By Juliana Engberg

13 March 2018 - 11:00

Two men dancing on a stage
'Festivals are great opportunities to seek out new, risky work.' Photo ©

Valletta 2018 used with permission. 

We asked Juliana Engberg, past Programme Director of the European Capital of Culture, about her experience.

What do people gain by going to international cultural festivals?

Festivals are great opportunities to seek out new, risky work. As an audience member, you have the opportunity to dive into unique works while knowing that each piece has been carefully chosen to fit the festival's themes.

What work is going on to reach under-represented audiences for arts and culture festivals?

Most festivals these days have a responsibility to reach out to those audiences who would not usually, or who for reasons of remoteness or access, cannot view the main stage activity. Things that happen away from the main stage events – such as outreach to schools and touring productions – all have a role to play in reaching these groups. However, participation from both artists and audience members is important for achieving success.

With 19 municipalities to cater to in last year's European Capital of Culture programme, we had several ways of working for and with a variety of communities. We sent a group of choreographers to work with many different types of community organisations, including acting troupes and sports enthusiasts. The groups participated in co-created dance performances, which we later included in our finale. 

How do you appeal to people who question the importance of arts and culture?

You will never convince the people who adamantly resist arts and culture, and that’s fine. Festivals now, especially with free programmes and access, allow a vast number of people to get involved. Over 6,000 people participated in last year's opening ceremonies, from boat-builders to lantern-makers. The feeling of community at the event could not be understated. Art in today's society is truly for everyone, not just those with a degree or background in the field.

How can people interested in arts and culture gain experience and recognition in the field?

Practical experience is the best way to determine whether or not you want to pursue a career working on creative and cultural programmes. Volunteer, get involved, ask questions, and be prepared to work hard. Identify someone who you would like to serve as your mentor and approach them. Although it is helpful to hold a degree in curating or a similar field, most people who are great at their jobs have gained practical experience and are passionate about their work.

I studied fine arts and classics. However, my work in a variety of other areas – such as architecture, theatre, journalism and music – gave me the knowledge to pursue a career in artistic direction.

Are there any specific organisations or movements that are working to reach under-represented groups in the festival world?

The European Capital of Culture programme places an emphasis on unique, community-developed pieces, which means that work created by members of under-represented groups will be featured in every European Capital of Culture programme. In particular, the programme I curated included architecture for people living with autism, the ‘Good Madness’ festival for people with different abilities and Mikhail Karikis’ Chalk Factory, which celebrated the unique individual.

The goal is to nurture these groups and, in turn, add substance to the other programming already in place. I recently visited Leeuwarden to celebrate the opening of their year as a European Capital of Culture. The programme began with 200 story-telling events and singing ensembles, like shanty choirs performed by the local fishermen, that opened up the city and its culture to a vast public. It was a great way to unearth the unseen and unheard.

Do you have any tips for audience members seeking to get the most out of their festival experience?

Participate or view at least three things that are outside of your comfort zone. Even curators for well-known festivals encounter obstacles while searching for creators, audiences and participants. Since so many festivals have opportunities for participation, try to get involved. You may learn something in the process.

Find out how you can get involved in Valletta, the European Capital of Culture for 2018 and the five British Council projects at Valletta 2018, and others covered by our Capturing Valletta Student Journalists from the University of Malta

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