Breathing in the Network – New Forms of Cultural Solidarity through Online Festival Engagements





Breathing in the Network – New Forms of Cultural Solidarity through Online Festival Engagements

Ricardo Peach is the director of the Vrystaat Kunstefees/Arts Festival/Tsa-Botjhaba, a multi-artform Afrikaans language festival in Mangaung, South Africa

Director of the South African festival Vrystaat Kunstefees, Ricardo Peach, on how building connections between festivals will strengthen the sector as it recovers from COVID-19

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Feb 20, 2021

COVID-19 was a challenge to the arts and the well-being of artists like no other event I have experienced in my lifetime. In a society such as South Africa, where there is very little government support or capacity to meaningfully buffer the loss of income to artists and little to no social security, the pandemic caused (and continues to cause) an astronomical loss to both the financial and mental health of our industry.

For festivals such as ours – Vrystaat Kunstefees (Vrystaat Art Festival) – with no support from our local government and only occasional, piecemeal project support from our national government, we are fully reliant on ticket sales, local and international sponsors, and an arts market we hold as part of our event.  

When the government mandated a state of emergency and one of the strictest lockdowns in the world on March 27, 2020, our festival faced imminent extinction. We were just about to launch our July 2020 program, but everything was suddenly on hold. To say we were pushed into a state of numbed confusion, fear and shock would be an understatement.  

We had very little time to reflect, recover or reconsider our options, moreover, as we quickly had to figure out how to survive – financially and creatively – with no public funding available to furlough staff or offer emergency operational support.

Within a week of lockdown, we convened our first online industry discussion with local artists to see how they were traveling and what ideas we had for each other to continue creative work. We had an overwhelming response to this online gathering if only in that it created a sense of community and solidarity in a time of disconnect. As a result, we developed monthly online discussions with and for our networks.

In hindsight, these industry discussions were our healing, reflection, and recovery tools. From them, we learned skills to iteratively develop new online strategies for 2020 and shift our business model completely into a digital space.

One global discussion we organized at the beginning of June 2020 stood out in particular. The director of capacity building at the Australia Council for the Arts, Kevin du Preez, led an industry conversation on Cultural Leadership in Times of Change, with an international network of arts leaders, including representatives of the National Arts Council of South Africa, the eSwatini National Council of Arts and Culture, Canada Council for the Arts, Arts Council England, ISPA, IFACCA, and the NEA.

In this discussion, notions of empathy, patience, and having to think as “beyonders” (people who see beyond their own needs into those of others) spurred us on to think about how we could shift the festival’s focus to not only help us function but also assist artists and those in the arts ecology to survive creatively.

As many of the Vrystaat Arts Festival’s programs for a physical event were already in place, we moved most of them online. We shifted the Vrystaat Literature Festival online through the Vryspraak-Digitaal program (the first in South Africa), with over 70 writers in discussion with each other across the globe. We continued our online, national, and international arts industry discussion series. We presented desperately needed Free State Arts and Health creative mental health initiatives online for communities. We presented an online Pan-African Creative Exchange (PACE) marketplace and networking conference over four days (the first in Africa).  We recorded and presented our first-ever online classical music festival, Vrystaat Klank & Klassiek. We launched a major online festival titled Snelstroom with more than 200 national and international events. We held the Crossings online dance laboratory, and we created our first online arts market shared economy project – the Wolkewinkel.

We were extremely lucky that our founding sponsor, Media24, was willing to provide some operational funding – even though a physical festival was not taking place. Their belief in us allowed others to come on-board with additional project funding, with staff moving from five days to three days a week, although most continued to work more than full-time.

For many of our brave project sponsors, their support was an act of faith, as we had never previously developed or presented online initiatives. As a result of their trust, we were eventually able to procure additional funds and inject more than R 2.5m (€138,100) into the arts ecology as a result of creating these new platforms.  

Many of these digital initiatives will be continued and built into future hybrid iterations of the physical festival once mass gatherings are again allowed.

Through Salzburg Global’s online program What Future for Festivals? in October and November 2020, I was, for the first time since the pandemic started, able to reflect candidly with a wonderful group of festival peers on what was happening to us all in this period of radical uncertainty, and where we thought we were heading.

It was such a brilliant opportunity to take a moment to “breathe in the network,” convene in solidarity and share the anxieties, panics, traumas, losses, successes, hopes, and continued determination we had in this period as leaders in the festival circuit. In the end, I realized that we are all fragile and vulnerable, but also extremely resilient human beings in this game.

What became immediately obvious in the broader discussions around global festival models was the extremely varied capacities, experiences, and responses that festivals had at this time. Some festivals, particularly those located in countries where social and financial support was more forthcoming, had a unique opportunity to sit back and reflect more significantly on how they would pursue the conditions ahead.

I was quite envious of the capacity of some organizations to do this and also very curious to see how such a period of reflection could help them alter the festival landscape positively in the future to assist others not in such unique positions.

Many festivals also did not need to additionally support artists and technicians the way we did, as their federal governments had significant furlough and social support systems in place.

Discussions on issues of diversity in the “new local” for festivals as a result of the COVID-19 restrictions were also opened up as one of the key outcomes for 2021.  The “new local” focuses on local artistic work that recognizes that there are often already “international,” culturally diverse artists and audiences present in our regions. This “new local” could be the focus for many festivals in the coming years.

Smaller groups of international, “embedded creatives” traveling to different places in the world to work with local arts communities to create fresh, “new local” international work would also most likely be a feature of many future festivals.  Networks between festivals to facilitate such exchanges would be invaluable.

What also became clear is that smaller festivals such as ours and others in particular in the Global South had already been deploying these strategies before COVID-19 hit us, as we have had to be particularly adaptable to a range of social, economic, and political shocks and stressors.

A festival buddy system between smaller and more established festivals, where festivals are paired-up or matched in small groups to share knowledge, get feedback on your own festival, and/or help develop initiatives for other people’s festivals, would be a wonderful extension of the What Future for Festivals? program going forward.

These new forms of cultural solidarity made possible through online festival engagements have meant that by the end of our online sessions, I felt like I had made lifelong friends. I am determined to attend as many of my Salzburg Global Seminar alumni’s festivals as I can. They had better get the beers and Aperol Spritzes ready!

Ricardo Peach is the director of the Vrystaat Kunstefees/Arts Festival/Tsa-Botjhaba, a multi-artform Afrikaans language festival in Mangaung, South Africa, that forges links with Sesotho and English cultures

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