The arrival of COVID-19 has transformed the world we live in and put all major cultural events and festivals on hold throughout 2020. From the Edinburgh festivals to Glastonbury, from the Tokyo Olympic Games to the European Capitals of Culture in Galway and Rijeka, all major event gatherings have had to be reinvented, postponed, downscaled, or cancelled altogether.
By 2021, festival and major event organisers are determined to make a come-back and show that it is possible to celebrate and showcase culture safely. But, how big is the thirst for mass gatherings? How much do we need them? How safe do we feel as audiences, participants, funders, and organisers?
I have spent the last 12 months debating the value of major events and festivals: from discussions on the future of mega-events (University of Liverpool) such as the Olympic Games and the World Expo. I’ve been discussing what makes place-based festivals such as Glastonbury (Victoria and Albert Museum) so special.
I’ve also explored why the UK is making ‘cultural mega events’ (Warwick Institute of Engagement) such a priority at present, with a packed calendar in 2021 (Coventry UK City of Culture), 2022 (Festival UK, Commonwealth Games) and 2023 (Leeds Year of Culture).
Common questions raised are: why do festivals matter? How do we capture their value? In the wake of a major pandemic, how sustainable are they? Somehow, an additional question is: at a time of a global health crisis caused by viral transmissions, how responsible is it to keep hosting grand spectacle and bringing people together?
Why events matter even more in a post-pandemic world
In 1991, Donald Getz defined special events as ‘an opportunity for leisure, social or cultural experience outside the normal range of choices and beyond everyday experience.’
I study major art festivals and events that take over entire cities (at times, nations) with the aim to generate moments of collective joy and shared euphoria. We could understand this as a culture of spectacle, largely reliant on the outdoors and on bringing artforms and broader cultural expressions into unusual locations and innovative combinations. Often, the main goal is to generate ‘once-in-a-lifetime’ communal cultural experiences.
After a year spent largely in isolation, with solace being sought online almost exclusively, and digital entertainment (as well as socialising) platforms expanding exponentially, discussions have grown about our human need for culture and festivities that involve large physical gatherings.
Some have argued that we should seek alternatives, that it is no longer safe to gather in big crowds and that, given the safety and cost implications, we may be better without them: not just temporarily, but in general. I would, however, argue strongly against this.
Collective, and physical, gatherings make a difference. There is profound symbolic value in the opportunity to experience something together as communities. Festivals offer such a platform by condensing our exposure to cultural activities over a specific time and place. This means that festival participants must be there (present) and engage in culture simultaneously with others, which in turn will result in meaningful, often life-defining shared memories.
Festivals also offer the opportunity for this collective experience to take place among people that may not otherwise meet or believe they have things in common. A distinct value of many festival experiences (even more so within large international festivals and mega-events) is their transversal nature, which can appeal to people across generations, socio-economic background, or cultural tastes.
How do we understand festivals and explain their value?
These distinct characteristics have become particularly important in an era dominated by individual, virtual and ‘on demand’ cultural consumption. But we lack proper understanding of what these differences mean when it comes to cultural engagement. This is partially because the opportunity for ‘collective encounter’ was taken for granted until not so long ago.
The value and importance of collective joy or shared euphoria are aspects that are not properly encapsulated within economic impact analysis frameworks. Economic analysis will help us understand how cultural activity may lead into job generation or tourism development but not how it leads to happiness, wellbeing, belonging or creative inspiration. As such, if anything, the pandemic has brought to the fore the importance of expanding our definitions of value (Centre for Cultural Value) and our approaches to evaluating culture (Centre for Cultural Value) and cultural events.
How do we understand, document and assess, festivals in a way that takes into account their symbolic significance, their intangible impacts and legacies? How do we define joy and our human need for it? Why do we need collective experiences? Why does ‘time’, ‘place’ and ‘space’ matter when engaging with culture and the arts?
After more than a year of lockdowns and the anxiety generated by a pandemic, at a time when mental health issues are on the rise, these questions have become pressing. They could be answered if we worked towards more diverse, holistic and flexible observations of festivals and cultural events as distinct communal experiences.
How sustainable are festivals?
Another important question has to do with what happens next. Sustainability and legacy became a critical area of debate for major events and festivals well before the pandemic.
There are concerns over tourism massification in festival host cities, top-down approaches to programming, over-simplification and standardisation of cultural expressions, excessive commercialism or lack of authenticity. These are just a few of the common criticisms raised against the most successful events and festivals, from the Edinburgh festivals to European Capitals of Culture and, indeed, any Olympic Games edition.
The pandemic has forced a sober reflection around these issues. The enforced cancellation or postponement of all major events has in fact both imposed and enabled much needed time to take perspective and revisit dominant practices. New cultural event networks and conversations have emerged throughout 2020, involving serious discussion.
Global debates, such as the one led by Salzburg Global seminar shone a light on the need for greater trust and solidarity between festival stakeholders, with more support between the big players and smaller ventures, greater attention to ongoing community concerns and, most telling, a return to values and the philosophy behind special events. For instance, why does each event matter in the first place? What can we do without?
The cultural events and festival sector is deeply bruised and may feel more vulnerable than most. But we may also argue that it has matured even further and reached a peak in self-awareness and commitment to best practices. Significant resilience may emerge out of this situation.
The future of festivals
We are social animals and we need opportunities for collective celebration. Festivals and major cultural events offer such a platform.
The choices available to experience culture keep expanding, and there is much to be praised about the new digital opportunities, and the benefit of exploring hybrid models for engagement.
Regardless, physical experiences matter, connecting with the places we live makes a difference to our wellbeing, and experiencing joy simultaneously with others makes us happier and more resilient as communities.
The immediate future of events and festivals will be strongly dependent on how the COVID-19 pandemic continues to evolve. It will depend on the capacity for organisers to follow new health and safety regulations. But their medium to long term future also relies on a better understanding of their value and significance.
For this to happen, festival and event organisers must ensure they balance their efforts towards following regulations and developing feasible business plans with protection of their cultural values and vision.
Funders must understanding and supportive of these different dimensions of value. It is essential to account not only for social and economic impacts but also for cultural and symbolic value more broadly.
Together, festival and event stakeholders must work towards holistic platforms for evaluation and documentation, so that they can explain and demonstrate value in more appropriate ways. This means, at times of hardship and ever-evolving regulations, it is possible to identify, protect and prioritise what really matters when it comes to cultural experience.
Top image: Credit: Getty