Arts Festivals and Their Cities: How to Think About a Complicated Relationship

Cecile Sachs Olsen at Zurich University of the Arts examines cultural policy as it relates to festivals, arguing that the primary aim of most current policy is to charter economically profitable, tourism-boosting, and image-enhancing festivals, while overlooking their potential for cultural impact. She thus demonstrates the necessity of rethinking extant policy, advocating for a shift toward policy that promotes "heterotopic" festivals – those which exist primarily to foster cultural dialogue and experimentation.

To begin to envision an improved policy, Olsen melds together two frameworks that guide policy rationales. The first, dubbed the "Four E's", explores four policy goals that often shape municipal cultural policy: enlightenment, economic impact, entertainment, and empowerment. The second is the "policy proper/policy as display" dichotomy, which distinguishes between narrow, concrete agendas that are explicitly stated in policy and those that are implicit and connected with broader political, economic, and ideological issues. The shortcoming of both of these frameworks, Olsen argues, is that they are structured to focus on only one element contained within at the expense of the others. This is a significant shortcoming, as such structures affect festival planning and production, thus indirectly impacting their overall success. Because of this relationship Olsen asserts that festivals can be most fully realized when cultural policies and festival plans align.

She then examines three European festivals to validate this claim empirically. She concludes that Manchester and its FutureEverything festival exemplify complementary city policy and festival planning due to their mutual emphasis on innovation. In contrast, Vienna and its SOHO festival and Copenhagen and its Metropolis festival are examples in which city policy and festival plans are partially (Vienna) or wholly (Copenhagen) misaligned. In Vienna this is due to the disparity between the respective economic goals of the city and the festival, while in Copenhagen it is due to the differing experimental comfort levels of the city and the festival, among other things.

Ultimately, Olsen recommends that cultural planners be mindful of every element of her conjoined framework. This will allow heterotopic festivals to reach their full sociocultural potential.

Olsen, Cecilie Sachs. 2013. "Re-thinking Festivals: a Comparative Study of the Integration/Marginalization of Arts Festivals in the Urban Regimes of Manchester, Copenhagen and Vienna." International Journal of Cultural Policy 19(4): 481-500. doi: 10.1080/10286632.2012.661420