Why ambition has a key role to play in arts and culture

Supporters of the Harrogate International Festivals gather at the Sun Pavilion, Harrogate for Future

Supporters of the Harrogate International Festivals gather at the Sun Pavilion, Harrogate for Future 50 fundraising event earlier this year - Credit: Archant

We should celebrate ambition says Sharon Canavar as she begins to plan the next Harrogate International Festivals

We can be a bit funny about ambition in the UK. Madonna once remarked of her time here that she could never understand why being openly ambitious was frowned upon. That being ambitious somehow tramples on everything else, o=r is unfeminine, or shouldn’t be trusted.

Let’s reframe it. Ambition sparks ideas and motivates. At its most basic, it can simply be about survival, ensuring a valuable organisation remains viable, and continues to engage and challenge. We’ve just hosted our 50th festival and 2016 marks our 50th anniversary. To be anything but ambitious would be disingenuous to audiences, yet how to walk that tightrope?

Being in the throes of evaluating this July’s summer festivals, it’s a time to reflect: what flew, what could potentially be done better? It’s a bit like getting exam results. It gives you an idea of how well you’ve performed, but it doesn’t tell the whole story.

Ambition and running a charity take a bit of juggling. You are answerable to audiences; yet we have a mission statement we can’t drift too far from - even if it means sacrificing someone’s favourite musician or author, as resources are pulled to deliver educational outreach work, say. And so, we’re in Back to School mode, with our (ambitious!) pencils sharpened.

Producing a myriad of literature, music and arts festivals always feels a little like a series of exams. Did we give the right answers, did we challenge thinking? And looking to next year, we need to secure bums on seats and still push riskier, new territory. It is, as it should be, testing.

Reflecting on the 200 plus events and the wealth of talent we welcomed to Harrogate this July, with 300 musicians and over 100 authors, it’s important to see what a brilliant show was achieved.

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We’re a creative organisation, brimming with ideas and plans. Of course, ambition is often hindered by resource, but it should never be hampered.

It’s worth remembering, you can please some people some of the time, but not all people, all of the time. It would be boring (and quite impossible) to do otherwise.

Ambition should be safeguarded and celebrated as a driving force. If it weren’t, you could end up lowering your aspirations.

And so, returning to the education analogy, it’s now when we start to think about a new term, with brand new pencil cases, shiny new shoes and a head full of dreams. Those creative ideas that have been bubbling away on the back burner are starting to make sense and maybe, maybe, become possible!

There’s always a great ambition to make the festival bigger and better, engaging more people, creating exciting programmes, to get people talking. We are unapologetically ambitious. Next July? The game is on! w

Sharon Canavar is chief executive of Harrogate International Festivals