Despite public uncertainty about safety and changed habits, producers are coming up with ingenious solutions to the challenges of organising a festival – from creative social distancing to presenting in new places and spaces and developing digital-physical hybrids. There’s much to learn from these practices and the research is clearly telling us that if ever there was a time to do it, it’s now.

The mother of invention

Through our work with festival producers and artists, we’ve been privileged to watch some awesome reinventions this year, often leading to innovations that will have a long-lasting impact on the festival landscape:

  • Revoluton Arts with their Digital Revoluton found new ways of connecting artists, communities and audiences as part of a Creative People and Places project. To work digitally while also staying connected to ‘place’ was a challenge for many CPP projects, but they used it as an opportunity to train and support a new cohort of creative facilitators, using technical means to engage people in their communities.
  • Greenwich + Docklands International Festival, normally an outdoor festival with large crowds and big spectacular events, produced specially scaled down events that linked into other local initiatives. This intimate format added a new dimension to a festival always in search of creative ways to connect with its community.
  • For Galway 2020 European Capital of Culture, it was an especially difficult year, but several organisations were flexible and resilient enough to adapt from physical to digital, producing magical pieces of public art, films and international collaborative work. Macnas, for example, well known for their large-scale public spectaculars, had to turn their production of Gilgamesh into a mixture of live and online episodes, enabling a legacy of international collaboration that will be stronger for having evolved in a digital form.

The Great Unequalizer

These innovations are more important than ever because the challenge to include the whole community is getting tougher. Our Covid-19 Cultural Participation Monitor shows the pandemic has driven greater inequality in arts engagement across the population.

Since the pandemic, normally highly engaged, metropolitan Audience Spectrum groups, like Metroculturals and Experience Seekers, show a higher willingness to attend any kind of event than audiences from the older, less engaged groups such as Home and Heritage or Heydays. The message is that the already normally lower culturally engaged are less motivated or able than ever, and that we need to work hard to encourage them if we’re going to prevent that gap from widening further still.

Safer outside

The good news however – as we see above – is that ALL groups are happier about attending events outdoors (rather than inside). Given that our previous research consistently demonstrated that Outdoor Arts attract a wider cross section of the public than many other parts of the cultural sector, the importance of opening up new channels and approaches in order to tackle the pandemic-induced widening cultural inequalities is clear.

Not only has COVID-19 led us outside because it is safer there, but it has also made us even more appreciative of the environments and communities around us – especially the hyper-local. Outdoor festivals have always been at the forefront of opening up cultural experiences for all. Now, more than ever, it seems as though other organisations need to follow where they lead. There is much to learn from innovators in the Outdoor Arts community that will be relevant, not just immediately post-pandemic, but much further into the future as well.

Little moments of joy

This summer, the job is to bring little moments of joy to a beleaguered and tentative public by programming in different ways. In places lucky enough to have a festival, you might sensibly anticipate a more personal, fleeting and unexpected experience this year. There will be short pop-up performances in shop windows, interactive mobile experiences, installations in the city centre, walkabout work, and more.

Some will be digitised for wider reach and to engage those who can’t get out. QR codes will lead to interactive maps, up to date information and audio-description. TikTok will drive and engage motivation in entirely new ways, and internationally recognised artists and residents will showcase their creativity at a local level. All pulled together by a triumvirate of artists, local authorities and event producers.

We might look by way of example to the Norfolk and Norwich Festival which, like many others, had to cancel their events in May 2020. This year, the team were determined to go ahead and developed a programme that could flex around the changing roster of restrictions. Daniel Brine, Director commented:

“To say preparing the festival has been a challenge is an immense understatement. There have been times when it has felt impossible. We started planning for this festival as soon as we cancelled the 2020 one. As the year has gone on we’ve had Plan A, B, C all the way through to Z.”

It has led to interesting innovations, such as performances taken direct to communities on the back of a truck, as well as most of the programme being made available on a free or pay-what-you-can basis. Brine notes that:

“This is just one of several radical changes we’ve made in 2021. We’re aware that it has been a tremendously difficult year for everyone, in all sorts of ways. While it’s not a sustainable business model beyond this year, the approach allows as many people as possible the chance to access and enjoy the Festival and the collective experience and healing power that art and events of this nature bring.”

Learning from Outdoor Arts

These pivoting approaches highlight how good the broader Outdoor Arts sector is at sharing its innovations and discoveries. In the last year, Outdoor Arts UK has taken a leading role in hosting regular meetings at which ideas, research and guidance are discussed in a friendly supportive manner that encourages peer-to-peer learning.

Much of this has been consolidated in the useful advice section of their website. This, together with The Audience Agency’s Using Evidence To Reopen Route-maps, are crucial references to consult when planning outdoor work this year – it is so much more than just moving the chairs onto the lawn.

Outdoor Inspiration

Unpredictable and changing circumstances are making it difficult to plan any festival this summer but we are a resourceful lot in the cultural sector. It may be raining, biting or blowing a gale but organisers and audiences alike are proving that, with a cagoule and creative attitude, we can keep the festival spirit going. As well as the vital advice already cited, here are a few observations that are worth bearing in mind.

  1. Be the fun one
    Outdoor audiences say their top motivation is to do something interesting with friends and family. This is truer now than ever! Considering how you can facilitate social interaction even through simple ideas can go a long way.
  2. Embrace digital opportunities
    The last year has accelerated the role of digital, often as an accompanying integral element of the physical that enhances the experience and builds community and dialogue. Successful organisations are considering this as part of the whole user journey – before, during and after the event.
  3. Keep it moving
    Being outdoors can empower festivals to take its work out and about to the people. Outdoor festivals have always been good at this, using public spaces, streets and parks. As well as engaging people where they are, it also has the added benefit of animating your environment.
  4. Encourage creativity
    Our recent research in the Covid-19 Monitor has demonstrated that people are interested in low pressure opportunities to exercise their own creativity. The trick seems to be to provide easy–to-access interaction with and between artists and communities.
  5. Know what’s working
    Experiment, but use the available data, research, resources and guidance to make sure you’re building a clear picture of what is and isn’t working as you go. You don’t have to step into the unknown alone… and future-you will be very grateful you kept track.

This article was originally published in Arts Professional as part of a series sharing insights into the audiences for arts and culture.