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Birmingham Artsfest – my ideas for change

simon gray 2009-09-16, 11:06:06
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Birmingham’s Big Weekend – Artsfest – is over for another year. An estimated 270,000 people attended an eclectic mix of music events, craft demonstrations, theatre groups, film shorts, and dance performances, both organised as part of the official festival and spontaneously occuring on the street.


artsfest 2009 from simon gray on Vimeo.

Although the festival has been going for years, it’s only the last two years that I’ve been able to get to any of it; most years of its life it has clashed with me being away for that weekend on some committee meeting or other.

The last few years there have always been mutterings that the event was to be cancelled – 2007 was rumoured to have been the last one whilst it was taking place, but unexpectedly good reviews and turnout led to 2008′s event being hastily confirmed.

The two years – this year and last year – that I have managed to get to any of it I’ve enjoyed what I’ve seen, but there’s the rub; at the end both years I’ve felt I’ve seen barely any of what’s been going on, whilst spending a large amount of the day wandering around looking for something to see. As a big arts festival, my experience of it has it hasn’t felt terribly user friendly – especially as a city centre resident (admittedly not a key demographic in the target audience) where the temptation to simply go home during a gap and come out again later is all too great.

With a new cabinet member in charge of the city’s leisure and culture portfolio, rumours have inevitably sprung up again about the festival’s future. Artfest 2010 is guaranteed, but beyond that the whole offering is up for review. I have to say that I like what I read of Councillor Mullaney’s ideas:

“Under Ray Hassall [Mullaney’s predecessor] it became much more populist and it pulls the punters in.  Everyone likes it, and the venues sell a lot of tickets off the back of it, so from that point of view you have to ask, ‘how can you get rid of it.’

“But we are in the process of getting our ideas together for more niche festivals.  We’ve got to mix the populist with the more offbeat and quirky, so we’ll be having a brainstorm over the next few weeks”.

If the plan is to have more variety, and more stuff of a niche flavour (aka, more events where people can listen to the kind of music I make!), then it certainly gets my vote.

But what of the main event itself? Here’s my plan for a better, more usable Artsfest main event:

Scale back, and make the most of what remains.

Artsfest’s biggest claim – literally hundreds of shows over two and a half days – is for me the biggest usability flaw. At almost all of the performing arts venues during the whole weekend, most performers played for at most 30 minutes, to be followed by a gap of at least 30 minutes before the next act. If you were at the Fountain Stage having just seen one band, it’s a big ask to expect you to walk all the way over to the Flapper or the City Inn Cafe for another band just for the sake of 30 minutes – it might not look very far on the map but there’s a fair amount of upping and downing to be done, especially if you’ve got a whole family in tow – which will be quite annoying if you get there and find they’re not to your taste, or if you don’t want to move you’ve got to hang around for half an hour for the next act where you are, again annoying if they turn out to be rubbish and you’ve missed something better somewhere else because of it. And the Jewellery Quarter, I’m afraid, is just too far away to expect people to walk to from a festival based mostly in the city centre – though it will of course make an excellent venue for some of the niche mini-festivals Martin is talking about.

So consider having fewer acts perform for longer sets, and cut down the time between sets – it really shouldn’t take longer than 15 minutes to have a handover for all but the most complicated of acts, especially on the professionally stage managed bigger stages. Give the audience a reason to stay where they are, a reason to move to a different venue if there’s something they want to see next there, and a worthwhile reason to move to a different venue if their current choice turns out to be a dud.

Theme the programme better

I mean ‘programme’ in both senses of the word – both the programme of events, and the physical printed brochure which tells you what’s on where and when.

An eclectic mix is all very well and is often thought to encourage discovery, but in practice it’s just irritating. Beyond the high profile Centenary Square main stage events in the evening – Hip-Hop RnB on Friday night (this year and last year quite sparsely attended, so consider this as part of the scaleback), Classical Fantasia on Saturday night, and Kerrangfest on Sunday night, and the location-specific things such as the dance tent and the art exhibition, most of the acts by genre are all over the place – so if you want to see some folk music, you might have to go to the Fountain Stage at 1:00, then to the Flapper at 3:00, the City Inn Cafe at 3:45, and the Prince of Wales at 4:00.

So instead consider theming the whole festival according to venue – for the smaller acts off the main stages, dedicate, say, the Prince of Wales to folk music, the Flapper to experimental, and the beach to the rock bands. Or at the very least, if you – or the venue operators – don’t want to have the same kind of thing in a single venue for the whole weekend, allocate half a day for each genre for each venue, so people at least have a good run at being able to listen to the kind of thing they want to listen to rather than having to spend more time walking around than actually being in an audience. Trust the audience to go off and make discoveries for themselves, rather than trying to force them to discover.

The printed brochure itself also needs more work to make it more user-friendly. As it has stood in the past, it is laid out in a grid with time vertically, and venue horizontally. This layout works well when you’re dealing with a handful of venues, but when you’ve got over 20 venues, that just doesn’t work. People walking around on the day might think “oo, I wonder what’s going on at Centenary Square right now” and have a look in the brochure (or simply walk over there), but people who are trying to plan their day are more interested in what kind of thing they want to see than where they might see it – you don’t think to yourself “yes, I’ll spend the morning on the beach (regardless of what’s on there), then the afternoon at the Fountain, a spot of food at the Flapper, and finish the day in Centenary Square”. With this many venues, the audience member wants to see first and foremost what kinds of things are on where, and go to the venue where it’s happening accordingly.

So for next year consider printing the brochure so the horizontal grid is by theme rather than by venue – at least for the smaller venues. This should be made easier if the venues themselves are themed, and you can still have an index at the back sorted by venue.

Have more variety

This might seem a strange comment given the eclectic mix on offer, but actually, Artsfest has always felt like primarily a music festival, with other things tacked on to the side. Visual art, dance, theatre, spoken word (though there were a reasonable number of poets on offer), film, and crafts are very much sideshows to the music festival – in fact craft is barely evident at all.

Consider marketing more proactively to practitioners of the other artforms to get them to take part, and consider limiting the number of slots and venues allocated to music in order to make space for dance and theatre. Except World music; considering Birmingham’s reputation as a multicultural city, World music was barely in evidence beyond the Sampad Info-fusion performance (at the top and tail of my video) on Friday night.

Make it easier and more open to participate

The deadline for applying to be a part of Artsfest is the 30th of April. For a festival which happens in September, this is ridiculous.

I appreciate (I have, after all, organised festivals myself) that the small team organising Artsfest have a lot of work in actually sifting through the applications, running a selection process, and then putting together a timetable, and I appreciate that certain things need to be confirmed well in advance. But if all you want to do is put on a 15 minute demo of Tai Chi on the Hall of Memory performance space, you shouldn’t need to have decided to do that five months in advance. Craft artists especially are not accustomed to booking a stall on a craft fair more than couple of months in advance (and there’s often still space to book the week before); maybe that accounts for the lack of craft participants? Having such an early deadline also removes the spontaneity which is a fundamental part of the fun of any festival.

Consider having two application deadlines – the early one for key events and complicated performances, and a later one for smaller events, performances, and activities. Let the timetable evolve through the planning process rather than first getting in all your applications, choosing which to accept, and then trying to do the timetable all at once. If you go with the suggestion to theme venues, the timetable work should be made easier. And set aside space on the timetable – and even set aside one or two spaces on the site – where people can literally just turn up on the day and ask “is there anywhere I can do a juggling demo?”

Is it at the correct time in the year?

This is perhaps my most controversial suggestion about the event.

The timing of Artsfest is the big finale to the city’s summer programme of events – and it is most definitely a Good Thing to have a big celebratory finale of some sort.

But timing Artsfest for the first / second week in September effectively cuts out a lot of potential participants – schools will only just be back (some of them still not back), and the colleges – Birmingham Conservatoire, Birmingham Institute of Art and Design, Birmingham School of Speech and Drama etc aren’t back at all. It does seem quite a shame that students at our three high profile, nationally and internationally respected higher education institutions for the arts are effectively cut out of the event.

Keep something for the big summer finale, please, but consider moving Artfest to earlier in the year – maybe have it as the big launch for the city’s summer events programme to open up the pool of particpants. This suggestion may appear to conflict with the suggestion to scale back – but don’t forget, the overall suggestion is to also have more mini-festivals throughout the year.

#arts #birmingham #council #festivals #music

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