The European Festivals Association Summit 2021

Simon Mundy
Monday, December 6, 2021

Simon Mundy writes about his experience at this years EFA summit which went ahead last month in Galway after being postponed for over a year

Thomas Hummel, Paul Dujardin, Franco Belleti, Katie Paterson, Kai Amberla, Alexandra Bobes, Jan Briers, Francesco Perrotta
Thomas Hummel, Paul Dujardin, Franco Belleti, Katie Paterson, Kai Amberla, Alexandra Bobes, Jan Briers, Francesco Perrotta

For Colm Croffy, the fact that the European Festivals Association (EFA) summit finally happened last week in Galway was a profound relief. The director of the Association of Irish Festivals and Events (AOIFE) had planned the whole thing four times. It was meant to happen as an integral part of Galway's year as European Capital of Culture, which was blown off course (quite literally, since storms devastated its opening) by Covid. So, Spring 2020 became Autumn 2020, Spring 2021 seemed little better and then, fropm 22 to 24 November, everybody finally descended on the Galway Bay Hotel. Yes, there were those who could only attend on screen still, but for the most part the discussions and revelry could commence without undue hindrance.

Not all of the 130 or so delegates were from festivals. It was a summit because it brought together not only elected and prospective members of EFA but representatives of cities that have decided to designate themselves as festival hubs. One of these cities is Krakow, which views the nearly 80 festivals it hosts each year as major parts of its economic and reputational regeneration. The festivals, it argues, give Krakow an identity separate from and very different to Poland's divisive politics, as well as from its own conservative and fiercely religious past. Belgrade is making a similar statement. Seven of these festival cities (Krakow, Belgrade, Bergen, Edinburgh, Ghent, Leeuwarden and Ljubljana) are now beginning the formal process of signing a protocol agreement and are hoping that their example will be followed by many others. Their mark will be the EFFE Seal (their full title, the Europe for Festivals, Festivals for Europe Seal for Cities and Regions, is well worth abbreviating) which was launched with European Commission approval at the summit.

Next year will see EFA's 70th anniversary and it has changed an enormous amount in that time. Invented by the composer/conductor Igor Markevitch and the French political philosopher, Denis de Rougement, it was initially a club for the big post-war classical music festivals of Western Europe, like Salzburg, Lucerne and Aix-en-Provence. After the fall of the Berlin wall, it began to expand eastwards and, once it began to receive funding from the European Union, it also dropped the club aspect, moved its headquarters from Geneva to Brussels, and looked to represent all arts festivals with a proven pedigree. These days it also includes national festival associations and festivals that specialise in theatre, dance, film, comedy and multi-disciplinary events. Festivals still need to be elected by their peers, however, which ensures a level of commitment beyond just paying the not insubstantial fee. The result is one of the more dynamic and outward-looking networking organisations that not only has members from a definition of Europe closer to UEFA's than the EU, but a long list of collaborative partners, a world presence and an increasing role in advocacy for the 'festival family', as it calls the sector. Emphasising the point, the 70th assembly will be hosted in May 2022 in Yerevan, Armenia.

Those with a programme based in classical music are still at its heart, though, the oldest being the Varna Summer Festival, founded in 1926. This year, the joining members included the Klanglichter Festival in Switzerland and the Castleknock Festival from the outskirts of Dublin, both run by pianists. With the Edinburgh International Festival and the BBC Proms, along with the Utrecht Early Music, Perelada Castle Opera and Flanders Festivals firmly entrenched in the structure, there is a sense that the breadth of EFA's reach is underpinned by the depth of its foundations in the classical tradition. Some of the older festivals, like Lucerne and Aix, have current directors who consider themselves too grand to participate - an attitude of depressing aloofness that may prove self-destructive as private backers die off - but the arrival of younger and more agile festivals is a valuable asset.

Sadly, very few British festivals are members these days, though many were before the second decade of this century. This has nothing to do with Brexit but much more to do with the fact that neither of the Arts Councils of England and Wales, wedded to treating festivals as projects, regard international participation in networks or solidarity as specifically fundable. Almost all other countries treat the membership fee as an important part of the core grant. As is so often the case, the isolationist and misanthropic tendency in British attitudes - and the sheer ignorance among officials that goes with it - seems to be winning out.

Meanwhile, the Edinburgh International Festival, in the person of Kate Paterson, was elected to EFA's board. Board chair Jan Briers has been Governor of the Province of Ghent and is now a member of the Belgian Federal Parliament, as well as being continuously connected to the Flanders and KLARA Festivals. With Paul Dujardin, the outgoing Director of Brussels's main arts centre (BOZAR), and Izmir Festival's Filiz Sarper as Vice-Presidents, the board now has considerable political clout. At the other end of the age spectrum, the election of Tamar Brüggemann, from the Netherlands' imaginative Wonderfeel, a classical festival held on outdoor stages in a nature reserve, demonstrates the organisation's openness to fresh ideas. The board elections also achieved gender balance for the first time.

The main thrust of the summit agenda was aimed at developing EFA's reach to the many thousands of festivals outside its membership and renewing its EFFE Awards with a jury chaired by Sir Jonathan Mills, which has turned out to be an enormous success, often because the award and the label cements a festival's reputation in the eyes of local authorities and sponsors. It is open to any festival, large or small, in roughly (but not exclusively) the countries covered by the Council of Europe, including the UK. EFA also partners with other arts networks, like the A Soul for Europe initiative and Performing Arts Europe (with the misleading acronym IETM) in developing co-operation platforms.

One of the most heartening developments in Galway was the emergence of graduates of EFA's Academy training weeks as festival directors and senior arts managers. These courses bring together experienced former directors to work intensively with groups of emerging managers for a week at a time. It gathers all over the world - for example this April's edition was held in Beirut and the next will be in Kampala. Inevitably it has had to develop digital meetings too, but this has widened its remit even further. In August it held a meeting, Hotspot Afghanistan, on how to support those in the arts imperilled by the new Taliban regime; a meeting at which, for the first time, participants had to remain anonymous.

Back in Galway Bay, after the formal parts of the summit were over, Colm Croffy led the delegates out into the wilds of the Burran, Co. Clare's desolate limestone landscape, for a glimpse of the sunset over the Aran Islands, the true western edge of Europe, then up the winding stone stairs of Dunguaire Castle for a hot toddie against the November chill. At a dinner hosted in the waterside village of Kinvarra, he cast an exhausted eye around the multi-lingual room. 'I hope I never have to do that again,' he sighed, 'but now I know it was well worth it.'