The Future of Mega-Events… and Festivals’ Crucial Role

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The Future of Mega-Events… and Festivals’ Crucial Role

Beatriz Garcia is the Director of CC:RO | Cities of Culture Research Observatory at the University of Liverpool

Director of CC:RO | Cities of Culture Research Observatory at the University of Liverpool, Beatriz Garcia, explains why the future of mega-events, like the Olympics, is tied to the future of festivals

The arrival of COVID-19 has transformed the world we live in and put all major cultural events and festivals on hold. The Tokyo 2020 Olympics have been postponed. The 2020 Edinburgh Festival was canceled. The hosting of European Capitals of Culture across the EU is requiring careful reinvention. Fashion weeks, art biennials, theatre, and film festivals everywhere are exploring their virtual options.

After a year spent largely in isolation, with solace being sought increasingly online, discussions have grown about our human need for culture and festivities that involve large physical gatherings – but also about the need to rethink the way we host festivals and collective encounters. I would like to reflect here about how these considerations affect the largest players of all: global mega-events.  

The Views on Mega-Events

In a recent public lecture, I asked the question: Can we live without mega-events? Some may want to argue that, actually, we can – or even, we should. Long-held criticisms against mega-events such as the Olympic Games, world cups, or world expos are the view that they are wasteful, inherently unsustainable, prone to corruption, and insensitive to local differences by imposing top-down global frameworks.

However, there is another side to this debate. Mega-events are credited with the capacity to take over their host environment and generate precious moments of collective encounter – “once-in-a-lifetime” experiences that contribute to shaping identity as well as meaningful and, most importantly, shared local, national, and global narratives. Mega-events are celebrated as opportunities to portray and advance universal values thanks to their unsurpassed international media appeal.

The Challenge Going Forwards

Naturally, in the wake of 2020 and the near-collapse of so many long-existing festivals, tough questions need to be asked. There is a need to prioritize, be selective, and accept that “carrying on as usual” is no longer an option. The pandemic has accelerated our pre-existing concerns over the future of events and festivals at large.

What We Knew 

In response to widespread criticisms, the mega-event industry (particularly the Olympic Games) has been working for decades towards prioritizing sustainability, accountability, and ethics. Initiatives such as the Olympic Agenda 2020 are evidence of the seriousness with which key priorities such as legacy, transparency of operations, and local sensitivity have been taken since the turn of the millennium.

What We Learned in 2020

On top of these commitments, the pandemic has shone a light on additional priorities that can no longer be postponed. I would argue that they involve a combination of symbolic and operational priorities.

On the symbolic front, mega-event stakeholders have come to appreciate better the value of investing in optimistic while credible grand narratives. For this, deep cultural sensitivities are essential. With the news cycle worldwide dominated by an incessant sense of doom – and its effect on people’s anxiety, mistrust in government, and fear of anyone perceived as a stranger – there is a growing need for positive and transnational community-building. There is an increasing demand for enabling globally significant moments that send signs of hope. The question is: who has the credibility required to project such moments? Can the original message of the Tokyo Olympic Games – the “Reconstruction Games” – translate into a global message that the world – i.e., the 206 participating Olympic nations – can genuinely get behind? This is a key aspiration behind the new version of the Games’ opening ceremony scheduled for August 2021.

On the operational front, key priorities are the capacity to be generous (those with resources must count on and support those without), the need to build trust (share new emerging knowledge, share concerns, act collectively, commit to networks), and the need to return to values as the driving force behind mega-event hosting processes. Mission statements must be connected to a long-term, value-driven (as opposed to an immediate output-driven) vision.

These priorities – generosity, trust, values – are, in fact, some of the most valuable keywords emerging from our Salzburg Global program, What Future for Festivals?

The Future of Mega-Events…

The mega-events of the future cannot justify themselves on the back of numbers alone. There is no longer a global acceptance of physical infrastructure investments as a key legacy with equal benefits for all: the general public – and event stakeholders, in general – want the stories as well, and they want them to be meaningful.

For these reasons, mega-events of the future need their festival dimension more than ever: they need their cultural rationale, their artists as core contributors. People want an Olympic opening ceremony that has true artistic integrity, not just grand spectacle; people want to be inspired by human excellence and want the stories behind our greatest achievements around the world (in sport, in industry, in arts, or science) told with care as well as imagination, presented in responsible, sustainable – even intimate – ways.

In return, mega-events must also support and contribute to the future of smaller, more diverse, and locally rooted festivals. The global networks (sponsors, broadcasters) that remain committed to investing billions of dollars in mega-events should accept clauses involving a commitment towards proportional support for the kinds of grassroots activities that make mega-events meaningful in the first place.

After a year, when everything has been on hold, we must accept the deep interdependences that make our cultural life possible. The kinds of once-in-a-generation collective euphoria that mega-events aspire to generate will not emerge on the back of computer-generated graphics and closed-doors sporting and industry exchanges. Such euphoria – and the life-long shared memories it engenders – can only emerge out of meaningful encounters involving truly diverse creative practices; a deep understanding of specific places and communities; and thoughtful, well-informed platforms for storytelling, building on the broad range of international expertise and backgrounds shaped by decades of hands-on, location-based work around the globe. For this, the grand global players need small, locally-based players.

The future of mega-events is completely tied to (and dependent on) the future of festivals.

Beatriz Garcia is the Director of CC:RO | Cities of Culture Research Observatory at the University of Liverpool. She is a member of the European Capital of Culture Selection Committee, nominated by the European Commission; and expert member at the Culture and Olympic Heritage Commission, nominated by the International Olympic Committee.

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