Art festivals need international structures for cooperation

13.10.2016 |

THE NORDICBALTIC FESTIVAL PLATFORM (NBFP) is a platform for arts festivals in the Nordic-Baltic area. It aims to foster cultural cooperation in the region, explore the Nordic-Baltic identity in the arts and increase the capacity of festivals in the region.

The next NBFP conference takes place on November 3rd - 4th in Vilnius, Lithuania. The conference features discussions, speeches, networking and funding sessions and the presentation of projects that were selected in the Open-Call program.

Leelo Lethla from the NBFP Working Group. 
                                                    Foto: private

We took the opportunity to talk to Leelo Lehtla from Estonia, who’s a member of the NBFP working group. Leelo explained the intentions of NBFP, why art festivals need to work internationally and what kind of festival she’d do if she had all the resources she needed. Daily, Leelo runs the PLMF Music Trust and Arts Management.

When did NBFP start and what are the main ideas?

The Nordic-Baltic Festival Platform is a movement that started in 2011. The initators were the Swedish Music Festival Organisation and Harpa Concert Hall in Iceland and they managed to get funding for a kick-off meeting in October 2011. 45 festival representatives from Greenland, Iceland, Norway, Sweden, Denmark, Finland, Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania and the Faroe Islands came together in Harpa in 2011. During the meeting we established a memorandum of understanding, emphasizing that we would like to do more to increase the communication between the festivals and work towards more cooperation between us. The arts world really is a person-to-person business and if you don’t know somebody, you’re not that likely to start a co-operation with them. So that was the starting point for NBFP.

On the practical level we also invite people to present their festival projects in our open-call program, where we try to find partners for the realization of their ideas during our conference. This year five projects were selected to be presented at the conference. Also we envision an online platform where the front-end has a lot for possible audiences around the world featuring web-broadcasts etc.

“The results of the discussion about [Nordic-Baltic] identity can help us marketing and communicating our regions’ festivals internationally.”

You also mention the Nordic-Baltic identity on your website. What does that mean for NBFP?

From the beginning the Nordic-Baltic identity has been part of the discussions. It’s always very interesting to discuss and work on identity, as people might have a different perception about the commonalities and differences of and within the region. So you could say that one of the aims is to create a feeling of togetherness by bringing out all the similarities that we have and then understand, oh, we’re actually really close, even though we’ve been apart for a long time due to historical events. In the end the results of the discussions about identity can help us marketing and communicating our regions’ festivals internationally.

Why would you say it’s generally necessary for festivals to organise themselves internationally?

One of the very practical reasons is that festivals often bring or create productions that are quite expensive. Co-operating internationally allows festivals to co-commission productions in order to share the costs of showcasing them in the region.

The festivals are continuously looking to make themselves financially more sustainable as generally the funding situation for festivals in the region is not that good. In Sweden for example there are no special funding programs for festivals at all. So the festivals themselves need to raise a lot of income. On the other hand, Finland has these supporting structures and for that reason, there are many more festivals in Finland than in Sweden. In the Baltic States the available funding is very limited, so festivals need to cooperate strategically with other festivals.

“The majority of arts festivals do actually depend on all sorts of support, whether public or private.”

So are you actually saying that festivals of any kind, whether music or art festivals do depend on governmental support? Or are there festivals that are completely independent?

Of course the commercial festivals, whether pop-music festivals or some city festivals can probably manage on their own. But yes the majority of arts festivals do actually depend on all sorts of support, whether public or private. And naturally, if you have strong partnerships abroad then you already have a stronger position for receiving support.

If you personally had all the resources you would need, what kind of festival would you like to do?

We [Leelo’s company PLMF] organize the Rapla Church Festival with quite a limited budget and it would be really nice to have the resources to change it into much more of a community event, that engages the town and people of Rapla County. This way it wouldn’t just be a music festival with great concerts, but something bigger. If I started a completely new festival, I would begin with engaging the community first and then build the festival with them even if it’d be a professional arts festival.

“I think we should start one [a trend] where also the professional arts festivals engage communities from the grass root level.”

Would you say the community building aspects of festivals is a trend? Or is it rather something that is lacking?

Well, there are the examples of street or discussion festivals that come up from the community. Usually however in the professional arts field there’s an artistic group of people that runs a festival in a place that the group feels connected to. So it’s not yet a trend, but I think we should start one where also the professional arts festivals engage communities from the grass root level.

Art festivals can't just put great performances or concerts on stage, they also have the potential to actively engage communities.  © Roger Hennum

Is there a secret recipe to make festivals more community-oriented?

I’d say it only is about open engagement, but obviously both the financial and human resources are often so limited that it’s hardly possible to go beyond program and promotion. Often there are not enough capacities for community engagement or educational work although festivals provide a great framework for these things. Festivals do gain much more attention, than let’s say a regular program in a theatre.

Concerning the recipe, it’s mainly about determining your goals and if you can only focus on let’s say great art, then it can’t be more than that. But if you want to create a festival for the region or a place, then you should you engage as many people from the community as possible.

At least in Estonia most of the festivals are run by one or two people and they don’t work for it full-time. It really often is about limited resources. At my company PLMF our primary aim is to support musicians and even though we have many ideas about what else to do, we have to stick to the primary due to limited resources.

How do you think this community-involving approach could change music and arts or whatever is performed?

Festivals with the financial means should really look into this and start engaging communities. In the end it will be really important for sustaining the art forms themselves. For many people who are typically not involved in the professional arts it’s usually quite difficult to make that step and attend a concert, performance or exhibition. However, if you engage them in activities around the festival then they will have a different and more personal incentive to attend. Once people get engaged, festivals become more of a social thing. This is of course just one side of it it.

Related to the webpage I mentioned earlier, we want to introduce a new audience-investing system created in Mexico. Festivals could put some of their performance ideas online and people can invest in them by pre-buying one or more tickets. When the break-even point of the production is reached, the rest of the tickets go on sale and the initial "investors" would actually have a chance to get a return, which would mean getting a substantial discount on the price of the ticket or even making money if they refer other people who end up buying tickets. The success of festivals in using the model depends a lot on how strong the festival’s ties are with the community, their audience.

Thanks a lot for your time!

Click here for more info about NBFP and find the program of the conference here.

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"Culture includes not only culture and arts, but also the way of life and system of values. In this sense culture becomes the major power for intellectual renewal and human perfection." (European Council Report on European Cultural Policy)