Interview with EFA Secretary General Kathrin Deventer: Changing minds

18 November 2010

In a recent interview Kathrin Deventer, Secretary General of the European Festivals Association, spoke about the 2010 EFA flagship project “Open The Door”, about the role of arts and culture in contemporary society and how festivals can contribute in the processes of building societies. The interview was conducted by Dea Vidovic from LabforCulture. The society is changing almost every day. All these changes are leaving the traces in the field of arts and culture. What is your opinion of the changes in art and culture? Changes in society leave traces in the arts; or one could say: arts reflect and point out changes in societies in a pioneering way and offer solutions to engage and shape these changes! Arts and culture – just as the sciences – are one of the most rapidly changing fields in society. For the very simple reason that they are driven by artists. Artists are dealing with research: research on society, research on new ways of expression. Research leads to knowledge, new and renewed knowledge. Artists constantly think, re-think, permanently reformulate, renew. Our modern, rapidly changing societies need as much inspiration and creativity as they can get! Arts and culture are means to reach out to people of all walks of life, to challenge their minds and as a consequence to contribute to the building of societies. The role of festivals in this context is to carefully observe the changes in their surroundings and the needs of their respective audiences and subsequently to react on it. And in fact more than react: Festivals should be open windows to unknown societies, thinking and reflection. Festivals follow the research process of artists, they pick it up. How many artists have grown and are growing their seeds in the womb of festivals? In festivals artists find an international platform for a first try-out in front of a greater audience. A festival is pure opportunity – and bears responsibility: towards the artists and towards the audiences! Festivals have an intrinsic task to make strong artistic choices: to be contemporary, to excite and to surprise. The audience knows: you have to go to festivals to get to know new trends, to be confronted with the arts. This is the reason number one why we do festivals! To look into new forms of aesthetics, see new forms of partnership models. Galin Stoev, the Belgian stage director who recently participated in the EFA session in the framework of the EU Forum on 20 October, said: "I can’t change the society!" But what he can do is to reach out to the individual. This is where festivals come in, offering artists the chance to create and audiences an opportunity to see their work. An artist’s work can challenge the individual. In the circumstances you described, European Festivals Association initiated project Open The Door which invites festivals to invest in and reflect upon the transforming power of arts and culture in contemporary societies. Can you present us your main idea of the project and activities you are developing? The project Open The Door aims to increase awareness of the power of arts and culture in the process of social transformation and to foster involvement of cultural actors in societal issues. The bottom line is that without arts, creation, participation, distribution of arts works and support to the arts, festivals cannot fulfil the divers tasks put on their shoulders. We questioned: can arts really combat poverty and social exclusion? In the sense and the approach as politicians would like to formulate it? Through benefits concerts or free ticket policies? Are arts and culture just tools – and products – to contribute to the welfare, to inclusive growth as the Europe 2020 strategy calls for? For sure, festivals contribute to social inclusion. But: The recent crisis brought about many challenges for politics, for business, for Europe, for global markets and last but not least for the festival world. In an interview, EU Commission President José Manuel Barroso called for a "new culture of ethics and responsibility": "This is essential - not just to restore the brand image of particular enterprises but to restore people's faith in the market economy itself. People still want markets - but they want markets with a conscience." Arts and culture bring meaning to an individual, to societies. This is the message that festivals and EFA are conveying, especially through the 2010 flagship project Open The Door: Changing minds to become responsible for the building of our societies! When civil society, networks and festivals are alert and serve artists in a constructive way, then artists will provide excellent work for all of us. Politics have to follow the path of artists. It is not far-fetched! Most of the time they follow a little too slowly, but still: For the first time, EU and national cultural ministries agreed to walk the same paths and to find out how local, regional, national and European authorities can work closely together in the recently established EU platforms and the OMC. We have to look for complementary responsibilities and agreements that hopefully, one day, will be seamlessly fading into one another. Starting from the 'key ring' – the arts – the Open The Door project tries to identify 'keys' to open doors through festivals and bring this vision to responsible policy makers, business people etc. This includes a broad variety of activities: Following its kick-off in February 2010, the Open The Door project operated at several levels with a set of ambitious objectives: to encourage the involvement of festivals in promoting a 'social cultural' Europe; to give visibility to the intrinsic artistic values of arts festivals in building an inclusive society; and to encourage debate and achieve recognition on an active citizenship for a cultural Europe. As a communication campaign the initiative was launched with a slogan: Festivals: Open doors. Open minds. Build societies! Arts festivals from all over the world have committed to the project online and submitted their best practices. Best practice examples are disseminated via the public newsletter FestFlash. So far, more than 150 festivals have committed to the objectives of Open The Door – And more than that: they take action! Recently I visited the BEMUS festival, the Belgrade Music Festival, which dedicated its 2010 season to Festivals: Open this door NOW! It has been a very visible campaign in collaboration with radio, television and other media. The Open The Door logo was broadly visible. Let us not forget that festivals are outstanding communicators which quite naturally catch the attention of the media, public authorities etc. One of the results of the 2010 BEMUS Festival season is the launch of the NO BORDERS ORCHESTRA, an orchestra that brings together excellent musicians from all former Yugoslavian republics; it will start operating in 2011. Throughout the year, EFA has provided festivals with meeting opportunities; they were invited to discuss the issues and present in how far they open doors through both their everyday festival business as well as through the development of targeted activities. Furthermore, in a series of some 30 in-depth interviews chosen festival directors shared their best practices. These best practices were discussed, shared and collected by EFA and will be made available on the project website. In a third approach, the political level is addressed: EFA drafted and signed targeted "commitments" in order to raise awareness at political level, to define responsibilities and to involve political decision-makers in the process. Two commitments were signed: one in Zagreb that aims at opening doors to politics, to civic debate and to Europe in particular in the South-Eastern European region; and one in Shanghai that calls for collaboration between Asian and European cultural organisations and further development of an independent, artistically driven exchange. In terms of the contribution of arts, culture and festivals towards the fight against social exclusion the issue is approached from different levels with the following questions being explored: 1. Artists: how do they open people’s minds?; 2. Festivals: how do they increase access to artists – and make people change their minds?; and 3. Politics: which barriers to remove, which doors still to open? A best practices catalogue – reflecting festivals' standpoints – is in the process of being finalised and to be published by the end of the year. One of the phenomena of contemporary culture is the term "festivalisation" of culture. Do you find it appropriate and how would you comment this trend, i.e. can you describe us positive as well as negative sides and effects to this phenomena? I think the term "festivalisation" is inexplicit and asks for definition. Does it refer to the general boom of festivals in the past decades? Does it refer to the fact that every event that happens is labelled as a festival? Using the term out of context to me implies a commercial or touristy side as well as a labelling of events that are actually not festivals in that sense. Opening the door for artists to create and for citizens to discover and participate in the arts has always been the main mission of festivals. Yet, today festivals face a major challenge: in our globalised world manifold roles and responsibilities are put on their shoulders. It seems that too often the success of a festival is measured on its market position: how much (new) public it generates, how much new audiences it attracts, how many new sponsors it gets, how many restaurants and hotels it benefits, and how much (economic) revenue it brings. Too often this becomes priority number one for festivals and also reason number one for public authorities to support festivals: numbers, facts and figures matter. Too often it is not the 'real' impact of a festival – which is an artistic one – that counts. This would be key though, as the latter implies a long-lasting societal and cultural impact. Academics, and politicians, have to follow this point of view and develop longer-term evaluation mechanisms to 'measure' festivals based on their artistic and social contribution to the well-being of societies! Ruta Prusiviciene, General Manager of the Vilnius Festival, recently said: "it takes ten years to build up a festival rooted in society and artistically prominent in a city; but it takes one day to destroy it." With the proliferation of festivals it has become evident that festivals are one of the key instruments of international cultural communication and collaboration. Festivals appeared not only as packagers and presenters but also as initiators, discoverers and co-producers, enabling lasting partnerships. Whilst once, when festivals were few and rare, they inevitably acquired an elitist character, they have in the meantime become not only numerous but also accessible, inclusive and diversified both in their orientation and targeted audiences. Festivals are important factors in today’s cultural life. In a recent speech in Shanghai Hugo De Greef talked about the future of festivals: "A festival that chooses for a clear topic, which it continues to elaborate and approach with a curious alertness, will remain essential. One has to feel the personal note of the 'master of ceremonies'. If this is realised out of an innovating and inquisitive passion the future of a festival is guaranteed." Hugo De Greef continued with the belief that this is one choice that will withstand time. Because it takes the future into consideration, because its management and interpretation happen in a passionate manner, closely related to making sharply defined artistic choices. Another choice may be related to the nature of a festival: festivals that are originally initiated by governments are often linked to a city, a region and quite often they desire to serve both a cultural and touristic purpose. We have to come back to the real values of festivals – and this is what EFA supports: values of creativity, cultural diversity, innovation, access, intercultural dialogue, internationalisation. The Atelier for Young Festival Mangers, an EFA initiative, pursues these values. The Atelier is an intense, rigorous one week training programme addressed at emerging artistic festival directors worldwide. It follows the guiding motto "The true role of a festival is to help artists to dare, to engage in new projects", a phrase coined by Bernard Faivre d’Arcier, former director of the Festival d’Avignon. Only recently we launched the open Call for Application for two Ateliers in 2011: It premiers in Asia from 14-21 May 2011 (Singapore) and takes place in Izmir/Turkey from 24-31 October 2011. The European Festivals Association (EFA) organised a participatory session Festivals: Open Doors. Open Minds. Build Societies! in the frame of the EU Forum Building together a society for all. The role of festivals in social developments was the central topic debated on this event. One of the questions was the matter of contextual framework of festivals, which determines the ways in which art is shaped. Which answer did the session offer? The session aimed to share and exchange on best (and worst) practices from the festival sector at trans-sectorial level: the rights of artists and the barriers they face; the responsibilities of festivals and their respective obstacles; and proposals of a shared view with public authorities and other sectors. Its goal was to raise awareness on the need to set shared frameworks for the cultural sector to make full use of its potential to contribute to social development. The respective responsibilities of festivals and decision-makers in increasing access to culture and to a 'social' cultural Europe were discussed. The starting point was "the artist's perspective": stage director Galin Stoev stressed that he as an artist cannot change society and should not aim at doing so but can reach individuals. He underlined: "I think the individual is the only stable point. How to create an individual? How to push the individual's limits? This should be the main preoccupation of the artist of tomorrow. It's not only a question of producing a good show. It is also important to place it in a spectator's imagination. It is not just about educating audiences but about guiding the audience and to invite them to dare to dream further." Session participants agreed that festivals contribute to a change of mind-set of people that get in touch with artists. Festivals are one of the few places left where artists have almost complete freedom to create, freedom of thought, and that it is the task of festivals to convince politicians that festivals remain a public responsibility. It was agreed that actors at different levels have to join forces in order to make full use of the potential of arts and culture in societal processes, such as fostering social inclusion or an active European citizenship. In political terms the session lead to the suggestion that it is key to include the cultural dimension in other spheres, i.e. in economic or regional policies. One of the major questions you are trying to answer during the project is - How do festivals open doors to artists and audiences? You also made recommendations on how to eliminate barriers in order to enable access for artists and for audiences. So, can you state some of the recommendations and answers on the questions stressed – to which extent festivals can increase access to creation and participation? How do festivals induce reflection of various actors on the development of an inclusive society? It is key – and that was also one of the findings of the session – that barriers to access the arts are removed as much as possible. In their very essence and with their manifold activities festivals are able to provide access for all kinds of audiences, attracting all kinds of people, making space and time available for a real encounter between arts/life, artists and audience. Festivals are in a privileged position to provide the means for everyone to experience culture. Festivals open doors to new artistic forms, new performers, new audiences, unusual venues, unknown cultures, new points of view, new approaches to arts and the world, new social orders, new political discussions. They inspire citizens through the arts, challenge and offer them occasions to broaden their horizons; help deconstruct stereotypes; promote a creative society that sustains and develops quality of life, social well-being and equal opportunities for all; and boost geographic, social and generational solidarity by bringing people together through inventive and participatory initiatives. First of all, our aim was to identify "keys" with which certain doors are opened. The "key ring" – and there is no doubt – is the arts. Starting from here, festivals successfully engage people from all walks of life while ensuring a programme of artistic excellence. A broad range of activities is implemented: festivals are active platforms for inclusion and access to culture through their core artistic mission and their 'every day work' as well as through extra activities and targeted outreach programmes. Those "keys" include: a diverse ticketing policy, use of new technologies, implementation of outreach activities, educational projects or outdoor events, ensuring accessibility at all levels, being sustainable, development of innovative artists management and audience approaches, ensuring a diversity of partnerships and both regional and international collaborations – to name but a few tools implemented by festivals. Just read the in-depth interviews we are at the moment finalising and evaluating and you will see many more keys – and also obstacles. Based on the consultation of festivals, EFA is currently drafting a list of these keys and proposals to open doors. Again, one of the central facts all actors agreed upon is a recommendation towards politicians: they have to recognise that this work comes very directly from core missions – which is the artistic programme – and the broader impact of festivals has to be understood. Support should not be grounded on economic reasons. But to achieve this very ambitious goal festival directors have to act! For example they have to ensure that their impact assessments focus on social and cultural not only the economical impact of cultural activities. We invite you to follow the project website for the final set of recommendations as well as for best practices! But of course, festivals are not alone with their engagement. There is a Platform on Access to Culture in which best and worst practices are collected. Also, a recent seminar under the Belgian EU Presidency on The contribution of culture in combating poverty and social exclusion underlined the potential of culture and the need to advocate for the right to access culture. A right, by the way, which has been declared in a broad variety of papers, resolutions etc. but is not broadly implemented. Indeed, many cultural networks and initiatives are working in this area! Various stakeholders are involved in the process of creation of artistic and cultural festivals, not only artists and cultural workers, but also politicians, experts from different fields, and of course audience. In this environment which doors are yet to be opened? How to create a balanced picture? I think that this is one of the most important elements we are going to tackle in the future and one of the major potentials of festivals that assemble a whole series of constituencies, interest groups, opinion makers etc. in their broader management and governance framework. To make arts and culture a matter of all citizens and of all policy areas is for instance one of the starting points of the civil society initiative A Soul for Europe. Its 2010 Berlin Conference for example starts from the conviction that Europe has to become a concern of its citizens, not only of its institutions: A Europe OF citizens, not merely FOR citizens. Citizens have to assume their responsibility in the process of creating Europe. What are the chances and possibilities for active participation and personal commitment? The Conference will discuss the new tools for the engagement of citizens laid down in the Lisbon Treaty. The EU can no longer be seen as a mere economic project. The inclusion of citizens’ aspirations in all policy areas changes the paradigm from economic to cultural notions. In the current European public debate it is often stressed that the essential conditions for the res publica are in danger: notions of citizenship, social solidarity, civil society, democracy, political participation, equality, welfare, shared values, the nation state and Europe are all in doubt. How can we foster and strengthen the European res publica? If not through the active participation of all citizens and responsibilities we all have to assume now? There is still a lot to be done at all levels. Festivals themselves have to be alert to societal developments and answer them with a high quality artistic programme; they should provide an open platform for artists to create and for audiences to enjoy the arts. Festivals are in direct touch with the public: people have to be made aware of their active role they can play in a social cultural Europe, a Europe of citizens. Networks have to provide a platform for specific actors to get together, exchange, identify common issues and possibly set up new collaboration. The media should pay more attention to the importance of cultural relevance in social and individual life. Political decision makers and (prospect) participants of this process have to recognise the core driving force of arts and culture. A balanced picture can only be created if this recognition is achieved at the broadest level possible. In 2009, EFA launched the European House for Culture. It is a place in Brussels in which we aim to bring together political decision makers and intellectuals, artists, audiences etc for debates on Europe. The launch of a series of Conversations about the day-to-day Europe on 10 December 2010 will invite politicians to engage in a dialogue with three philosophers, writers and academics about what it means to be a citizens – and what the cultural practice can contribute to make Europe a Europe of citizens. Public debates, encounters, forums of exchanges, cultural houses all over Europe and festivals are crucial drivers in this framework. The project Open The Door is designed as a one-year project. Since we are almost at the end of the year, what is your idea for the future, how will the project continue in 2011? Open The Door is an ongoing project of the European Festivals Association. Festivals – EFA members but also festivals beyond EFA’s membership – are invited to commit to the initiative on the project website at where a growing list of best practices is featured. All results of the ongoing project will be published in an eBook both on the EFA and the Open The Door website. Also beyond 2010, EFA aims at continuing its efforts in strengthening and in promoting festivals as international artistic platforms for creative encounters and societal participation. This has already been done successfully in the past European Years (through projects such as the Arts Festivals’ Declaration on Intercultural Dialogue or the FestLab for Creativity and Innovation). Open The Door will remain active and our communication efforts in the FestFlash, the EFA BOOKS series and other tools will continue to include the results into a broader debate. It was always important for EFA to distribute and share this knowledge as widely as possible. Recently, in a round table with Commissioner Vassiliou, we discussed, together with 15 festival directors, our possible collaboration in EU cultural policy and the role festivals play for a cultural Europe. A firm desire for dialogue and input from practice to policies was the result of this meeting: to efficiently feed into EU policies (and national policies of course as well) and even weigh upon the agenda of the decision making process. EFA's 60th anniversary in 2012 will be the moment to bring results of these value and practices based initiatives together and discuss the future role of festivals with festivals from all over the world in a Festivals' Forum – it will invite existing and emerging festival networks (such as the African Association of Arts Festivals). The aim is to include as many stakeholders from several strands of action (business, politics, media etc) as possible to endorse our view that Europe is first of all a cultural project. (Read the interview at