Festivals in a Time of Pandemic: How are Leaders Responding to the Coronavirus Crisis?





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Apr 06, 2020
by Soila Kenya
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Festivals in a Time of Pandemic: How are Leaders Responding to the Coronavirus Crisis?

Cultural institutions are in crisis. How can leaders in the cultural sector and their teams anticipate and respond to unpredictable situations? What can we learn from crises to catalyze future innovation? Tisa Ho, Executive Director of the Hong Kong Arts Festival shares her insights. 

Festivals are meant to be a special coming together of people, an enchanting celebration of what it means to be human, a concentrated succession of extraordinary in-person events. But what can you do if you are the director of a festival in the midst of a crisis situation, facing the question of whether or not your festival should be canceled as a pandemic sweeps the globe? 

Due to the COVID-19 pandemic, the Salzburg Global Seminar program, What Future for Festivals? was postponed from March 10-15 to October 24-28. Weeks earlier, Tisa Ho, executive director of the Hong Kong Arts Festival had been confronted by the similarly difficult decision to cancel the world class performing arts festival, which features over 100 performances and events in February and March each year. 

The Salzburg Global Fellow generously shared her insights in a webinar hosted by Susanna Seidl-Fox, Salzburg Global Program Director for Culture and the Arts, for participants around the globe who had been scheduled to join the What Future for Festivals? program. During the conversation, she described the various learning points she has gained and continues to gain from this unprecedented situation.

The decision to cancel is historic – it is the first time in the festival’s 48-year history that it has been cancelled. As Ho explained: “It began with some international artists expressing anxiety about coming to Hong Kong… and also our venues remaining closed for a certain period. After the Chinese New Year, when the venues were not yet open, we were still anticipating that they would reopen before the festival began and then it seemed less certain and less certain and the situation seemed to get worse and worse.”

For Ho, the possibility of canceling certain parts of the festival had loomed for some time due to the pro-democracy protests that had already been rocking Hong Kong since March 2019. What bolstered her as she traveled these uncharted waters?

From her account, she firstly attributes the smooth process to her very supportive board of directors. Having a diverse selection of people on the board such as government officials and communicable disease experts made the decision-making easier as several points of view could be considered. The board’s decision was clear and clean with no ambiguity, affirming to Ho that as executive director of the festival, she was doing the right thing by going ahead with the cancelation.

Having a reliable communications strategy also alleviated Ho’s anxiety that came with such an important announcement. “The decision to cancel the entire festival was made on February 4.” (The event was due to start on February 13.) “We immediately contacted all of the artists, companies, agents, partners and sponsors and funders. And on the 10th we were able to make the general announcement. It was really important to us that the announcement was globally aligned,” she revealed.

Being sure of the festival’s stakeholders was also paramount for Tisa as she moved forward with her decision. “Bite the bullet. The uncertainty of living from moment to moment is terrible… The later you leave the decision, the worse it becomes because of costs escalating. For partners, the earlier they know, the earlier they can plan in advance,” she said.
The employees of the festival organization are of course also key stakeholders. With most countries now implementing work-from-home directives to curb the spread of the novel coronavirus, normal work flow has been disrupted across industries, and the festival industry has of course not been spared. This forced isolation can provoke feelings of fear or demotivation; at the same time, however, they can inspire an even greater level of dedication to the work.

The Hong Kong Arts Festival is trying to make the best of the situation by allowing employees to work from home and supporting local businesses to the greatest extent possible. 

Online Festivals: The Future?

This new reality also brings to the fore a question that has arisen ever since the dawning of the internet and the consequent rapid development of technology: What is the future for festivals in the online world?

After having to cancel upcoming performances due to the rapid spread of the COVID-19 pandemic, the Metropolitan Opera in New York City for example announced that beginning March 16, it would stream presentations from its “Met Live in HD” series for free.

In Ho’s view, even though the core and essence of festivals is in the live performance, livestreaming is a great idea. It can be used to reach new, wider audiences, and keep existing audiences engaged. If you learn how to add those extra dimensions, it can boost the festival experience. But on exactly how far it can go, she acknowledges that the jury is still out, but the possibilities are endless: “Keeping in touch with our audience year-round is necessary and technology allows us to do this. That sense of community is really important. Festivals are very much a part of life for the community they are in. Different festivals and organizations have different DNAs, but our festival is very much centered on the community,” she said.

For Ho, there is a lot to be learned from these COVID-19 experiences. It is a chance for the festivals community to step back and take a look at the prevailing practices that they continue to hold and to examine whether there might be better ways of executing their missions, no matter how big or small, going forward. Everything from environmental awareness and carbon footprints to the mental health of audiences and artists need to be reexamined.

“We can learn from this COVID-19 crisis. We might not be able to stop touring. But we can re- think some of the choices that we make, including modes of travel or the excessive printing materials, better online ticketing modalities. We can all take incremental but important steps. People will still need to gather. It is a natural human instinct. Let us keep learning from each other!” 

If you are a Salzburg Global Fellow and wish to access a recording of the webinar, please contact Susanna Seidl-Fox: sfox@salzburgglobal.org