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View from: Alexis Paterson

1 July 2020

Part of Supercool's Arts + Culture In Lockdown series

Alexis Paterson – Chief Executive of the Three Choirs Festival and Chair of the British Arts Festivals Association


Everything not saved will be lost?

I’m sure you know the feeling: those lovely reminders of good times that Facebook’s ‘timehop’ pops up every morning are suddenly tinged with regret and a longing for live events.

Last week, Facebook reminded me that a year ago I was dancing like a maniac at Ally Pally as Foals played the Part 1 of their Everything Not Saved Will Be Lost tour.

Illustration from Facebook illustrating memories in photographic form

It seems laughable now that at the start of lockdown, I thought my plans for Part 2 – in Birmingham in May – might still be salvageable.

Today, like so many of our events, dates are being postponed or rescheduled. We’re Ctrl+Alt+Deleting 2020 live events, and wondering when we'll be able pick up where we left off.

So, what have my gigging disappointments got to do with the day job?

That is; trying to keep the world’s oldest classical music festival ticking-over when, like so many of our fellow festivals, we’ve lost at least a year of earned income, the majority of our activity-related funding, and don’t really know for sure what sort of festival we can – or should – be planning for a year from now.

It’s this: trying not to lose sight of those things that were such fledgling ideas they’re not so much ‘on ice’ as in cryostasis right now.

While postponement is the logical – and with so many of our colleagues furloughed, perhaps the only truly viable option - someone pointed out to me recently that the rush to reschedule tours and projects might have unforeseen consequences. Added to already-fixed plans for autumn 2020 and beyond, what room is left for all those performers, composers, producers and other creatives who don’t have the power and influence to command first dibs on availability?

With the double-whammy of conversations with promoters being pushed back a year and a lack of funding options for going it alone, there’s a real risk that we could lose fantastic, inspiring, challenging new work; especially from those exciting new voices whose names aren’t yet on everyone’s lips.

… there’s a real risk that we could lose fantastic, inspiring, challenging new work; especially from those exciting new voices whose names aren’t yet on everyone’s lips

In addition to the day-job, I chair the board of the British Arts Festivals Association.

Now more than ever we’re conscious of the vital part that these fleeting, bespoke events play in both local placemaking and in supporting the vast, complex ecosystem of cultural endeavour: festivals are a natural home for adventure and exploration, premieres and new projects.

Just among BAFA’s members, it’s heartbreaking to think of all the new ideas which will have been placed on hold (how can we ever hope to quantify the ‘never was’?), and it’s essential that these small organisations – in partnership with their diverse and exciting range of creative voices – see arts activity renewed on all scales and in all places post-COVID.

As trustees up and down the land (understandably) nudge their artistic teams towards ‘safe box office’ decisions and the lower production costs that usually come with the tried-and-tested, those of us with the ability to do so owe it to our wider arts ecology to push back against conservatism and champion the thrill of the new.

… those of us with the ability to do so owe it to our wider arts ecology to push back against conservatism and champion the thrill of the new

Dismissed as being "overlong for the subject-matter" following its 3 Choirs Festival premiere, Vaughan Williams' work is now consistently in the top three of Classic FM's Hall of Fame

We’re notoriously bad at predicting the future. 110 years ago, my own festival premiered a work which was dismissed as “overlong for the subject-matter” and “a queer, mad work by an odd fellow”. That work – Vaughan Williams’ Fantasia on a Theme by Thomas Tallis – has graced the top three of Classic FM’s Hall of Fame for nine of the past fifteen years.

We’ll probably never know if we’ve helped bring to life the big hit of the 22nd century, but that shouldn’t stop us trying!

I believe it’s not only morally imperative, but in our long-term best interests, to earn the trust of our audiences – the ones we have and the ones to come – by consistently seeking out the best examples of new work and ideas in our respective mediums, and unapologetically celebrating not only the intrinsic value of that work, but the way in which it can make us see and hear established repertoire differently.

In essence, we must stay true to our mission and values – in the most curious and open-hearted way that we can.

Part of Supercool's Arts + Culture In Lockdown series

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