When decisions about programming are made in hours rather than months, organisations hone in on their core purpose. Festivals will move ahead again by reinvigorating the relationship between artists and audiences, says Sharon Canavar.
© Richard Maude
I caught up with some of our partners and sponsors on a walk around the town recently. It turns out a twilight walk is great for honesty. We’re all feeling a bit bruised and battered, laughing wryly at our naivety that we thought Christmas may have heralded a more normal existence. At times, we all agreed, we had given up trying to forecast what comes next.
The relationship Harrogate International Festivals (HIF) have with our hotel partners has long been key to the success of the festivals. Music and entertainment are built into our DNA, with entrepreneurial hoteliers realising they could encourage visitors to stay longer and spend more during the heyday of the spa season if there were musical events to entertain them.
A brief history
The festivals are built on historic foundations, created as a Festival of Arts & Science in 1966. Throughout the 60s and 70s – way before the cultural regeneration of our northern cities – Harrogate operated as a midway performance stop between the Proms and Edinburgh, attracting huge names of the day.
Our founder Clive Wilson believed that the festival should “be seen as a developing thing, widening its scope and perhaps shifting its emphasis as the years go by”. Over the last 12 years HIF has diversified, creating a year-round offer of festivals from chamber music series in the spring to the world-renowned Theakston Old Peculier Crime Writing Festival in July, as well as literature, music, outreach and participation programmes across the year. In 2019 we delivered more than 300 events, issued 33,000 tickets and attracted more than 72,000 people to our free outdoor and participatory programmes.
Then came 2020, a year like no other. As an arts charity that receives no guaranteed public funding and raises 98% of funding from ticket sales and sponsorship, we lost about £800,000 of income.
When the first lockdown was announced, our small team had to move quickly. Furloughing half our staff and refunding thousands of pounds from cancelled events was deeply upsetting, all while isolated at home in our mini digital hubs. From having no digital team, we quickly learnt how to stay relevant, have an online offering and, most importantly, to be a vital point of support in the community. We moved our archive (previously on DAT tapes under a desk) online through our newly-created HIFPlayer and contracted artists, authors and composers to help us deliver a mix of digital and live work.
The pandemic has certainly changed our organisation. Decisions about programme and activity were made in hours rather than months or years. We watched theatres and venues shut down around us. In the end, we decided that festivals are about filling the areas traditional venues can’t reach.
Despite everything, our connection with our audiences has never been stronger or more relevant. We kept artists and authors in paid work, had amateur and pro brass musicians from around the world take part in our world premiere, commissioned new music and created community-led collaborations and street galleries, 10-word stories, and pavement libraries.
While we were successful in an initial £25,000 grant from the Arts Council in early summer, as a non-NPO with no venue of our own that had avoided deficits in previous years, we weren’t eligible for any of the larger grant funding. We used our own funds and reserves, working alongside our sponsors and stakeholders to ensure that we were still able to deliver the arts within our communities.
Our trials and tribulations have been well documented and the audience reaction and support has been tremendously positive. The reinvention of the festivals in 2020 gave us unexpected but meaningful reach. Our HIFPlayer content has been viewed more than 20,000 times and the reach of our library of Theakston Crime events extended from Harrogate and visiting tourists to being enjoyed in 47 countries. HIF, at the grand old age of 54, charted in the Great British and Irish podcasts for the first time.
I think it is fair to say we have never worked harder or learned faster with so little thinking and planning time. But it has allowed us to test new work and reach new audiences which all go towards informing and developing our medium to long-term plans. For now, we are focussing on development for 2021, evolving our digital offer on the back of a very steep learning curve.
What does this all mean for the future? As I write, we are in Tier 2, so while there is the potential to hold events, the reality is our two largest theatre venues are now Nightingale Hospitals and the other is closed. Larger hotels have cut staffing back significantly until the local economy and tourism start to show signs of recovery.
Financially, there are significant challenges ahead and plenty of unknowns. What venues will be open and available, and what skills and partners have we lost? What investment do we need to make? Questions over capacity and infrastructure loom large. On a practical level, do artists still need to travel across the world if they can perform digitally? Do audiences still need to leave their houses if they can watch on screen? Ask the same questions with a social and wellbeing brief and you may well get a very different answer.
Balancing delivery against the future outlook is an ongoing challenge. We are not foolish enough to think this will be a smooth path through 2021. What I do know is that we will be returning to live events in a new and exciting way, with our experiences in 2020 ensuring we are ready to deliver a 21st century festival for larger and even more diverse audiences.