Life After 70

16 November 2022

During the Autumn of 2022 the European Festivals Association demonstrated how it would reinforce its core values through practice in the years to come, aiming to be a positive force in Europe and the world as the century develops. In one sense celebration should have been the order of the day: a celebration of 70 years of arts festivals coming together in the belief that they can inspire and reinvigorate communities, wherever they are.

The world is facing too many challenges for such an inward looking extravagance, though. With Russia's autocratic regime pursuing war against its neighbour, Ukraine, and using that as a catalyst to a wider conflict with much of the international community, festivals have a duty to look to EFA's founding mission: asserting the necessity for peace and the role the arts can play in its process.

This is not easy. Aside from the actuality of war, the world faces the consequences of climate change, the contraction of economies after pandemic, and the inadequacy of national governments, either in dealing with these overwhelming problems or in protecting the freedoms of their citizens. In each case Europe's festivals feel they have a vital role in relieving the pressure on communities and suggesting new ways of thinking. The occasions to demonstrate this were given in two settings, rich with symbolism. In September the 70th anniversary Arts Festivals Summit was held in the Armenian capital, Yerevan. For EFA this showed its commitment to see Europe as a much wider family of countries than those within the European Union. For Armenia's festivals, and especially for the host the Yerevan Perspectives International Music Festival, the meeting was proof that they are as important to European artistic life as any. EFA, in a year, had taken its meeting from Galway on the Atlantic Ocean to Yerevan at the foot of Mount Ararat. The second symbolic setting was Berlin, on the anniversary of the tearing down of the Berlin Wall (9 November) when individuals deeply involved in EFA reinforced its messages as part of the Berlin Conference of A Soul for Europe, hosted by Stiftung Zukunft Berlin (the Foundation for the Future of Berlin) held in the Allianz Forum at the Brandeburg Gate.

As the next phase of EFA's activities begin, with the pandemic receding but leaving fractured economies in its wake, the association has launched a series of initiatives to deliver real benefits to artists and communities. For professional performers (so disastrously thwarted in their careers by the effective loss of two years progress as live touring shut down), there is the European Festivals Fund for Emerging Artists (EFFEA). This is a fund to offer grants to festivals to adopt artists in residence, in co-operation with at least two other festivals, so that their adopted talents can expand across borders. The initial scheme, part funded by the European Commission's Creative Europe programme, will run for three years but it is hoped that it can be extended for much longer.

To pave the way towards EFA's 80th anniversary, a group of members have been coming together and developed the 70 Years-On Agenda that looks ahead at pertinent issues for the sector. To be active in the fight against the effects of climate change, the group has put forward ways of making festivals more environmentally sustainable. This is not easy. By their nature festivals involve mass travel and high use of energy. Nonetheless there are things that can be done, from planting trees as tickets are sold, to using renewable energy electricity, opting for plant based food and recycling everything from a festival site. The experience of members, audited by academic experts, is being gathered together and will become a toolkit for festivals all around the world to use.

Central to all festival initiatives is the partnership with the cities, towns and rural communities in which they take place. Traditionally local governments at all levels have been supportive, not just with money but facilities and personnel. To cement their commitment for years ahead, EFA and a group of cities with pride in their festivals (some long established, others just realising their potential) have come together to sign up to the EFFE Seal for Festival Cities and Regions, a formal document that lays out how they will be designated as Festival Cities, putting the festivals at the heart of their cultural, economic and social policies.

Some might seem obvious, like Edinburgh and Krakow, but others, like Aveiro on the northern coast of Portugal, or Belgrade make the point just as importantly. As Zane Estere Gruntmane, consultant to the Aveiro's bid to be European Capital of Culture, put it in Berlin, "success is cumulative and festivals help cities and communities give themselves a presence in a wider context. This is most essential in the smaller ones and, through co-operation the major centres can help the smaller ones build their strategy, distributing city development to the benefit of all their citizens."

Yuri Volkovsky, for a too short period of a few months this year Deputy Minister of Culture in Bulgaria, pointed out that citizens are facing a double assault from poverty and misinformation. "Culture is crucial in the long term if solutions are not to be blocked by a lack of civic participation." And the President of the European Union's Committee of the Regions, Vasco Alves Cordeiro, summed up, "cities are the first responders in a crisis. They need to be part of our entire story because they are crucial in shaping future political direction, recovery and reconstruction."

By Simon Mundy