The Art of Evaluation

Tools of the Trade

On my third day in London, I got lucky and was offered a place on a sold-out workshop hosted by the Live Art Development Agency that just sounded too intriguing to be missed. Here’s the description that caught my attention:

Fed up with the standard evaluation surveys? Situations and the University of Central Lancashire have been developing an innovative new group based evaluation method to move beyond overt measures of impact and unlock the deeper story of an artwork’s effects on the imagination.

Titled Thinking Beyond Measure, the day-long event, part of the Public Art Now national programme of events, promised a mixture of practice and theory to explore the scope of results and potential applications of what the research team calls the Visual Matrix: an interpretation process based on a series of images that act as prompts to elicit associative thinking and make it easier for people to think and talk about their experience.

The case studies we discussed were Nowhereisland, an itinerant, durational and participatory project by artist Alex Hartley produced by Situations in 2012 as part of Artists Taking the Lead, the Cultural Olympiad series of major commissions –  and Verity, the Damien Hirst’s half-sliced pregnant bronze warrior loaned for 20 years to the Devon resort of Ilfracombe, one of Nowhereisland’s port of call.

The research team, led by Professor Lynn Froggett and Dr. Ali Roy from UCLAN in association with Situations, conducted an evaluation in Ilfracombe on both works in 2013, one year on. They used the Visual Matrix alongside other forms of evaluation to explore Nowhereisland and Verity’s respective role in reflecting local engagement and citizenship, as well as their legacy in terms of change and transformation.

I’ve summarised a few key points from the day but there would be much more to say – not least about the contrasts in findings between the two selected works and between different methods.

Process

First, some disclaimers: the workshops featured two sample 20-minute Visual Matrix and participant feedback sessions, one on each work, so a short version of the 2 first steps of the full process. Besides, workshop participants had, for the vast majority, no direct experience of the artworks – this was meant to be an exercise. By contrast, the case studies that we were somehow reproducing had gathered people with a varied range of exposure to both artworks, from passer-bys to contributors, all living in Ilfracombe and therefore able to reflect on a personal and community level on the effect of these two artworks on citizenship and their legacy of change.

1. The Visual Matrix

Ideal group size should be between 6 and 20, with at least 2 facilitators.

– Chairs are arranged in a snowflake formation – concentric circles that are slightly out of alignment to avoid direct eye contact.

No introductions are made: this is to avoid the bias of expertise and authority that can sometimes be overwhelming in a traditional focus group.

– Participants are explained that they will be shown a slideshow of 20 to 30 images, each lasting for 10 seconds, about which they can then express what they feel – what it reminds them of, in which state of mind they find themselves. They are expressedly ask to suspend judgement and refrain from interpreting or analysing what they see, and instead to feel what the images do to them.

– In the ensuing 1-hour session, which can occasionally be stirred – but not chaired – by the facilitators, participants should be reaching a state of “rêverie”, gliding from one idea to the other. They are not quite holding a group conversation, but rather letting their mind go back to the images and the experience itself  and absorb the new thoughts and images produced by the group.

– A form of documentation, such as note-taking, audio and/or video recording – whichever is most practical and less intrusive – is essential to this stage of the process.

2. Feedback with participants

After a short break, the participants, guided by the facilitators, start pulling together the themes that emerge from the Visual Matrix. This was an interesting process of convergence, pulling together the threads of information produced in the first part of the session, and we worked as a group to make sense of what had been expressed. One of the facilitator organised the ideas in a visual form.

3. Feedback with research group

Reconvening after another break, the research group – now on their own – starts to analyse the participants’ responses, working on their memories and notes of the Visual Matrix session as well as the synthesis co-produced by the participants. The nature and quality of the metaphors and the vitality – or lack of – with which they were produced are equally taken into consideration.

4. Wider discussion

The last phase of the process looks once again at the Matrix results and the layers of interpretation created by the participants and the research group, and can involve external advisors if appropriate: the aim here is to expand and generalise the results, for example to the realm of policy-making.

Benefits of the Visual Matrix

The Visual Matrix is inspired by Social Dreaming and aims at unlocking the deeper effects of an artwork on the imagination. Because it is based on imagery and metaphors, and not on expertise or status, such process makes it easier for anyone to participate. All thoughts are valid and they feed into one another to express a rich and nuanced response to an artwork or situation.

It is essentially a collective, participatory process, which seems appropriate to explore the collective resonance of complex works of public art (or other situations in the public realm).

It is also an open-ended creative process, and as such closer to the artistic process itself than sliding scales of enjoyment or debates about taxpayers’ ROI.

Considerations

The workshop allowed plenty of time for a group exchange about theoretical and practical considerations, and here are the ones that stuck out for me.

A. Training

The Visual Matrix method has been used for a while in different settings, but introducing it as part of a new evaluation framework for the arts would take some dissemination and training. It would be interesting to get to practice the interpretation steps and to be guided by an experienced mentor, to be able to reap the full benefits in a set amount of time.

B. Participants

Results are highly influenced by the group composition, and the dynamics between the participants will have a bearing not just on what they produce, but also on the ‘quality’ of the matrix – whether it is solid and keeps going in a steady state of “rêverie”, or breaks down into analysis and critical judgement.

Participants for the two case studies presented mostly responded to invitations from mailing lists and in the local media; they were self-selected and not screened against specific criteria.

My concerns here are as much about outreach – to attract a varied group of participants – and effective facilitation, to create the right setting and understand barriers and biases.

C. Image selection

The matrix is supported by visual materials – although other types of sensory prompts could be used, such as sound or movement – so it seems rather important to choose them well. It is probably also worth stating to the participants that the sequence of images is not meant to form a narrative sequence.

Practical Applications

This is an interesting method not just for evaluating the effects and legacy of public art, but also any collective experience: for example, applied to a volunteer programme, this method would allow to go much deeper than focus groups to uncover the intrinsic motivations of arts volunteers and the benefits of volunteering. It enables to measure success in terms of effect, not just figures.

Just like any other evaluation method, the trick is in the interpretation of the findings – and as it’s the part of the Matrix that we didn’t get to do by ourselves, I look forward to more workshops and guided applications to learn more about the process.

 

www.situations.org.uk
www.uclan.ac.uk
www.publicartnow.com

Centre Pompidou-Metz: Audiences first!

Spotlight

“All our efforts will be aimed at provoking surprise, amazement and pleasure, and at stimulating and constantly renewing the public’s interest for contemporary art.”
Laurent Le Bon, director, Centre Pompidou-Metz

The Centre National d’Art et de Culture Georges Pompidou, in Paris, also known as Beaubourg, is a multi-use cultural complex housing a public library, a music research centre (IRCAM) and the Musée National d’Art Moderne, the second largest world collection of modern and contemporary art after MOMA. Opened in 1977 and designed by Renzo Piano and Richard Rogers, it is also an architectural statement, exposing its inner workings in Technicolor. The Centre Pompidou is a national institution, but a modern one; and that’s maybe why it was the first in France to open a decentralised outpost in a regional city.

In 2002, the Centre Pompidou considered a number of cities to host this new sister-institution, including Caen, Montpellier, Lyon, Nancy, Lille – and Metz, a 120,000-resident city just south of the border with Luxembourg, birthplace of poet Paul Verlaine, with a history dating back to Roman times and a claim to be the cradle of Gregorian chant.

Vue sur la ville depuis le Centre Pompidou Metz

Vue sur la ville depuis le Centre Pompidou Metz (CC) Dalbera

Le centre Pompidou Metz

Le centre Pompidou Metz (CC) Dalbera

Amongst other factors that guided the choice of the hosting city, Metz could offer the access to a large new potential audience (northern France, Belgium, Luxembourg and western Germany), an ongoing revitalisation project via a new “cultural quarter”, part of a wider political strategy to invest in the creative economy and, pragmatically, “the necessary financial capacity to invest in such a project”.

Construction started in November 2006 and the new museum was inaugurated in May 2010. Conceived by Japanese architect Shigeru Ban, known for his innovative work with paper and cardboard tubes, the 20,000m2 building is topped by a wood-and-teflon roof inspired by a Chinese hat. The surrounding landscaped gardens are designed on sustainable principles.

Roof detail - (CC) airdecker via Flickr

Roof detail – (CC) airdecker

Footbridge through the gardens - (CC) Dalbera via Flickr

Footbridge through the gardens – (CC) Dalbera

3 years after its official opening, the Centre Pompidou-Metz is the most visited temporary exhibitions space in France outside Paris, with a record number of visit of 600,000 in its first year of operation (May-December 2010) and around 500,000 annually.

The 5-to-6 annual exhibitions are unique to the museum and not simply scaled down from previous Parisian incarnations. The “essence” of the programming choices is aligned with the original Centre Pompidou’s mandate to be “a leading centre of information, exhibitions, research and initiatives in numerous fields of contemporary creation” and is complemented by multidisciplinary events and performances that can take place in all indoor and outdoor spaces. Young audiences and families are also catered for, with workshops, special events and dedicated guided tours.

Right now, visitors can enjoy an in-situ installation by French artist Daniel Buren; a selection of works from Sol LeWitt’s personal collection; an exhibition on the history of aerial photography;  an visual and acoustic immersive experience to dive into the Beat Generation; and a retrospective of Hans Richter’s work.

Sol LeWitt - "Wall Drawings" - (CC) Dalbera via Flickr

Sol LeWitt, “Wall Drawings” – (CC) Dalbera

Daniel Buren, Echos d'échos, 2013 -  (CC) Mark Feldmann via Flickr

Daniel Buren, Echos d’échos, 2013 – (CC) Mark Feldmann

The wide appeal of the artistic programming goes hand in hand with a progressive pricing policy, with a sliding scale admission fee, from €7 to €12, depending on the number of galleries open on the day of purchase, just like in the Guggenheim Museum Bilbao. An annual membership pass granting unlimited admission costs €33 the first year, €27 afterwards, and admission is free for everyone under-26, but also for teachers, artists, journalists, seniors, Centre Pompidou employees, job seekers, disabled people and their assistant. Performances – dance, music, theatre… – are priced between €5 and €20. Artists’ talks are free, screenings and other educational opportunities cost €5. Guided visits are offered in French, English, German and French Sign Language.

Just as Louvre-Lens was opening its doors in December 2012, just 300 km north-west of Metz, L’Express was announcing that the tourism economic impact of Centre Pompidou-Metz was valued at €70 million for its first year only, a full return on investment on the building cost; however, as the total public infrastructure investment is estimated at €250 million, the municipal authorities remain cautious about drawing hasty conclusions on the net worth of the project. So does the French government, which is not planning to build any further physical buildings in the near future, preferring to let these two projects develop and mature to assess their impact.

A detailed activity report is available on Centre Pompidou-Metz’s website (in French), with varied insights on, amongst others, its communication strategy, audience development policy, and even its HR and financial management.

Niki de Saint Phalle, Dragon, 1998, Metz train station - (CC) Dalbera via Flickr

Niki de Saint Phalle, Dragon, 1998, Metz train station – (CC) Dalbera

Centre Pompidou-Metz, lobby at sunset - (CC) Dalbera via Flickr

Centre Pompidou-Metz, lobby at sunset – (CC) Dalbera

This post is part of a series about new museums, inspired by a recent visit to the Guggenheim Bilbao Museum.

All images are licensed under Creative Commons and linked to their original location on Flickr.

Summer Summary 2: Audience Experiences

Tools of the Trade

I’ve only managed to cover a few of my recent wonderful (and free!) aesthetic experiences in the first part of my Summer Summary, so I’ll just mention here quickly my visits to the Walker Art Gallery (Liverpool), the Tate Modern & Britain and the Whitechapel Gallery (London) – although I do intend to come back to my wonderful time at the Guggenheim Museum Bilbao with the full-fledged post it deserves.

The second part is going to be all about the “working” side of my working holiday, but it’s not so much of a leap, because much of my work is actually concerned with the audience experience.

Part 2: The Audience Experience

The workshop: Growing Audiences for Jazz

One of the reasons for my summer(ish) European escapade was to deliver a workshop on audience development for NorVolJazz, a network of not-for-profit jazz promoters based in the north of England. My presentation is available online, and preparing it was a great way to reflect on what audience development means to me.

I started with a broad definition by Arts Council England, of which I like not only the multi-function approach (which suits my generalist nature), but also the distinction between audience development as a process (which is where most organisations stop) and ethos:

The term Audience Development describes activity which is undertaken specifically to meet the needs of existing and potential audiences and to help arts [and cultural] organisations to develop ongoing relationships with audiences. It can include aspects of marketing, commissioning, programming, education, customer care and distribution.

Audience development can focus on finding audiences outside the mainstream –i.e. “new audiences” or “audiences from socially excluded groups”. Audience development also reflects the relationship with audiences that develops over time with a focus on the long term.

As a process, audience development employs a range of marketing tools such as research, publicity, communication and customer relationship management.

As an ethos, audience development places the audience at the heart of everything the organisation does.

(source: Wikipedia / Arts Council England)

The last sentence is particularly relevant to the small organisations and independent promoters I was talking to: it’s about a reversal of perspective, from perceiving audience development efforts as an extra – and optional – financial or time cost to thinking first and foremost about people who come – or don’t come yet – to the gig: they ARE the gig.

Of course, it’s easier said than done, and it takes time and commitment, but the mistake would be to think that if audiences don’t come, it’s because you lack money or special skills. Sure, it might help – but the key here is to adopt the audience’s point of view and to think through their complete experience, from the moment they hear about the gig to after they’ve left the venue. I approached this in my workshop with a narrative structure, getting participants to think about how to “make them come”, “make them stay” (a personal worry, with jazz) and “make them come back”. This all goes well beyond the music: knowing in advance about the length of the sets or when the kitchen closes, for example, could make all the difference in the decision to come or not.

Going further, this 2009 series of briefings on audience development commissioned by East Midland Jazz was developed to be used directly by small promoters, avoiding jargon and helping out with decision-making. Although it is based on a specific regional audience and offer, most of it can be used as a starting point for a reflection on motivations and barriers, developing younger audiences, persuading more people to come to jazz more often and pricing.

In 2011, US-based Technology in the Arts published a guide called Online Audience Engagement: Strategies for Developing Jazz and Classical Audiences, also very practical and action-oriented, with some interesting case studies to provide best practice examples.

The Meeting: The Experience Business

Looking for inspiration for my workshop, I researched a few different case studies, some of which I’ve summarised in a previous post about innovative audience development initiatives for classical music. I also stumbled upon a goldmine of tips and insights when I discovered The Experience Business, a UK-based arts consultancy that has truly taken to heart the audience-centered ethos advocated by Arts Council England.

I met with founder and director Lisa Baxter just between her lecturing and workshop tour in Australia and the Mindcamp Creativity Conference in Canada that she attends regularly. Her approach is resolutely boundary-crossing, breathing fresh life into arts marketing by drawing from design thinking and user experience design, applying advanced creative facilitation methods and working with full organisations (and not just the marketing or senior executive team).

On her website, she’s sharing the books and quotes that influence her thinking, as well as this video by Tedde van Gelderen, CEO of Akendi, that presents what Experience Design is and can do:

The Book: The Audience Experience

Fittingly, Lisa Baxter contributed a chapter to a book that I had ordered just before meeting her, The Audience Experience: A Critical Analysis of Audiences in the Performing Arts. Written by a wide range of arts research academics and practitioners, it aims at addressing the following question: “What are audiences thinking, feeling and doing as a product of their engagement with arts practices?” It is redefining the now-ubiquitous term ‘audience engagement’ as “audiences that are engaged in both experiencing and remembering”, hence going much, much further than the traditional bums-on-seats approach.

The chapters explore, amongst other topics, audience response to new trends in arts presentation, such as ‘Alternative Content’ (i.e. live streaming of a performance in a cinema, used for opera, theatre, ballet and music) (CH. 2, Barker); the influence of venues and settings in shaping the audience experience and participation pattern (CH. 4, Brown); new methodologies to understand in greater depth the meaning of performing arts experiences (CH 5, Foremand-Wernet and Dervin; CH. 8, Baxter, O’Reilly and Carnegie; CH. 10, Radbourne; CH. 11, Johanson); and the relation between playing and listening to music, or studying and watching dance, and its influence in shaping the audience experience (CH. 6, Pitts; CH. 9, Vincs).

It’s probably best to leave it to the audience to describe what the audience experience actually is, so here are a couple of quotes gathered through some of the book’s case studies:

What I love about audiences in the theatre is that collective surge that can sometimes happen. It’s not always palpable but there’s a sense of everyone moving forward, or of relief, or maybe of being uncomfortable, or feeling the next person next to you, reacting. It’s a reflection of the emotional character of what’s going on.

When you go to a live performance, it’s happening, it’s in the zone, it’s transcendent. You feel like you’re a part of something special: you’ve actually been present, you’ve borne witness to something.

And a final one from an audience member whose life might very well have been changed by a successful audience development campaign:

Wow, I have never given much respect or thought to this classical music genre, but this was actually very delightful music … Why haven’t I been introduced to this music before? … I have often been told that classical music is boring or not ‘great’ music. I’m disappointed that I let other people’s point of of view distort my taste in music … This music definitely changed my opinion on the genre, not to mention I will be listening to this stuff more than I have.

Klassik im Club

Tools of the Trade

I am preparing a workshop on audience development for jazz promoters in the North of England, and to procrastinate in a productive way, I have decided to research case studies for a completely different genre. Classical music has its own challenges, and even if the initiatives below don’t apply fully to a different context, there is a transferable lesson to be drawn from their success: they are offering audiences not a new content, but a new way to experience it.

There are plenty of questions about the future of classical audiences in this lecture given by music critic Alex Ross to the Royal Philharmonic Society – considering the etiquette, rules on applause, participation… – which the examples below address in their own way. Too expensive, too stuffy, too complicated, too boring: no wonder audiences are not flocking to the concert hall, unless these perceived barriers are efficiently removed.

The price factor: tsoundcheck

The Toronto Symphony Orchestra (TSO) offers $14 tickets (about £9) to audience members aged 15-35. The scheme, called tsoundcheck, has its own microsite, a dedicated ticket desk on concert nights and even a subscription series. Only selected performances are available for tsoundcheck members – so no Lang Lang at $14 – but they also get offers on concerts outside the scheme. Online registration is mandatory, which is perfect to track audience behaviour. The very nice touch in this scheme is that tsoundcheck members can purchase 2 tickets, and there is no age restriction for their guest. Last time I went with a friend, I bought me a drink at the venue and we were pretty much even. Members also get their own parties, with a chance to mingle with musicians and sponsors like any other symphony patron, and they are encouraged to volunteer to support the education and outreach efforts of the TSO.

From the TSO Media Room:

With over 24,000 TSOUNDCHECK tickets being sold annually (and over 10% the TSO’s total ticket sales being from TSOUNDCHECK members), the TSO audience is one of the youngest and most diverse in classical music.

Cheap tickets for younger audiences are quite the norm in orchestra marketing, but what makes this scheme special is the membership system, the dedicated website and the subscription offers, that all add up to offer an easy transition from non-audience to regular subscriber. The age range is also considerably extended compared to other discount offers, which are usually up to 25 or, at a push, 30.

tsoundcheck offers can be announced 1 week before the performance, so one would suspect that it’s also a good way to paper the house (i.e. get bums on seats) for slow-sellers, but this last-minute mode can also appeal to an audience that sees going to the symphony as just one of their activities and like to seize such bargains.

The TSO season is full of interesting takes on changing the audience experience, such as the Afterworks series (earlier, shorter and with free mini-burgers) and the Exposed: What Makes it Great?® (puzzingly ‘registered’) series, where “each program features a first half of discussion and demonstration from the featured work, followed by a full performance of the piece.”

The beer factor: The Night Shift 

Drinks are always welcome, even encouraged, at our events and we’ve ditched those irksome classical rules – so feel free to drink, cough, clap or even boo when you like.

This is coming from an orchestra that plays only with period instruments – but also that ran a series of photos entitled ‘Not all audiences are the same’, featuring musicians and audience members, as in the example below. The Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment has made it his mission to change the rules and break the conventions, as shows their take on audience development.

The Night Shift also gets its own microsite, describing the series as a “unique classical night brought to you by the Orchestra of the Age of the Enlightenment”: “Running since 2006, it puts great classical music in a different context; Late-night, laid-back and contemporary. An hour-long classical concert, presented from the stage is the centrepiece, but is bookended by other live performances and DJs.”

Concerts can also take place in unconventional venues, for classical music at least, such as the Pub Tour, which initial season last year saw OAE playing “in 5 packed pubs across London, bringing Purcell, Pints and Pork scratchings to your local”. A crowdfunding campaign is about to be launched to support the next Pub Tour, fittingly for an ensemble that plays so close to its audience.

A case study available on cultural marketing knowledge hub Culture Hive  explains the origin of the Night Shift, springing from a 2005 series called Listening in Paris that “examined the radical change in concert going that occurred in 18th and 19th century Paris – a period which saw audiences transformed from being rowdy and irreverent into the quiet well behaved ones we know today”

The idea to experiment with the experience of listening to music came next, and OAE launched the first Night Shift in 2006. Here are a few key points taken from the case study:

  • Constant evaluation, important in securing funding for the event and also in monitoring audience satisfaction.
  • Crucially this is a sustained programme. We only got the produce ‘right’ at the third event. In order for a programme like this to be successful, we believe that a sustained approach to programming is necessary, rather than mounting a one-off event.
  • This kind of programme is an investment. Return on marketing is lower than for a traditional concert as this audience is harder to reach.
  • Be aware of events and periods that may impact on the target audiences ability to attend i.e. we try not to schedule events outside of university term time
  • Make it fun.

The next Night Shift event, at historical Wilton’s Music Hall, is priced at £12 advance, £15 on the door, £4 students – another factor that makes it easily accessible.

OAE has also launched a new series called The Works,  “the classical music equivalent of a museum audio-guide, taking you through the piece step-by-step. Afterwards there’s a Q+A with the Orchestra and then a full performance of the music.” The event is sometimes followed by a speed dating session with the orchestra members, allowing 1-to-1 interaction between patrons and players.

The club factor: Yellow Lounge

Yellow Lounge brings classical music bang up-to-date, leaving a trail of twin-sets, pearls and grey suits in its wake.

Established seven years ago in the Berlin club scene, Yellow Lounge took the classical rule book and tore it up before ingeniously stitching it back together.

Kicking and screaming, flashing and dancing, Yellow Lounge fuses the greatest international performers with cutting-edge DJ and VJ sets in a variety of urban spaces.

Experience the evolution of music.

If it all sounds rather threatening, it could be because Yellow Lounge is not just a late-night classical series, but also a Universal MusicDeutsche Grammophon initiative (hence the colour), and it has a certain corporate whiff about it. Launched in 2001 in a Berlin club, the event is now happening in London and Paris, as well as Amsterdam, Salzburg, Zürich, Vienna, Stockholm, Rio de Janeiro, Dublin – and more. Programmed in iconic clubs such as Fabric (London), Berghain (Berlin) or Batofar (Paris), the event is priced at £6 / €10 for advance tickets, again significantly lowering the price barrier generally associated with classical music. Berlin organiser David Canisius explain in this interview that such low prices are made possible by the association with DG, from which roaster the artists are regularly taken: Hélène Grimaud, Emerson String Quartett, Daniel Hope, Magdalena Kožená, Hilary Hahn, Andreas Scholl, Albrecht Mayer…

Whereas tsoundcheck and Night Shift aim at building a new type of relationship between audience members and an orchestra, Yellow Lounge seem to be shifting the focus on the crowd – the club experience is a collective one – and the star performers. Interestingly, the ‘About’ section on Yellow Lounge Facebook page identifies the barrier for new, younger audiences as “the main audience at classical concerts, predominantly grey haired people in grey suits”, and the biggest challenges for newcomers as “how to dress right, how to behave properly, how to know when to applaud”. Their solution: programme classical music in conditions familiar to the clubbing audience, from bouncers to VJs.

New Yellow Lounge websites are popping up for the varied national scenes they serve, and the event is of course very active on social media, with a dedicated Facebook pages and Twitter accounts per country.

Here is British violinist Daniel Hope at techno club Berghain, which, accordint to Wikipedia, “has a strong reputation for decadence and hedonism” – and plenty more photos that prove that classical music is not that stuffy after all.

Daniel Hope & Friends @ Yellow Lounge,  23JAN11 Berghain © Stefan Hoederath

Festival City 3: Avignon

Spotlight

France, 1947. The sound of the cicadas in the sun. A poet, Jean Villar. A vision: democratic art. An explosion: le Festival d’Avignon.

Fast forward to 2013: you get the largest theatre festival in the French-speaking world, rich with ground-breaking premières, artistic innovation, policy discussions and an ever-growing Fringe. It bears quite a few common points with the other big French festival, Cannes: it’s been running for over 60 years; it brings thousands of people (and euros) to a small city far from Paris, year after year; and it has a long and complex history, mixed in with politics and social issues.

Here are a few fun facts and key points about this very French cultural institution.

Birth of a Festival

The Festival starts in 1947 as a “Theatre Week” in this quaint southeastern French town (also known as the “City of Popes” and famous for its bridge and its Demoiselles). Jean Vilar, poet, theatre director and firm believer in an “elitist theatre for all”, is invited by fellow poet René Char and art critic Christian Zervos to present his version of T.S. Eliot’s Murder in the Cathedral – and ends up instead proposing Shakespeare’s Richard II, then little-known in France, and plays by French playwrights Maurice Clavel and Paul Claudel. The first edition is a success and the festival is reconvened for several years, enjoying critical and audience success and allowing Jean Vilar to consolidate his group of prefered actors and his artistic vision.

In 1951, Jean Vilar also takes the lead of the Theâtre National Populaire, an artist-led, audience-focused theatre on the outskirts of Paris. The Festival d’Avignon takes its cue from this “popular” mandate and becomes a place to discuss the future of theatre and its audiences, political and social issues, cultural policy and new artistic directions. Young people are especially welcome to participate; as early as 1959, and still to this day, special accommodation arrangements are offered to encourage French and international youths aged from 14 to 27 to attend the festival at a lesser cost. Under-25 and unemployed people can get tickets for as little as €14 (and the highest ticket price is, anyway, only €40).

Le “In” et le “Off”

In the beginning, there was only one festival, actually first called “Theatre Week”. In 1966, one production was offered to the public independently from the official festival; this growing trend towards an alternative scene got recognised by the official Festival when in 1968, year of widespread social unrest in France, Maurice Béjart  invited the cast and crew of a censored play (La Paillasse aux seins nus) to join him on the stage of the Cour d’honneur, the most prestigious festival space. From 1982, the “Off” (a reference to “off Broadway”) became a professional structure, and both festivals now run in parallel every summer.

“Le In” got its name fairly mysteriously (it probably sounded better that “Le On” to French ears) but is in essence the official Festival, established as a non-profit and publicly funded, whereas “le Off” is in fact a coordination and promotion service offered to participating companies: “Off” organisers put together a brochure, establish rules about street-level advertising and manage a discount scheme for audiences, but they don’t have a say in the selection, which happens organically and is left to negotiations between theatre companies and venues. Originally conceived as an alternative to the establishment that the official festival was thought to represent, it has evolved towards a commercial fair model and often comes under criticism for the high-cost venue rental market that it has created (and the resulting low or nonexistent artistic fees).

In

The 67th Festival d’Avignon runs from 5th to 26th July 2013.

According to its “festival in figures” page, it usually programmes 35 to 40 productions, with a total number of around 300 shows presented  in about 20 different spaces, often open air and historical. It also offers artists’ talks, professional forums, art exhibitions or installations (Sophie Calle in back again this year), and dance, music, fireworks and screenings.

Its budget – 55% public funding, 45% sponsorship and sales – amounts to €12 million, and its economic impact (for the official festival only) was estimated at €23 million in 2001.

Ticket sales vary between 120,000 and 150,000 a year, and 20,000 to 40,000 audience members take part in the free events. About 35% visitors are locals, while 20% come from Paris region, 35% from other French regions and 10% from abroad. Since 2008, the festival is consistently above 93% of its capacity.

Off

Le Festival OFF d’Avignon runs from 8th to 31 July 2013. In 2012, 104 venues and a total of 194 stages were used by 975 companies (including 143 coming from 27 different countries) performing 1161 shows.

Over 1,000 theatre companies and 1,300 shows and events are announced for this year.

For comparison, in 2012, the Edinburgh Festival Fringe (arguably the largest arts festival in the world, also operating as an open-access theatre festival) counted 2695 different shows staging 42,096 performances in 279 venues by 22,457 performers.

“Le Off” is the wild and unpredictable side of Avignon, where self-funded productions compete on the street with their posters and flyers to grab the attention of the patrons and critics. The “employment” section of the Off website is actually full of job demands and offers for street promotion – but rather sadly, the only type of contract available seems to be unpaid internship. The Village is a gathering place to buy tickets and membership cards, listen to artists or critics,

As well as promoting the whole of the programme, the Off offers financial support to theatre companies who meet the required criteria, thanks to a €40,000 funding pot.

2003 Arts Workers strike

Another notable quirk of Le Festival d’Avignon is the memorable arts workers’ strike – and subsequent cancellation of the 2003 festival. In France, arts workers – artist, administrators and technicians – fall into a special employment category called “intermittents du spectacle”, because of the fluctuating nature of their work; instead of being freelance, as is more common in other countries, they tend to be contracted for a fixed length of time (“Contrat à Durée Déterminée”), and their status allows them to claim unemployment benefits if they have completed at least 507 hours over 10 months.

In 2003, following changes affecting the social protection of arts workers, negotiations between beneficiaries, unions and employers came to a headlock, and after 11 days and 11 nights of talks, the 57th Festival d’Avignon was cancelled for the very first time in its history. A few other festivals in France followed suit, including nearby Aix en Provence and the Francofolies de La Rochelle, but the Off went on with only 100 productions cancelled.

Here is an 8’ video about the strike created by Manu Larriaga for the SACD (Société d’Auteurs et Compositeurs Dramatiques).