In March 2020 Counterculture team Tom Wilcox, Indian Festival Director and Arts consultant Divya Bhatia (Jodhpur RIFF) and I, were to meet in Kochi, India to deliver Festivals Academy for the British Council. This was to be a week-long professional development programme covering core skills of festival business management and arts practice. But as borders closed due to Covid-19, the course was postponed to July. When we realised the return to ‘normal’ would be even longer than we originally hoped for, the project was set back again.
Almost a year later and we have just delivered Week Five of an Eight week digital course, with excellent new partners Edinburgh Napier University.
Based on a series of professional development residency courses with festival partners in Goa and Guwahati, the Academy was aimed at developing entrepreneurial capacity for the burgeoning festivals’ enterprise economy in India. Nothing could test this capacity or present new opportunities and challenges like a global pandemic.
There are 27 participating festivals. These ranging from walking, to clowning, spoken word to large scale urban music events from the length and breadth of the country, its urban centres to rural towns and deserts. It has been truly inspiring to hear of their innovation in the face of adversity. In terms of being enterprising, Indian festivals seem streets ahead of us here in the UK, largely because in India there is no government subsidy of the arts and much of their revenue is generated by sales or sponsorship, but in the absence of physical events, public funding and support schemes such as Cultural Recovery, they are very fragile. The past few weeks of getting to know each other have shown that the UK and Indian festivals sector have a lot in common; their drive, ingenuity, responsiveness, and the strength of commitment to people and place particularly stand out. It is clear festivals have a vital role in bringing communities together, and in the absence of being able to do this physically they are turning to digital means and looking ahead to when they can gather people safely.
As in the UK, most Festival Directors taking part in the Academy feel that whilst there is no substitute for live work, there has been a lot to learn from their digital experiments; including different approaches to collecting data, deepening engagement with audiences and opportunities to collaborate with multiple international partners. The delivery of the Academy itself highlights this; it has been challenging trying to recreate the peer to peer learning afforded by a beer in the bar, yet on one day Dr Anthony Roberts (Director, Colchester Arts Centre) was able to join us to discuss artistic strategy and policy, David Jarman (Edinburgh Napier University) presented on Social Network Analysis, and over the next few weeks we’ll be able to pull in the Kochi Biennale, Dr Jane Ali-Knight and other operators via the wonder of Microsoft Teams and an online platform called Moodle.
More than anything, Festivals Academy is a reminder of the importance of international cooperation, knowledge exchange, and networks, particularly in times of crisis. Whether it is to support artistic collaborations, the wider ecology, advocacy, or funding, we hope that a strong network or forum for festivals (digital or otherwise) emerges from this course to support everyone in weathering the storm ahead.