Special post 1: a round-up of the academic festivals literature

Today I present a poston the academic literature of arts festivals, focussing on a number of key papers in the field.

This Report has been prompted by my commission to write an essay for Meanjin Quarterly on arts festivals in Australia, but can be expected to have broader relevance to arts policy and management professionals working in the field.

1. First up, AEA Consulting’s Thundering Hooves: Maintaining the Global Competitive Edge of Edinburgh’s Festivals. This comprehensive report, which deals as it does with the one of the oldest and largest festival clusters in Edinburgh, is perhaps the best starting  point. It contains an exceedinly useful literature review and deals in readily-understandable terms with the concept, operations, philsophies and especially economic significance of festivals. It also attempts a benchmarking process, comparing Edinburgh to other international festival clusters including Montreal, Amsterdam, Bercelona, Manchester, and Melbourne.

While the recommendations are in general sound, particularly in terms of coordinating festival calendars and realising cost savings by combining back-end administratitive, production and ticketing functions, the tone of the report is somewhat grating at times, particuarly the stretched metaphor of “thundering hooves” (the growing pack of international festivals).

2. From the University of South Australia’s Jo Caust comes “A Festival in Disarray: The 2002 Adelaide Festival: A Debacle or Another Model of Arts Organization and Leadership?” [Journal of Arts Management, Law, and Society, 34(2), 103-117]. This is a fascinating study of the disastrous 2002 Adelaide Festival, in which Artistic Director Peter Sellars faced inherited deficits, high staff turnover, unsympathetic local newspapers and politicians, and a splintered board, leading to his eventual resignation. This is a cautionary study of how not to approach the management of a major arts festival, exploring the calamitous intersection of Sellars’ bold and progressive artistic ideas with an Adelaide Festival organisation unable to afford or understand them.  In addition to the obvious failures of the Adeliade Festival’s Board, Caust suggests that Sellars’ proposed program, which was polarised between either high art, high-concept events and grass-roots community level projects, excluded a borad swathe of Adelaide’s existing independent and small-to-medium arts sector, effectively disenfranchasing them from the festival.

3.  Stanley Waterman’s “Carnival of the Elites? The Cultural Politics of Arts  Festivals” [Progress in Human Geography Vol. 22, No. 1, 54-74 (1998)] makes a bracing case  for what might be called the “distinction” theory of arts festivals. Following on, explicitly or otherwise, from Bordieu’s famous theory of the role of high and low arts in social distinction, Waterman argues that

“there is also a link between elite arts festivals and cultural policy, in that funding agencies are still principally composed of people who are part of the cultural elite. Irrespective of all else, and unless this changes, there is always a likelihood of bias towards elitist arts and events such as festivals. In this sense, these events can be used as a means of understanding elite political strategies.” [page 69]

Waterman’s article is a long and interesting take on the cultural policy and geography of arts festivals, with a particular case study of Salzburg. He concludes that geographers have paid relatively little attention to the festival phenomenon and that this should be redressed. Well worth a read.

Tomorrow: In part 2 of this round-up, I look at Bruno Frey on the cultural economics of arts festivals, Bernadette Quinn on arts festivals and urban theory and policy, and Jeanette Snowball on the pitfalls of the “economic impact studies” often used in policy debates to advance the cause of arts festivals.

There is also a link between eÂlite arts festivals and cultural policy, in that funding
agencies are still principally composed of people who are part of the cultural eÂlite.
Irrespective of all else, and unless this changes, there is always a likelihood of bias
towards eÂlitist arts and events such as festivals. In this sense, these events can be used as
a means of understanding eÂlite political strategies.

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