Let's Talk Business Session

30 May 2023

Festivals are great emotional and artistically invigorating experiences - at least they should be - but in order to achieve any such result, they have to be businesses too, and to engage with the business world around them. In the process the commercial business companies benefit, whether as suppliers, visitor service providers or sponsoring partners keen to contribute to and benefit from the association with a prestigious event. This was the starting point for 'Let's Talk Business', the first morning of the Arts Festivals Summit 2023, held in the impressive surroundings of Peralada Castle in Catalonia, only a few kilometres away from the mountains bordering France and itself an example of the symbiotic relationship between successful business and the finest arts.

The point was not just to lay out the accepted collection of mutual benefits but instead to look at the expectations, hopes and tensions raised during the process of engagement. There are places where the relationships (their potential and limits) are well understood. There are also places and businesses where there is not enough contact, where festival support is left almost totally to public authorities, and where the innovation that festivals strive for is held back by conservative business partners anxious not to challenge their guests too far.

Alongside these anxieties are parallel considerations about why non-artistic organisations (whether businesses or foundations) provide support when they are interested primarily in fashionable social outcomes, rather than artistic endeavour or excellence. These social criteria, increasingly important to philanthropic and political funders, are clearly becoming a problem for festivals, which can help but cannot solve the world's problems; especially when they are not setting out to do so. This tension between objectives was laid bare by an exchange between two of the dozen speakers: Ignasi  Miro Borras, Corporate Director for Culture and Science at La Caixa Foundation - the philanthropic arm of one of Spain's major banks - and Zvonimir Dobrović, founder of the Queer (meaning outside the norm) Festivals in Croatia and New York. Borras announced that he was not in the business of responding to requests from the arts where they did not match his social agenda. Dobrović pointed out that this was the modern equivalent of cynical aristocratic patronage - an example of power play in which the rich NGO is always more powerful than the cash-hungry artist. 'There is a danger,' he said, 'that funders are trying to turn professional artists into amateur social engineers.'

Right at the beginning of the session, Thobile Maphanga, a dancer and writer from Durban, South Africa, had called for all sides 'to make everything a little more fair.' She had meant gender, geography, age and social access as well as the approach of vested interests, but it was the theme that came to dominate the conversations. Fairness was invoked in many forms. James McVeigh, from Edinburgh Festivals, the collective organisation that brings together all of the city's many festival strands, called for an end to the tyranny of audit cultures which were so keen on measuring outcomes that they totally missed the point of festivals: their ability to inspire, provoke and amuse.

He also pointed out, on the other hand, that the emerging generation of this century tend to be activists who expect festivals to reflect their concerns. It was an issue picked up by Natalia Ozko-Jacab, who directs the Valley of Arts Festival in rural Hungary, which looks at all aspects of sustainability in its operations, from the products its business suppliers use, through the way artists' travel is managed, to the resilience of local communities.

The experienced festival producer Chris Baldwin, who has been central to several cities' programmes as European Capitals of Culture, argued too that such concerns need not lead to the instrumentalisation of the arts, in the way funders are pushing to do, as long as the artists are allowed to use their work as a way to spark society, both through emotional inspiration and the building of confidence in change. As Jordi Albareda, the founder of the Fair Saturday movement (the opposite of the shopping Black Friday) put it, the arts produced in festivals do not work to indulge selfishness but to generate empathy. As he urged everyone in the room, 'do not just be a retailer of culture.'

by Simon Mundy