Sharon Canavar - a look back on a successful year for Harrogate

PUBLISHED: 00:00 16 December 2016

Sharon Canavar

Sharon Canavar


I recently read an article on the cost of staging festivals – a cost that often left organisers crying in the portable loos. As we’re Harrogate, and not a greenfield festival, we may have plush toilets in beautiful venues, but we are not immune to the occasional eye-watering glance at the balance sheets.

Vice--president of Harrogate International Festivals, Lesley Garrett sings for Charles and CamillaVice--president of Harrogate International Festivals, Lesley Garrett sings for Charles and Camilla

The vagaries of weather can bankrupt greenfield festivals, making it one of the highest-risk businesses in the world. Research suggests as many as one in 10 could close down in 2017.

As a business, and more often than not a charity, festivals run on a knife edge, with logistical costs alongside artist fees. I often get asked why we don’t just stage headline mainstream music acts. Bob Dylan costs around £100,000, Madonna or Justin Bieber, £700,000.

As an arts charity, with a remit to ‘educate’ in the arts, not everything will be for everyone.

The Festivals that we programmed over the last 12 months, in our 50th anniversary year, were no doubt a resounding success – it offered a breadth and depth of events to cater for a wide-ranging audience; you can’t be an authentic arts festival if you only programme guarantee sell-outs. Innovation, nurturing new talent, reaching new audiences takes a degree of risk. You know a young up-coming violinist in a church, no matter how beautiful, won’t match the ticket-sale clout of Van Morrison.

Our programme had the big hitters – Van being one – but we featured over 30 events this year with 700 musicians, 150 authors, alongside a host of free-to-access events and community participation programmes. All this has cemented Harrogate’s position as the ‘North of England’s leading arts festival’. Our literary festivals have been top picks in Harper’s Bazaar, Elle, the Guardian and the Times. Our Young Musicians concert at the Royal Hall was broadcast live on BBC Radio 3 and our fire garden with Cie Carabosse attracted 25,000 people to the Festivals – an astonishing 60%+ had not previously attended a Festival event!

We delivered our largest music programme for decades, including a free concert of the music of LA composer, Christopher Tin, with over 250 performers. This year we supported more Young Musicians than ever with our unique Pay It Forward scheme, which featured leading musicians such as Julian Lloyd Webber and Sir Willard White hand-picking the stars of the future.

The Theakston Old Peculier Crime Writing Festival dominated social media reaching 8.2 million Twitter users, with 35.9 million impressions during the week of the Festival, and inspired a series of plays broadcast on BBC Radio 4 written by authors such as Ann Cleeves and Val McDermid, based on events at a ‘crime festival in Harrogate’. The Festival shapes the crime fiction market, hosting one of the most acclaimed accolades – the Novel of the Year awards.

Key political figures and journalists including James Naughtie, Vince Cable and Hugh Pym debated the future for the UK in a seismic season for politics as part of the Raworths Harrogate Literature Festival.

But brand, reputation and fantastic ticket sales don’t cover the costs. Footfall doesn’t always equate to profit, especially when you have events of varying popularity to remain artistically viable.

For our incredible centrepiece – a three-night Fire Garden in Valley Gardens – we kept ticket price low at £3 for adults, £1 for children and free for the under-5s, because this event was designed for all to enjoy, part-funded by the Yorkshire Festival, Harrogate Borough Council and myriad other funders. It cost at least £150k to stage, which is why sponsors and other supporters are as crucial as ticket sales.

The knock on effect of such cultural spectacles is of course priceless for the town’s economy, from ice-cream sellers to bars, restaurants, hotels, and retail, as well as giving the district a stronger position on the tourism map.

Unless we put the price up for all events by at least £10 per person, we wouldn’t break even. If we did this, we make the arts exclusive, available only for those with deep pockets. It is no longer a Festival for all with a charitable remit that inspires all ages from school children to pensioners.

So, is it worth it? Transforming lives through the power of music or literature? Inspiring new artists? Offering thousands of people the best times of the summer is a price we’re willing to pay when sweating over the spreadsheets; and it’s a price our supporters and sponsors know the true value of.

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