What has an arts festival to do with a viable future?

Introduction

by Carolyn Kagan

An open air Chorlton Arts Festival Event with Jam Tribe

An open air Chorlton Arts Festival Event with Jam Tribe

Steady State Manchester’s keystone Viable Economy and Society points the way forward for a way of living that is environmentally, socially and economically viable. It points to a possible future where human flourishing is the focus of economic activity, within planetary boundaries – achieved through activity at different levels, from households and neighbourhoods to Governments and coalitions of Governments. A socially viable economy, inseparable from the economic and environmental economies is, in part, one founded on stewardship, of increasing human and social capital, that does not waste people’s energies and talents, including everyone; it is one with an increased space for non-commercial transactions, widely known as the collaborative or solidarity economy.

What are the social aspects of a viable future?

"Mini masters" from St John's Primary School - a display of many pictures

“Mini masters” from St John’s Primary School

A viable future will depend on acts of solidarity, connection, and living with abundance but not with current levels of consumption. It will be one where people’s needs can be met locally, in diverse and pleasant places.

Whilst much can be achieved through national and regional policy making, it is at the local, neighbourhood level that communities will develop resilience and become better places to live. This will be achieved through developing complex networks of contribution rather than exchange; care not individual advancement; shared purpose not competition and profit. We need to strengthen and build new social infrastructure – that is, the spaces and places that bring society together: a social infrastructure that enables conviviality – those forms of social organisation that enable social trust and mutual dependencies, not self interest.

One such activity that we have been involved with is the local community arts festival; the Chorlton Arts Festival.

The Chorlton community Arts Festival: a case study of building social infrastructure for a viable future

Graphic produced live by artist Jenny Leonard at the 2022 Festival launch

Graphic produced live by artist Jenny Leonard at the 2022 Festival launch

The Chorlton Community Arts Festival is an arts festival run by local people, for local people, involving local artists. It is not a festival that brings in elite acts to attract visitors from afar. It is a Festival in which everyone from organisers to artists to venue hosts are local and give their time voluntarily and are not paid.

This year’s Festival was throughout the month of May and involved 169 events featuring hundreds of individual, or groups of, artists; 7 schools and 45 local venues. In addition some community groups put on their own mini-festivals lasting a week or a weekend during the month.

Artists included visual artists; photographers; film makers; online graphic artists; musicians; singer songwriters; choirs; poets; dancers; literary artists; puppeteers; sculptors; environmental artists; crafters; performance artists.

Events included exhibitions; performances; plays; choral sessions; films; classical music; jazz; hip hop; world music; poetry slams; puppet shows; book readings; cabaret; comedy; DJ sessions; participative drumming; workshops.

Venues included: private homes; streets; cafes; bars; golf club; community centres; sports and social clubs; church halls; local parks.

Audience sizes ranged from 6 – 200.

How did the festival contribute to social infrastructure, conviviality and a viable future?

The carbon footprint of the Festival was tiny – we printed some leaflets and programmes, but being local meant transportation costs were very low. We collected information via surveys of artists, venue hosts and visitors, as well as from the volunteers attending events in situ. We found a number of things.

Both artists and visitors enhanced their sense of place – visiting parts of the neighbourhood they had not previously known.

The Festival was fully owned by the community – organisers, sponsors, patrons, and the great majority of artists were all local or had strong connections with the neighbourhood. The Festival built on strengthened and extended existing social networks and gave opportunities, in local places for people to meet and enjoy themselves, thereby building social capital. Many of the venues were commercial venues and audiences spent money on food and drinks, locally, rather than travelling out of the neighbourhood for social activities. The festival afforded opportunities for developing skills, for both artists and organisers and Festival volunteers. Looking through a well-being lens, the Festival was built on giving away expertise and talent and sharing with others; it enabled audiences to experience local art with wonder, taking notice of things they had never before experienced; some events opened people’s eyes and ears to historical threads of art or to the possibilities of learning new techniques, or to participate in a hands-on workshop; the festival enabled people to connect with friends and new acquaintances in convivial surroundings. As the Festival was local and everything was within a short walking distance, visitors to the Festival were able to keep active.

Craftwork making the link between art and food

Making the link between art, activism and food – Chorlton Craftivists

Most importantly the arts festival enabled people to enjoy themselves in the company of others – whether this as part of the organising team, meeting strangers in the same exhibition, talking to an artist, going with the family to drumming in the park or celebrating with other artists at the launch event. Cafes and bars and restaurants offered hospitable surroundings where art could be appreciated. For one month the streets of the neighbourhood resounded to joyous, thought provoking and often unexpected interactions and experiences.

One of the artists summed up the Festival:

It’s brilliant to be able to share in such a festival and to see and encourage all the talent in the area. A great opportunity to come together as a community

Conclusion

This micro example, a community arts festival, illustrates some of the features of a socially viable future. A local arts festival, open and inclusive, has a part to play in contributing to a viable future. Its elements prefigure, for a short time, different ways of living – ones built on care, sharing, conviviality, well-being, flourishing and resilient communities, a contribution to places that support good lives for all. It encourages a focus on collective well-being, on fostering connections with others and a sense of purpose not competition or profit. It enables people to experience in action values of stewardship, community and social justice.

 

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