Interview: “Everybody is entitled to excellence in performances”

6 August 2010

The Edinburgh International Festival is one of the largest and oldest festivals in Europe. Since its foundation in 1947, there has been a strong “belief in the power of the arts to nurture and transform” – this conviction still lies at the heart of the festival's mission today. The festival implements a broad education and outreach programme targeting a variety of different audiences. In an interview with the European Festivals Association (EFA) in the framework of the EFA “Open The Door” project, Joanna Baker (Managing Director Edinburgh International Festival) stresses the festival’s core mission: the artistic programme. Starting from here, the Edinburgh International Festival successfully engages people from all walks of life while ensuring a programme of artistic excellence. EFA: In how far does the Edinburgh International Festival live up to its social responsibility? Joanna Baker (JB): It is not one single activity. You cannot divide the educational and outreach work we do from the work we present on the stages in the city. They are all part of one programme. There is a danger when discussing this area of work that policy-makers might start thinking that the most important work we do is the education programme. They have to recognise that this work comes very directly from our existence as cultural institutions, from our core mission – which is our artistic programme. EFA: It seems challenging to keep a good balance between the artistic excellence and the social obligations? JB: No. I think you are patronising your customers including those you are working with if you compromise on your principles and artistic excellence. It does not matter whether you are an adult with learning difficulties or a veteran who has been coming to the festival for 20 years. You are all entitled to excellence in performances. EFA: Which projects in your festival are exemplary in terms of fostering social inclusion? JB: There are a lot of very different projects that we do for the festival. Specifically, we are trying to encourage a new audience and a wider audience to come into the city. The most important role is the contribution to social cohesion, cultural cohesion. Giving a sense of belonging, a sense of citizenship is what culture does in its widest expression. There is much documented evidence that tells you that having a wide breadth of cultural provision in a city, in an area, helps to ensure social cohesion and helps to reduce crime, poverty etc… There are very clear links at that very macro level between those factors. One of the keys, or tools, is our pricing policy which of course enables access. In terms of projects, we have a year-round project; the exact manifestation depends on the artistic programme. We work with the local education authority: We have different projects for different ages. For example a long-running project about classical music, listening skills; we work with teachers and children to encourage them to develop their listening and concentration skills. Another project encourages older school children (17 year-old) to develop their critical skills in terms of analysing performances; we “partner” them with a national newspaper in Scotland. These projects involve thousands of school children all year round. Also, last year, we worked on a number of projects with community groups from particular minority ethnic communities – e.g. Polish centre, Chinese centre… We have also worked with groups of adults with learning disabilities. We worked with the company Gelabert Azzopardi Companyia de Dansa from Spain and we created a project together where the company and its dancers worked with these adults. We eventually created a small performance. These projects were all related to the festival’s artistic programme. Our approach tends to come from our creative programming each year and then we develop around that. For many people part of the joy of coming to the festival is the diversity of the people. This is an important aspect for festivals in general: they have the ability to attract a wider range of people; there is a social democracy about a festival, there is an open access. It is important to remember that diversity is actually a critical business decision. EFA: In how far does your communication strategy feed into the target to increase access to your artistic programme? JB: We try to ensure that we are making what we do available to as many people as possible. We also try to ensure that the policy-makers and the stake-holders are aware of the work we do. We present regularly our work to people who need to understand the impact of cultural organisations like the Edinburgh International Festival on the community. Using new communication tools is a very important element in broadening audience reach. We use Twitter, Facebook etc. as well as an online development tool, a new scheme, to bring on a younger group of people who are not usually involved with cultural institutions. We do not do much web-streaming of performances; this is not the key area of our activity because we believe that a festival has to encourage people to come here and to experience live events. EFA: Which policies are in place (or not) in the UK that help or hinder your social role? JB: The area that tends to be focused on is the economic impact of a cultural activity, rather than the social and cultural impact. The economic impact is of course much easier to measure. We are often missing out on making the point of the most important impact of our work. How to monitor or measure the social impact of our cultural events? With the support of our stakeholders and funders, an impact study has been commissioned in Edinburgh which is not just about the economic impact; it is about the economic, social, cultural and environmental impact of the festivals. We are developing a series of measures to monitor those multiple impacts. The aim is to help stakeholders and funders understand more about this broader impact so that they can make evidenced decisions which are not purely based on economic criteria. In terms of barriers: especially in times of economic crisis there is a genuine schizophrenia amongst policy-makers between the desire to see cultural institutions generate as much income as possible to make them less reliant on their public funding and the desire to see them accessible to a wider range of people through beneficial pricing initiatives etc. EFA: Do you receive support for your outreach work from other institutions than city or state? We receive a great deal of financial support from trusts and foundations for the education and outreach work that we do. There is other support, for example through partnerships: schools, academic institutions, local community groups, a group that assists disabled people to come to performances. We are working on these kinds of partnerships all the time. I would like to stress once again: there is no value in seeking funding for this kind of work if we do not have enough support for the core of the festival which is the artistic programme. The interview was published in the third edition of the FestFlash of the European Festivals Association.The 2010 FestFlash brings news about festivals and their activities implemented in the spirit of the “Open The Door” initiative.