the isolation caused by the COVID pandemic or the responses to outsiders and immigrants. She looks for fluidity in creativity, juxtaposes a Dream Office opposite an office for official papers, and invites us to investigate the things we really have in common: dreams, needs and desires. 'What interests me,' she says, 'is just around the corner.'

The Festival Cities Initiative will explore these matters in more depth at the formal launch of the EFFE Seal during EFA’s next Arts Festivals Summit in Yerevan, Armenia from 2 to 5 May 2022. Representatives from different countries, international organisations, cities and regions will be there to endorse the charter and memorandum.

By Simon Mundy