MY STORY How the Festival spirit has been kept alive

Harrogate International Festivals - HIF - is a series of events across the year, from the Theakston Old Peculier Crime Festival to the Harrogate Music Festival, but this year has seen a complex but well-oiled machine grind almost to a halt thanks to Covid-19. Sharon Canavar has been its chief executive since 2010.

What is the history of the HIF, what are the festivals and have any of them taken place in 2020?

Music and entertainment is built into the DNA of Harrogate with entrepreneurial hoteliers realising they could encourage visitors to stay longer and spend more during the heyday of the spa season if there were musical events to entertain.

HIF was originally built on these historic foundations and created as a Festival of Arts & Science in 1966, and throughout the 60s and 70s way before the cultural regeneration of our northern cities Harrogate operated as a midway performance stop between the Proms and Edinburgh, which meant some truly amazing artists performed throughout the years.

Our founder Clive Wilson believed that “the festival should be seen as a developing thing, widening its scope and perhaps shifting its emphasis as the years go by”. Over the last 12 years HIF has diversified significantly, creating a year-round offer of festivals from chamber music series in the spring to the world-renowned Theakston Old Peculier Crime Writing Festival in July, alongside a host of literature, music, outreach and participation programmes across the year. In 2019 we delivered over 300 events, issued over 33,000 tickets and attracted over 72,000 people to our free outdoor and participatory programmes.

In 2020 our chamber music series completed 4 of 5 concerts in our season before lockdown, and for the first time we were unable to hold our summer season or deliver any of our work in the traditional format of a shared live experience for our varied audiences in the unique spaces we use across the town.

What have the pandemic and the lockdowns meant to you?

The pandemic certainly created a year like no other. As an arts charity that receives no guaranteed public funding and has to raise 98% of funds from ticket sales and sponsorship, this year losing about £800k of income for the year has been catastrophic.

We’re a small team and had to move quickly. From furloughing half the team to refunding thousands of pounds to people from home, we quickly became a digital hub. From no digital team we learnt very quickly that if we wanted to stay in touch with our audiences and community we needed to look at digital outreach, and most importantly be a vital point of support within our networks. We offered shopping services, prescription pick ups and often a friend at the end of the phone for many of our isolated audiences. We moved our archive (previously on DAT tapes under a desk) online through our newly created HIF Player, and contracted artists, authors and composers to help us deliver a mix of digital and live work throughout early summer and into our traditional summer season.

The pandemic has certainly changed our organisation, decisions about what made the cut in terms of programme and activity and what couldn’t be changed were made in hours rather than months or years. We watched theatres and venues shut down around us, and decided that festivals are meant to be about filling the areas traditional venues can’t reach. Why shouldn’t this continue to happen in an unprecedented year?

Our connection with audiences, despite being through the screen, has never been stronger; the goodwill of offering free content and supporting those with no digital skills has been fantastic for connections, we commissioned new music, had amateur and pro brass musicians from around the world take part in our world premiere, kept artists and authors in paid work, charted in arts podcasts and worked with streets and communities to create street galleries, ten-word stories and on street community libraries.

Times have been difficult. While we were successful in an initial £25k grant from the Arts Council in early summer, as a non-NPO with no venue of our own and having been frugal in our spending over previous years meant that we weren’t eligible for any of the larger grant funding, so having delivered throughout the pandemic we have used our own funds, reserves and worked hard with our sponsors and stakeholders to ensure that we were able to deliver the arts within our communities over this period.

You are a community-orientated organisation. How have you been able to keep contact with your audiences, and how have they reacted?

Audience reaction has been tremendously positive, and the reinvention of the festivals in 2020 meant that our reach was unexpected but meaningful. We have had over 20,000 views of our HIF Player content, from Wynton Marsalis to the Hallé, DJ Graeme Park to family events and a library of Theakston Crime events in the archive, alongside delivering our Theakston Crime Awards in 2020, meant our reach went from Harrogate and national visitors to being enjoyed in 47 countries, and HIF at the grand old age of 54 charted in the GB and Irish podcasts. We ran remote Book Clubs, created singing sessions for families, developed our #ViewFromMyWindow campaign covering windows at home in dinosaurs, book characters and illustrations.

Alongside our weekly delivery we also created our HIF Weekender, distilling all our summer season into one long weekend of delivery. As one of the first multi-arts festivals to online and by ensuring free access to all we bottled up the festival and curated 38 events across a long weekend in July.

Beyond the screen we created Festival CDs for those who wanted to enjoy our podcasts and archive in a more familiar way, and created a moving bandstand with an open top bus and the New York Brass Band with our Brass on A Bus event taking live music around areas of Harrogate to ensure people could enjoy live music safely as a pop up event driving by.

Which Tier are you in and how will its strictures affect you?

We are in Tier 2, so whilst there is the potential to hold events the reality is that our usual largest theatre venues are now a Nightingale hospital - the other is closed - and the larger hotels that are heavily reliant on business tourism have cut staffing back significantly within events as we come back out of lockdown again.

At the moment, we are focussing on our development for next year, developing our digital offer from our learning throughout the summer, and where possible trying to offer some inspiring and fun events within the community from using lighting to project quotes onto buildings, and working with Impossible Arts and their large illuminated book to animate our online digital Raworths Literature Festival in October, to decorating the front of the festival office with a red post box and snow to create the North Pole Post Office - Harrogate Branch this December, which has created a small part of Christmas normality for a host of families with over 700 letters through the post box already!

Have you been able to continue with your award schemes?

The Theakston Old Peculier Crime Novel of the Year awards still took place and actually increased submissions, votes and press coverage with the ultimate winner Adrian McKinty’s The Chain being a worthy winner after a 157% increase in the public vote and a final judging panel of Simon Theakston, Steph McGovern, BBC’s Joe Haddow and Matt Nixson, books editor at Express Newspapers.

Has the closed period given you an opportunity to plan for the future?

I think it is fair to say we have never worked harder or quicker and in such new mediums, so not as much thinking and planning time as I would have liked, but it has allowed us to test new work, reach new audiences and we have been able to develop a host of ideas and research to inform our medium to long-term plans. I think it’s fair to say when we originally locked down we were hopeful that we’d be back to normal by October. The ongoing challenge of delivery versus future is a balance, but I know we will be returning to live events in a new and exciting way, with our learning over the last nine months ensuring we are ready to deliver a 21st century festival.

Do you know how other festivals around the country have managed, and can you learn from each other?

I sit on the British Arts Festival Association (BAFA) board and there have been some fantastic sharing and learning for the future from our experiences. Many festivals, as part of BAFA, take place across different months in different formats so as rules were relaxed or tightened and various different venues and artists were programmed there was some fantastic learning and sharing of the challenges across the year.

What changes do you think people will see when the festivals return in 2021?

I think some venues-based festivals may move to an outdoor/tented approach, and the foray into digital may mean a hybrid offer for artists that might not usually travel. There’s a host of queries about what the vaccine may mean, what rules might be in place and as with this year I suspect a host of events and festivals will have a variety of plans in place to ensure they can go ahead.

There are opportunities for simultaneous live broadcast from an event to audiences at home who may still be shielding or unable to attend for a variety of reasons and we know there is still considerable enthusiasm from our audiences to attend something live, shared with others, and to be entertained or educated. We can’t wait to get back to it.

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