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Interview with Stewart Collins, Chair of the British Arts Festivals Assocation

By Carla Rees, Jan 2009


CR: What does the British Arts Festivals Association do?

SC: BAFA is an umbrella body that both promotes the whole festivals sector in the UK as well as providing services for its members – ‘best practice’ advice, professional development, news updates, job opportunities, national networking meetings – and maintaining contacts with other national and international organisations working within the arts. 

CR: What will your role as Chair entail?

SC: I will be leading regular meetings and deciding strategy in terms of advocacy – speaking to and with national and international bodies; I will also be trying to strengthen membership by bringing in new members, extending our reach to different types of festival – music, literary, street, comedy etc - and I will be trying to bringing together a voice for all sorts of festivals… arts festivals are quite distinct from the ‘weekend’ form of rock and folk festival, but there is much that we share in common.

CR: How do you see the current economic climate affecting the cultural industries in this country?

SC: Potentially a big problem as will be the case throughout the economy; by and large arts organisations are very well run, have robust structures and have a great deal of local support and loyalty that could help overcome some of the stresses and strains of the next few months, but there’s no doubt that selling tickets and raising sponsorship is going to require a good deal of extra effort in a difficult environment. There will quite possibly be a reduction in artists coming from abroad – the drop of Sterling has had a dramatic impact on the costs of importing overseas artists. I shall have to cancel one of my overseas acts in the New Year for that specific reason.

CR: Will artistic decisions be forced to alter as a reaction to the credit crunch? For example, will promoters be forced to sacrifice new works or lesser known artists in order to guarantee ‘safer’ audience numbers?

SC: Good question: there is a risk that people will try to go for extra numbers at the expense of more imaginative and innovative programming, but the huge growth in audiences in recent years has largely been among the younger sections of the public and they have shown an interest in new and unusual art forms so I think the most successful events will be the ones that stick to their guiding principles and play to their strengths rather than just going for the easy dollar.

CR: You are the Director of the Henley Festival – can you tell us a bit about its background?

SC: The Henley Festival grew out of the Henley Royal Regatta, the regatta owners seeing that they had a magical site on their hands with great facilities for public events that were only used for one week in the year. The Festival gained its independence from the Regatta nearly 20 years ago and has subsequently expanded into one of the largest mixed art form festivals in the country presenting all types of music, dance, comedy, street theatre, art and sculpture. In common with most arts festivals the presentation of new work and commissions has always been important, and this coming year alone we have seven brand new projects programmed. A major community and education programme has been built on the success over several years of the main summer event.

CR: The Henley Festivals trust continues its work throughout the year – can you tell us something about that work and your involvement with it?

SC: Most people who live or work in the arts – or indeed attend concerts/performances – do so because relatively early in their lives they were turned on to music and performance. I am certainly one of those, and I see it a real duty of arts organisations to continue that mission of bringing inspiring people into everyday lives as often and as early as possible. This is also the case with the disadvantaged who we also work with and where the exposure to and involvement with the creative arts is wholly life enhancing and improving. Within the Henley Festival organisation my role is to devise and direct the community projects and bring in artists and performers who have something exceptional to offer.

CR: What considerations do you take into account when programming your own festival?

SC: My guiding principal at Henley is ‘to give people what they want, but not what they expect.’ In other words, they expect to see and hear great performances by musicians, actors, dancers, artists, sculptors and comedians but I always try and give things a twist; yes, ensure that we programme the kind of people that will sell our tickets for us, but I also introduce new and quirky things wherever I can. The format I have evolved at Henley over the years reflects my own conviction that wit, imagination, novelty and ingenuity can touch all. You shouldn’t be able to leave an evening at the Henley Festival without feeling a good deal better about yourself.

CR: How did you come to be involved in festival management? Can you give us a synopsis of your career so far?

SC: My career kicked off as a singer/performer working with a vocal group which I helped co-found whilst at Cambridge University – Cantabile. They still work and perform around the world as I did for 10 years, but in 1991 I decided I wanted to explore writing and broadcasting opportunities as well as performing by myself. The Henley job happened almost by accident – I saw the job advertised and thought it was something I could do. I obviously managed to persuade the selection panel that that was the case - although it took me three years to feel that they and I had made the right decision. You need a lot of different skill sets as a festival director and the initial learning curve was very steep.

CR: Thank you for your time. Is there anything else you’d like to add?

SC: It’s probably worth mentioning that the greatest joy of being a festival director – other than actually being there during the festival seeing all the ideas come to fruition – is the hunting for new artists, performers, ideas and ways of shaking up the formula. I see well over 100 shows a year, I travel abroad to see shows and I get the chance to indulge my own ideas working with some of the people I meet. There are genuine difficulties in doing the job – artists and managers can be difficult, and sometimes it can be hard to persuade people about a new and potentially costly idea that doesn’t have any kind of track record to recommend it, but basically it is a very very satisfying job.


PS A wonderful spin off from the Henley Festival was the invitation to direct an international festival that takes place every year in Barbados (The Holders Season). That’s not a bad spin off and I’ve now been doing that for 10 years.


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