An Experience at the International Festival Academy Edinburgh

In March this year I was very lucky to attend the first International Festival Academy in Edinburgh, Scotland.  The one week festival management course is organized by Festivals Edinburgh in partnership with the British Council. My participation at the academy was courtesy of Intwasa’s long standing partnership with British Council Zimbabwe. My experience in Scotland, especially at the academy, was more than mind changing. Both my eyes were opened wide – and I got to look at festivals, even Intwasa itself, with new eyes. One of the major lessons I got from the one week learning experience was that festivals cannot be divorced first from the places in which they take place and secondly festivals can only make sense if they add meaning and value to the lives of the communities in which they take place. A big lesson indeed, especially for someone curating a project like Intwasa that sees itself as a community festival and project.Raisedon Baya2

My second big lesson was that it was very possible for more than one festivals to coexist and flourish in one city. Edinburgh itself has about 12 festivals that take place within a year and these coexist and try as much as possible to complement each other. The more the merrier. Actually, the more festivals the city hosts, the more employment opportunities created for artists and those who work behind the scenes during festivals.  I remember, during one of the breaks in lessons, reflecting on Intwasa, Ibumba and other arts initiatives like Voices of Colour working together to push Bulawayo arts and cultural activities to higher levels without trying to compete with each other. Was this even possible? I wondered. But if Edinburgh can bring 12 festivals to work together why can’t Intwasa and Ibumba lead in creating synergies that could benefit the city of Bulawayo artistically and culturally? If Edinburgh could do it then it was also possible for Bulawayo to do it!

My third lesson was that most festivals are almost the same. Most are going through the same challenges. Before travelling to the academy I was of the opinion that festivals in Africa had unique problems because of their geographical, political and economic landscape. How wrong I was. The 24 festivals represented at the academy came from the five contents – Africa, Asia, Europe, and South and North America. All 24 were diverse and different. However, almost all had similar challenges - challenges of funding, audiences, creating new markets, growth and relevance. Finding these common challenges made it easier to mix and share experiences.

The academy course was structured such that there was balance between theory and practice. All mornings were dedicated to theory – mostly lectures on fundraising, programming and marketing. All practical work was left for the afternoon. This was when participants visited different festivals, festival venues and other venues to get first-hand information and practical tips from practitioners. It was during these field trips that we got exciting tips on the business of running festivals. Afternoon sessions were more fun as the visits were structured in such a way that they enabled participants to see the city of Edinburgh, more as a cultural landscape than just another European city. As participants we saw a lot and got to absorb a lot of the city’s cultural life.

Besides the three big lessons mentioned above here are other lessons learnt from the International Festivals Academy. I learnt:

  1. The importance of striking a balance between passion and business models when running a festival. The only way festivals can be sustainable is when they are run like businesses.
  2. The Importance of linking city narratives to the festival as this usual helps with a concrete identity for the festival.
  3. The advantages of running festivals as a team. Successful festivals are run by a well-oiled team with different but complimentary skills.
  4. The importance of collaborations with anyone who shares the vision of the festivals.
  5. The importance of finding different sources of funding. Relying on one or two sources can be dangerous, particularly in the current situation where international funders are shifting their priorities.
  6. The importance of networking.

The five day course was highly beneficial and a life changing experience. This is an experience I would recommend to anyone running or thinking of running a festival anywhere in the world. It was a very relevant course on festival management.

Written by


Raisedon Baya - Festival Director 


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