Dancing with the Diaspora
                                                                                                   

Grahamstown National Arts Festival 2017: An Eastern Cape Turning Point

 

A report conducted by South African Cultural Observatory on behalf of the Department of Arts and Culture 2016 measured the economic impact of the festival on Grahamstown at R94.4 Million and on the Eastern Cape, R377.15 Million. This was an increase of 5%. Festival attendance was down 5% . 51% of the attendee's came from Eastern Cape, 60% were English speakers and 20% African language speakers.

Rhini is the Xhosa name for the region. Its English name is after Colonel John Graham who founded the town in 1812 as a military fort. Today Grahamstown is primarily a university and education centre. Within thirty minutes of the town there are stunning blue flag beaches, indigenous forests, parks and nature reserves with excellent accommodation, arts and craft markets and entertainment facilities.

 

Interview Ashraf Joohardien

 

I left Cape Town partly because it had become a village – ArtsCape, Baxter or Peter Terien ad not much else going on. And now it is busier than Joburg, the arts scene has completely blossomed with Alexander bars and interesting little pop ups.

I pass through Grahamstown regularly. The idea is the job is situated between Joburg and Grahamstown and it being a national festival, I need to live more nationally I feel. I haven't been to Durban in the 6 months I have been with the festival. Twist did this amazing fresher festival, a free outdoor festival. It was quite an amazing.

What are your plans?

The festival is different to any of the gigs I had before. I was at UJ for 5 years. It was an open slate and I could do whatever. Before that I was with the Arts and Culture trust for five years. Arts and Culture trust is 23 years old. UJ is 10 /11 years old this year. Festival is 43 years old this year. My job is to be the caretaker of what has been built up over that time. It is a gargantuan thing. My job over the last 6 months is to wrap my head around everything that needs to happen because it goes on for 11 days of ‘amazing,' but also 11 days of everything. To deliver all of that with a relatively small team and I have added to the complexity of it by deciding to work remotely for a large portion of the time. I approach it as a thing we have been entrusted with.

I have a sense of some things I would like to rationalise, consolidate and amplify all of those clever things that managers want to do. But it works. The Fringe is fraught, but the fringe strictly speaking is not my portfolio. That said, the fringe and the main and the village green, all these things work together in an eco-system. I am responsible for the main programme and looking after the artistic committee that makes selections. And the sponsors and the partners that have been with the festival for decades, like Standard Bank the French, BASA, the Dutch – properties that we co-own and developed with them are still in play. That is primarily my focus. Main programme 4- 5- items, Fringe 320-350 items. The separation between Fringe and Main is real because if the main is not right, the audiences are not going to come to support the fringe. It is delicate. The model is very specific to this festival that happens in winter as a destination festival where roughly 20 000 people descend on the town and to make sure that they all come.

History of the festival?

There have been three iterations of the festival. The first iteration was with Lynette Marais and Lynette ran the festival up until the Tony / Ismail dispensation and a large part of that festival was when it was the Standard Bank festival, fully branded fully sponsored by Standard Bank. About a decade ago Standard Bank pulled back to make room for other sponsors, the Eastern Cape Government, so it wasn't carrying the festival as a sole sponsor which is a good thing because you never want your egg in one basket. Standard Bank had walked a long journey with the festival, 33 years up to that point? Fact check. That was a particular iteration of the festival where the board and the artistic committee were one animal. The chairperson of the board was the chairperson of the artistic committee. Back in that day in Lynette's time it was Mannia Manim, followed by Sibongile Khumalo. It has changed structurally. Now the business side is looked after by a board. I work with the artistic committee to deliver the festival as it is. The chairperson of the artistic committee which is Brett Bailey serves on a larger board.

I have been going to the festival since 1993 when I was a student, my first year at UCT. I have a sense of what it was and how it has evolved over that time.

How has it evolved?

Even 5 years ago the world was different. We didn't all live on our phones. I was listening to a thing on the radio yesterday, are there pen pals anymore? As a teenager I had a pen pal. Currently I whatsapp people in Germany about possible productions for next year. Technology has completely changed the way we interact. That is my one criticism of the festival in that it is not taken that radical technological shift into account. Not a lot of the festival is digital. Digital has radically changed how people engage with each other therefore I think it will very soon have an impact on our audiences.

With it being a destination festival where people used to write letters and be happy to wait two weeks I don't know that people are as happy to spend two hours driving from PE and all the time it takes to get to PE. So it is quite a hard sell. Fortunately it has 43 years of legacy that appeals to a lot of people.

NAF manage it from around the country?

Historically it has a relationship with the municipality. Over the 43 years they have grown wise to like an airport shop they can charge premium prices over the time of the festival which makes audiences unhappy. There has been a freeze online about the crazy cost over festival time. It is quite cheap out of festival time. And the festival can only do so much because we don't own any property or guest houses, Rhodes or residences so the festivals can lobby those stake holders to try and be reasonable and not alienate audiences.

An evolution I would like to see is more of a national footprint and feeling around that sort of stuff in the way that the Eastern Cape has come on board like a bear. They are very supportive of the festival. Makana municipality has become very open and engaged vigorously with festival management to try and make it as safe and comfortable as possible. It is a huge local and international tourist driver. And we need that entire infrastructure to happen. If the Makana municipality was not able to deliver a safe place for a festival or if Rhodes must suddenly become unruly with feesmustfall and they start burning the streets. The festival is quite liked. It is a small team in year to year offices which is why we are able to run something like the Cape Town Fringe. It is year to year. So it is a legacy moment that it is in Grahamstown. We wouldn't want it to be anywhere else, but there is a need for the festival to expand its properties more nationally and one of the immediate spaces would be making it possible for people to access the festival digitally. For example we have a robust programme which could happen anywhere. I am looking at ways to anchor that in the digital sphere. Netflix and cellphone have changed ways in which people consume media. Film has become a niche genre. Those sorts of things I would like to open up. Something like film has the ability to make sure the festival is not fully anchored in physical time and space. If one looks at the type of screenings that the national theatre is doing of productions. I enjoyed the cinema experience of War Horse because it wasn't the light travelling version that came to South Africa. It was the full version and I felt like I was sitting in that massive auditorium. There is something democratising about digital once you get over the hurdle of internet access. If people can be online suddenly a lot more things become possible and you don't have to fork out flights and accommodation and feed yourself every day. I would like to see the festival inhabiting the digital space a little bit more. What I loved about the Live arts festival that just happened in Cape Town, is it was all free. The current model we have now it is just not possible. We work on box office bottom line ticketing income. It all has to happen because no artists are traveling to Grahamstown just for the love it. We have more sponsors coming on board but because things are so much more expensive. In terms of salary-ing actors and artists we keep our overheads low, art is a form which is resource demanding. It is rare that you can make work that is just for free. I am feeling for the young artists, what they were able to do 5 years ago. The bank has very generously increased the prize money on CPI but the cost of making things, CPI doesn't cover the exponentially increasing costs. Looking for ways to make it accessible, cheaper in which artists can go home with a better buck.

Interesting online article – the 3 reasons artists don't earn a living – fear afraid they are not good enough 2. Have you made the time investment like Rob Van Vuuren who has been working the festival stages for 20 years. He has built up his brand and he is active in all spheres. Rob is a curious creature that shows how an artist can work a main, work a fringe. And how many different kinds of fringes there are. I came to the fringe with an independent student production from UCT. We drove up in a car, slept on the floor and figured out how to make it. There are many different ways of experiencing the fringe. Certain artists know that they can earn the next six months' salary because they know what they are going to do; they have a keen understanding of the audience and the eco system of the festival. I also think it is my responsibility as festival management to re-engage artists in that conversation. We try not to prescribe, it is a platform and the festival across the year has shown the state of arts in the economy in terms of what artists were able to do. The scale and size of the festival.

I don't think that the fringe should be curated. It is a defining aspect of the fringe. It gives you a sense of where the country is at. Its temperament, its mood. I have been told by people like Adrian Sitchell that that was very much its purpose in the 80's. I experienced a lot of that in the 90s and I use the festival platforms for the different organisations that I have worked for over the last ten years. All have tried to have a national footprint and what better place than the National Arts Festival. It is a unique opportunity where creative minds in English speaking arts will come together and spend 11 days and see people that you would not necessarily see in the same place in any part of the country at the same time. That was always part of its value proposition. Maintaining that is quite hard given contemporary competition.

The smaller festivals are quite different as they are not able to draw the cross section of audience that the festival does. Vry Fees is a regional festival. It is easier for them to grow an audience because you don't have the hurdle of getting audiences to festivals. Grahamstown relies on a 50% local and national/international audience. 51% of the audience come from the EC region. Being a destination festival poses peculiar challenges, qualitatively and fiscally quantitatively, those festivals are quite different. Part of the core of the NAF's learning and blueprint is its ability to work the destination component of it. All of that comes into play for the total festival experience.

The degree to which being a destination festival defines the character of Grahamstown can't be underscored enough, in terms of the available artistic budget. 35% of that budget would go toward travel accommodation per diems. I think that is easily creeping over the 40% mark and moving toward the 50% mark. And then you have CT Fringe. CT Fringe is a lot more comparable to the regional festivals. It is criticised for being a mini GT, or a cut and paste of the best of GT and not having enough CT character. Rob Murray was the guest director last year and he did a phenomenal job ion giving it CT character. It was finding its own groove. Where you position a festival will influence it. Its geography will by its nature have a huge impact on its identity and its functioning. Choosing to do a festival in GT in winter has a lot to do with the available beds because of access to the residencies.

NAF has a national footprint, access to the GT infrastructure and network structure which means it is cost effective.

CTF takes place around September. They don't overlap. A lot of artists have asked for coordination so they don't have to choose between things. Legacy means a lot of these time lines are so entrenched. GT fest is subject to when the school holidays are. We need the high school campuses and the Universities to be on break.

Another property that the festival runs is ticket hut which is a ticketing system which we sold to various entities. We bought it and had licences from Edinburgh fringe. The NAF is the most visible and has the longest track record but there are several properties which the festival runs. It has several business units. The front end has a lot to do with keeping the smoke and the glitter flying. There is a perception that emerges on its own and there is a perception that we try and manage. But there is only one part of what really is the company, NAF. There may be other festivals, ticketing businesses or units in the pipe-line. A digital arts festival that happens 365 days a year may be another?

Kenton is half an hour drive from GT and it is beautiful. In Grahamstown when the festival bumps up against the residents, you start wanting to lose your mind because it is bursting at the seams. It is too big. Reality is going to curate the number of people who come. We can only programme toward the feet coming through the town and not for empty seats. When one over programs the main then you start competing with the fringe. So I do believe we have to dial back the scale of the programme. Also determined by costs. The fringe is largely self-funded. A lot of work that we look at is work that comes more affordable because there are partners attached to it.

My predecessor was fantastic at augmenting the available resources with partnerships so that the festival felt robust. My key area is brokering those sponsorships. It is a juggling act. The festival has an artistic identity which programs a certain kind of work. Premieres are expensive. From a cost perspective it is great that the work is being developed and has time to settle. It is great to have premieres by established artists, like a new Fugard. My own work, this year's Salaam stories is 16 years old. And as recently as 3 years ago I did another version. Work benefits from having time to settle, like cheese.

The only stand-alone festival is jazz. It has its own identity and character it has a particular business model and a dedicated budget. Thinkfest is a recent invention not more than a decade. It started as a winter school. This year it is something we will change. We will partner with UJ and be a series of pop-ups. In the past a certain publication used to run discussions which will continue. And there are opportunities like when a film links to a certain production. As opposed to having that screened as part of film festival I would like to see that screened in the venue where the play is going to happen. I would like to see it happen like that. Thinkfest is going to be deployed into the festival itself. It might have a new anchor space in the monument.

The jazz program has a unique identity. There is an important symbiotic relationship between the two. It is seen as part of the overall festival, but it is a festival within the festival because it is highly specialist.

Bret as chair of the artistic committee, he is loved in the world as an emerging SA icon but we can't afford him. I would love to have him do Macbeth. As a chairperson he is very sensitive as he was involved with infecting the city so is knowledge in terms of best practices in creation. There are really focused sub committees with lead programmers in each.

This year's thematic core is “art and disruption.” It was kind of soft but an interesting challenge. These little changes and energy that Brett brings to do things differently really have made my life easier.

 

Interview Tony Lancaster

 

The biggest barrier to growth of our festival is accommodation. Every year we hit the ceiling. We are constantly looking at new and interesting ways to accommodate people. Because no matter how full this town is there is always room for one more. Talking to local home owners trying to turn their houses into temporary guest houses for the festival period. Kenton is half an hour away on a reasonable road and t has got tons and tons of accommodation. There is a lot of potential in Kenton, Bathurst and Port Alfred and for those who want to add nature and game reserves there are a ton ranging from Ado elephant park through to 5 star guest houses and reserves. There are plenty of accommodation options and I have done many years book a house with a group of friends. It works out the most cost effective way of doing it.

I wouldn't say GT has a resistance to development. It is an economy that exists 365 days a year; the festival is one thing that happens. You can't expect GT to build a massive hotel for a two week period. December January in GT are quiet, nothing much happens here. So small business owners entering into this space need to factor that into their numbers, and almost over-sell their accommodation over the rest of the year to accommodate for two quiet months. There is desire in GT for development just balancing that against the economic reality of where we are as a city. We have a cathedral, we have a city hall. We certainly refer to ourselves as the city of GT.

Sponsors: A successful marketing strategy always maps to a business strategy. Standard Banks sponsorship if the festival is SA's longest running arts sponsorship. They have been with us for nearly four decades now. Government funding is slightly different they are not driven by a corporate agenda; they are driven by a policy agenda. The DAC will say the Mzansi Golden Economy project is where we are getting our funding from and Mzansi Golden Economy priorities are job creation or social cohesion.

The conversation is not different between the DAC and Standard Bank. They are similar conversations that come from a different starting point, perhaps. The Eastern Cape government has also been sponsors of our for 15 years now and that is hugely successful and they have a mandate for their money which is to showcase the province in the context of the festival.

The partnership with Rhodes is obviously very important from logistical side. We use a lot of their accommodation and spaces as venues. But obviously there is a sharing of intellectual capital as well. We run the Thinkfest which is a winter school programmed by a professor and there is obviously a synergy between the two entities. We live in a university town, an education centre. It is part of our DNA and how we present ourselves every year. I am not sure that the festival can exist without the university and similarly the university does pretty well out of the festival in terms of its own marketing and positioning and the way it presents itself to the world and financially. It is a symbiotic relationship between the two entities and a good relationship.

This is my 20 something year of attending the festival. It is my 10th festival as CEO but my first ever festival was 1991 as a student at Rhodes. I have come most years since then in different capacities. I have never attended the festival as a festival goer. I have only ever worked here. In the first year I worked on the radio station, I ran a venue I came as a member of the media I came as a sponsor for a few years. I have always worked on it. I believe it is a great festival t come to and I look forward to doing that one day. Until then I am happy working for it.

CT Fringe

A few years back the board sat down and said the festival is great, it accounts for the lions' share of our revenue, it is our big event but in order to survive in today's market place as an arts business we need to look beyond an 11 day festival in GT once a year. We needed to start exploring and saving up other complimentary businesses. We established the CT Fringe Festival, the CT Buskers festival, a ticketing business called tickethub we have recently got involved with a touring production we are touring around the country and we are exploring a new event. All of those things contribute to the core of our business and make us less dependent financially on a single event. So, in theory a percentage of my salary gets paid from all these different activities. From a brand point of view it puts our brand in more spaces and establishes us more strongly as a multi-facetted arts brand. It is using our expertise. Our core business is we organise festivals and big events the more we can play it out in different environments the better it is for the sustainability of the brand.

 

 

 

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