Why festival-goers should always try something new and unfamiliar

Folk collective Bellowhead created a wealth of new audiences

Folk collective Bellowhead created a wealth of new audiences - Credit: Archant

Dip into something different at Harrogate International Festivals, urges Sharon Canavar

Once upon a time, I thought if you booked an artist or an author, ensured a venue and then shouted about it, people would want to come. Turns out, I was wrong. Programming is a dark art and as for audience development and marketing, it’s a science. Then even if you pass the tests of magic and science, you’ve got to look at geography and where you deliver your work. Is the town of Harrogate worthy of funding or should the monies go to an area in the North that is perceived to be more in need?

Then there’s ensuring that what you programme is of ‘artistic excellence’. An amazing writer and the founder of Fun Palaces, Stella Duffy said, ‘excellence of artistic quality can only ever be a subjective value’. I think she’s right.

Harrogate International Festivals delivers programmes right across the year and as such, I’m pretty sure that the idea of excellence for say, the young lad we reach with our DJ-ing workshops is different to the audience that attends our chamber concert series in the spring. Yes, a programme should challenge people, it should bring something to the area that otherwise might not be seen, be that international artists, groundbreaking theatre or some offbeat visual artist that hasn’t yet received the platform they deserve. But shouldn’t our audiences also enjoy what they see or hear? Or more importantly, in this age of mindfulness shouldn’t great music and literature allow you to reflect, make you feel, tap your toes or dash to the bookshop to pick up a book from a writer you’ve just heard speak? Isn’t that what excellence should mean?

There’s also something to be said for programming events that you know the audience will enjoy - they just don’t know it yet. This is where participation and getting involved in your communities makes such a difference. When the ground-breaking folk collective Bellowhead programmed a series of Young Musicians in our Spiegeltent for us, it created a wealth of new audiences for young folk artists as well as encouraged people to buy a ticket to see Bellowhead themselves. Ultimately it comes down to convincing your audience to trust your judgement.

Because of the Theakstons Old Peculier Crime Writing Festival, we have become known as the ‘Glastonbury of Crime’, selling out a number of hotels before the programme is announced. It’s an annual smash – after all, the crime genre dominates our book-shelves and TV screens. The arts however, should always be challenging, stretching and breaking new ground if a festival is to be more than just putting bums on seats. As we reach our 50th anniversary in 2016, we need to balance those perennial favourites with risk-taking. We also need to balance the books. With just two per cent public funding, we rely on commercial hits. It’s our duty to walk that line.

And so it’s over to you – our audiences. I urge you to try something unexpected, to support the festivals eclectic mix, so we can reach everyone from that DJ-ing young lad to the retired classical music lover, and all the different tastes and inspirations in between. We all deserve excellence, however you define it. w

Sharon Canavagh is chief executive of Harrogate International Festivals