Festivals in crisis

At this time, in any normal year, festival directors are usually announcing their programs for the burst of Australia’ major arts festivals. With the current developments of Australia’s second wave Covid crisis playing havoc, moving forward is filled with jitters. We are in the land of the unknown.

In 2021, most of our marquee festivals—Sydney, Perth, Ten Days on the Island and Adelaide—scraped through. Border closures with their restrictions on the mobility of international and local artists together with audiences forced festivals to reimagine their vision and recast their expectations. Indefatigable and resilient, the Sydney, Adelaide, Perth, and Tasmania’s Ten Days on the Island festivals powered on. Melbourne’s new, mid-year Rising festival was forced to cancel due to a lockdown with the most heartbreaking snap.  In 2021, we accepted triage festivals. But for 2022, the stakes will be different.  

Last year’s festivals defied the odds because our governments willed their collective importance. Subsidised by federal and state funding bodies, Australia’s major festivals attract large audiences and boost spending. In 2019, nearly nine million people attended festivals. Adrian Collette, Chief Executive Officer, Australia Council for the Arts says that,

whether in cities or country towns, festivals are booming in Australia. Their ability to enrich local life, socially, culturally and economically is increasingly well appreciated.

Despite the pandemic, the 2021 Adelaide Festival of Arts generated an estimated gross expenditure of $42.5 million for the state.

But now the lucky country has used up all its lucky stamps, and our island fortress mind-set has undergone the overdue reality check. Resilience is waning. With the escalation of the Delta variant, festivals are making different calculations. Already Australian festivals are programming for fifty-per-cent capacities. Deja vu is looming.

Artistic directors must not only pivot their programs with Covid-proofing strategies but must consider whether they should adopt current European and American models, with the mandate that only fully vaccinated audience members are permitted to attend performances. Broadway is reopening this month, and only vaccinated and negative proofed patrons are allowed.

In Australia, in the absence of a government directive, any independent decision on the part of the entrepreneur/festival director will create confusion and tension.

The argument to save festivals at all costs is a powerful one. Festivals are vital to our societal cohesion. When successful, festivals reinvigorate a sense of communality. Their multi-dimensional programming activates our sense of curiosity about what’s next, lead us to consider questions fundamental to the human condition, and offer provocations. Festivals move in an optative mode. They connect us to hopes. Dance parties, feasting and social gatherings remind us that our present-day festivals are predicated on ancient rituals of celebration of seasons, rebirth, and religious ceremony. Festivals are part of human evolution.

In the short term, the urgency to recalibrate our festivals for the pandemic crisis is the given, but there is an equal imperative to look to the future. What is the pandemic teaching us? We must address the societal ruptures that have emerged during the pandemic, so that our festivals reflect our changing society to understand how cultural festivals respond not just to the coronavirus crisis, but to all the multiple crises: climate change, racial and economic disparities, representation, censorship, and human rights violations.   If festivals are to have an influencing role in society’s well-being, then they must consider themselves responsible for offering solutions.  Artistic Director of the Biennale of Sydney José Rocca is leading the way. The 2022 iteration, with its Latin title ‘rīvus’, will offer a curated dialogue on water ecology. rīvus will enable ‘aqueous beings-rivers, wetlands and other salt and freshwater systems – to share a dialogue with artists, architects, designers, scientists and communities.’

What is the role of the festival, if not to serve?

The answers come from future-thinking practices. Australia’s approach to the pandemic across all sectors, including the arts, has operated at best on a risk-management model. Cultural sociologist Monica Sassatelli, Associate Professor at the University of Bologna warns us:

A society orientated to risk management, is in a sense, future-orientated but past-conditioned and often conservative … this attitude has its own blind spot: a major one, is that the future becomes just a matter of risk assessment.

Sassatelli asks us to consider not the art of probability but the art of possibility. How do we adopt a radical new playbook­­ in our box office, marketing, and data driven festivals with one that views festivals as civic organisations to ensure relevancy to the world we live in and the communities we serve?

By leveraging relevance, we can audit a festival’s capacity to connect with its people and place. What is its willingness to communicate across time, geography, language, and cultures? Relevancy is specific. The kinds of values that are applicable to the Perth Festival may not connect with Reykjavik, Harbin, or New York City, nor should the guiding philosophy behind Tasmania’s Ten Days on the Island festival match the Adelaide Festival.

So, what’s relevant?  Dialogues in the cultural sector are benefiting from the thought provocations of social movements such as Black Lives Matter and #Metoo. Both movements demonstrate how grassroots advocacies can grow from the local to the global stage, change political conversations, and ultimately empower change. They are placing the arts sector on alert by offering lessons on how to affect change. In a speech for Salzburg Global Seminar’s Festival Academy, veteran Australian festival director Robyn Archer said:

Where are our trenches now? What do they look like? They are environmental, economic, territorial. Can we emerge from them and sing together, despite our differences?

The answer is yes. In the past twelve months the rise of activist organisations such as Culture Declares Emergency and Music Declares Emergency demonstrate how artists are listening in, taking public stances, and influencing debate. The central pillars of these advocacy platforms pursue actions that bring attention to issues by placing arts organisations and governments on notice.

When we speak of action, we can speak of the action taken by artists and directors in addressing these issues. Until the Covid pandemic, entourages of orchestras travelled across the hemispheres with a certain nonchalance. These efficacies are now being scrutinized by some of the most conservative institutions and influencers. Christian Thielemann, Chief Conductor of the Staatskapelle Dresden, says that one lesson we must draw from COVID is unnecessary travel:

If you carry on like this, you will get a bill for your actions. For me, it feels like a kind of general penalty for travelling around forever, wasting energy. Every transatlantic flight uses 493 kg of CO2 per passenger, almost as much as an earthbound person consumes in a year.

When speaking about relevance, interrogations on how a festival serves its local city are core.  How does a festival integrate with its people and transmit its locale’s consciousness? At festival time, cities undergo impermanent urban enhancements, redesigns, and gentrification. The installation of coloured banners, flags, and new garden beds alongside fireworks, outdoor performances, celebratory happenings, and parades can often mask the inner daily experience of its residents. The decorations and implosions of energy project an image of a city that is vibrant and cohesive. Ping-Ann Ado, Associate Professor of Anthropology at the University of Massachusetts argues that ‘festivals usually conceal more than they reveal about the people of a place. Do we know the struggles, resiliency and ambitions of the members of that community?’

Being relevant to the local does not necessarily preclude the international components of our festivals programming. There are powerful for and against arguments. There is a relevant and unique sense of communality when watching a performance of Japanese Butoh and being presented with a world alien to one’s core life experience. When we bear witness to the life and expressions of another experience different from ourselves, borders are dissolved, views are redefined, and we can gather empathy to the diverse and shared political, social and environment issues. This communion often offers a trigger for producing actions—a trigger far more potent than the numbing factoid information highway congesting our devices.

A city integrated with its people can transmit its locale’s consciousness. The challenge emerges post-festival. How do these temporary mechanisms contribute to a city’s social cohesion beyond the duration of the festival?

Iain Grandage, Artistic Director of the Perth Festival believes ‘intrinsically festivals need to be of their place. What a festival can do is profoundly change the fabric of the city in which it exists.’ Ado argues that anthropologists say that public performance and spectacle that promote tourism are

minor aspects of the unfolding story of a place. Other crucial aspects include the on-going and never static processes of cultural creativity, political and gendered resistance, community preservation, youth expression and vernacular education.

By focusing on relevance, we can begin to recalibrate our interpretations of what a festival means.

When we look at the word’s etymological roots. some interesting elisions emerge. The common denominator of both relevant and relieve is the French verb reveler, which in its originally form meant to put back into an upright position, to raise again. Over time, the meanings of the two words­—relevant and reveler—merged to connote the following: to ease pain, to make stand out, to render prominent, to rise up, rebel and reinvigorate. These meanings surface as the very qualities we need in our future festivals.


Image from Vivid Sydney 2021

Xenia Hanusiak

Xenia Hanusiak is an Australian, New York-based essayist, scholar and critic who is published by the London Financial Times, the Chicago Tribune, NY Times, Music and Literature, and Psyche AEON.

Overland is a not-for-profit magazine with a proud history of supporting writers, and publishing ideas and voices often excluded from other places.

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  1. Festivals and corporate controlled sport are not on a level playing field.
    (Pardon the pun).
    Corporate sport is competitive, emotionally manipulative, top heavy with advertising and cross promotion, mainly macho, domestically, nationally and internationally divisive, often corrupt, drug riddled and winner fixated.
    Festivals, on the other hand, allow people to sing, dance, eat and enjoy human creativity.
    Festival organisers just have to get in tune with the corporate zeitgeist.

  2. Is the Numbung festival going ahead? Where is this located please as nothing on Google or FB. Thank you.

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