The British Arts Festivals Association’s Capacity to Endure conference last year focussed on how festivals should be valued as an integral and sustainable part of society.

Photo of 'Tree of light' celebration
A Tree of Light community celebration

Colin Tonks

Festivals can be agents of change. Mobile and flexible, they already provide engagement, cohesion and diversity, but their impact on society is not always reliably explained. This is because it is still largely being measured by the solely extrinsic methods prevalent in the funding agencies. Festivals may be ephemeral but their actions can help develop hope and the prospect of a brighter future. They provide unique platforms for cultural learning since participatory contexts for self and group expression abound in their programmes. Festivals present the opportunity for risk, passion and play and have an ebb and flow to their programme which audiences can explore like beachcombers. Community involvement in sustained audience development is key.

Festivals must have a justifiable place in the economy, among the networks and underlying sources of social and natural capital

A good example of this is the Buxton Festival Fringe. Large and eclectic, well-organised and innovative, it provides an essential space for local talent that adds to the vibrant atmosphere. With a wealth of local involvement and the core contribution of its volunteers, it saw a 24% rise in ticket sales in 2012. A total of 1,200 people participated in the ‘Tree of Light’, one of the four large-scale community celebrations selected by Legacy Trust UK for projects outside London during the 2012 Games. 40 local groups were involved in workshops with participation from schools and people with disabilities. Added in was the attraction of quirky elements such as the power bicycles project (understanding how much energy it takes to boil a kettle).

But can you have an impact without money and how can you carry on the social impact after the event? The economic argument for the arts is not only now a common part of the professional arsenal for case-making, but also one that everyone is deeply concerned with and tangibly affected by − when funding streams close, when artist, staff and audience wages freeze, when the informal cultural realm of pubs, cafes, parks and the high street become deserted. We need to know if the festival model is a costly benefit to a limited few, or if it can help a great many in a range of often unforeseen ways. The debate can then move beyond the surface-level assumptions. Festivals must have a justifiable place in the economy, among the networks and underlying sources of social and natural capital.

Investigations into the economics of festivals generally have taken three main approaches: internal, external and comprehensive. Internal being focused on the overall health and capacity of an organisation and external on the impact an organisation then has on various others. These two are likely to be almost entirely financially oriented throughout, whereas a comprehensive investigation might be the only one that could be genuinely called ‘economic’, with the aim to come to a rounded, full understanding of how the actions of the organisation affects others, positively, negatively, spiritually, financially and otherwise. The translation of social and environmental impacts into standard measures (again, financially or otherwise) is not only technically but often morally challenging, yet carbon markets and social investments are not as alien to us today as they used to be.

Collaboration is a key theme for these resource-straightened times. Regional arts clusters working collaboratively on environmental programmes are already well established in Edinburgh (Festivals Edinburgh and now Creative Carbon Scotland), Newcastle Gateshead (the Newcastle Gateshead Cultural Venues), London (the London Theatre Consortium), while Manchester with its Manchester Arts Sustainable Team has also emerged strongly more recently. Reimagining and reconfiguring the business models for the arts to anticipate the true environmental costs (climate change and environmental damage) is paramount. Digital technologies and social media are already leading the way, offering new models for exchange, development and performance.

Equally challenging are relationships with partners or sponsors, necessary from a business perspective, but who are not aware or interested in taking environmental approaches into consideration. Transparency and integrity are important here, with a multi-year approach more appropriate rather than feeling that partnerships and contracts need to come on board rapidly. Young artists and audiences represent an opportunity.

There is a growing demand for ethical and low environmental impact products and services, as evidenced in the recent survey from Buckinghamshire New University looking at music festivals1. While improving a festival's reputation and building audience engagement is important, compliance with environmental and sustainability standards is also an emerging trend, exemplified by the significant focus given to the sustainability impact of the 2012 Games, and the publication of the first international standard for sustainable events management ISO 20121, as well as the Global Reporting Initiative's framework for event sector sustainability, the GRI EOSS2. Compliance aside, climate change presents very real risks to festival producers. Outdoor events are currently bearing the brunt of these changes and many venues have been affected by flooding. A 2012 study3 by Julie's Bicycle on the impact of weather on festivals found that 80% of those who responded said the weather had had an adverse effect. A critical way to tackle a festival's contribution to climate change is to focus on power, which can represent up to 70% of an event's core carbon footprint (excluding transport and travel). The recent report ‘The Power behind Festivals’ identifies the latest innovations4. While in no way diminishing the value of bringing people together for a shared cultural experience, recognising the changes cheap air travel has wrought on artistic business models is a useful thought exercise!

How many festivals have the capacity and the time to launch this sustainable - or is a slower revolution the only way? The case must be made by all for all, bringing everyone into a common understanding? After all, what is the nature of the festival but a collective celebration - and is not the most sustainable resource of all our creative human labour?