Kathrin Deventer’s mosaic festival bits

Kathrin Deventer General Secretary EFA

Kathrin Deventer is EFA’s General Secretary General from 2008 on. Belonging to the Generation Europe, as she herself describes her, she believes in sharing experiences and building long term visions and strategies for bridging and our “the same in their difference” worlds.

At the end of October, Kathrin Deventer, the Secretary General of the European Festivals Association (EFA) came to Bulgaria to participate in a conference, organized by the Bulgarian Festivals Association.

The event was held in Plovdiv and aimed at giving a platform to the various cultural and political entities, involved in the process of creating  and managing festivals. We had had the opportunity and the pleasure to meet Ms Deventer and enjoy an enriching conversation with her about the festivals, the role of art in society and last, but not lest, the idea behind the Capital of Culture 2019.

A pocketful of insights

Interview by Teodora Petkova

After more than an year of working on the content of Events in Bulgaria, it’s probably not a coincidence that I had the chance to meet Kathrin Deventer from EFA. Not only she has a multifaceted understanding of festivals, i.e. of shared experience, but her insights about arts, art management, as well as content creation and curation are remarkably vivid, emotional and sophisticated.

A true mosaic of festival bits [Festival Bytes (sic!) is the name of EFA’s blog]

What was the first Bulgarian Festival that you attended, if ever?

Oh, no, no , that’s not my first visit to Bulgaria. I’ve been to Bulgaria many times and the first festival is actually the oldest festival in Bulgaria which is the Varna Summer Music Festival, it was in 2008, I think, and I was there for the festival, it celebrated an 85th anniversary at that time, and we prepared the Atelier for young festival managers which then happened in 2009 in Varna.

The Atelier is a training program for young festival managers that we organize. And we did it for the first time in Gerlitz, Germany, and we choose Varna to be the city for the second edition, because we believed that many young festival managers have never been to Bulgaria, have never been to South Eastern Europe, and we used this format of a training program to introduce them to places they might not have been before. 45 people came from 30 different countries  and spend 7 days in Varna, we had a good time.

Were there Bulgarian young festival managers?

As well, but they came from all over, we made an open call  and then young people subscribed for the open call, and we made a selection of young people to come, and there were Bulgarians as well, there were people from Serbia, different people from the Balkans of course, but there were many many people from Asia, from Europe countries.

[Martin Kadinov, one of the organizers of On!Fest, passes by and  Kathrin smiles him Hello. This made me think of a question.]

Were these young managers somehow related to art, before they became managers?

It’s interesting because, when you look at festivals, at older festivals, you can see that many of them have been initiated by artists. The Avignon Festival has been found by a theater maker Salzburger Festspiele (The Salzburg Festival ),  Bayreuth – by Wagner etc. We have many many festivals in particular, at that time, when artists looked for a platform to present their work, so they created their festival.

But today I think is different. Today manager became a real job. An artist is an artist and the manager is a manager. And it’s a very professional matter to run a festival, to be a festival director.

You just answered my question in advance. I was going to ask you about local folklore festivals. Do you think they should be somehow supported, or if they do not evolve from themselves, they are not valuable enough?

Because you think folklore festivals are not as valuable as international festivals?

No, no, they are. I am thinking in terms of management. Because small communities cannot afford management.

But I don’t know if small communities per se are the ones that are running authentic festivals, or more traditional festivals and bigger cities organize bigger festivals.

In many cases, again, it’s very very small cities that have big festivals. Zalzburg is a very small city, Bayreuth its one of the 2 oldest festivals, it’s a small city, there’s nothing happening except the festival. Again the community per se is not… I mean Edinburgh is a small city, Avignon is small, Dubrovnik is small, it’s all small places, where the biggest festivals are happening.

This is what I believe too, but still there are people who think that they should get subsidies in order to flourish, isn’t this the other way round? There are example of festivals that  achieved a lot, with much less public support.

It’s two different questions I think. I think that we need public subsidies, but not just per se, and for more traditional festivals. Because I think  that commercial festivals probably do not need any subsidies, because they generate an income, rock and pop festivals more easily generate income, film festivals too. They more easily reach out to bigger audiences and they don’t need as much public support.

I think the question is why do we need public support. Why do we need, for what do we need public funding? I think we need public funding to sustain quality, to sustain content, and the development of content, which sometimes takes ten years,  before a production is ready. And who is paying for these ten years?

If there is a process that is not sustained, just the product at the end of the artistic process, research process of an artist, and only the product at the end is paid for, than we have a problem, we have no content at a certain point anymore. So, for me, the funding is crucial and particularly for the artistic creation and for contemporary artistic creation. And also for keeping a diversity in the arts, I think people should have as much access to different kinds of art forms as possible, including more traditional art forms that might otherwise not survived.

But it’s also sometimes also O.K. when things don’t survive. Sometimes it is good when a festival dies. This means it is not needed.So if it is not needed, and if there is no audience and there is no artists  anymore that do something with it, then a festival would die, but not because there is no funding for it, but because there is no content. And no audience that relies connects to the content anymore. Then it’s done.

You visit a lot of awesome events across the world, what do you think about this peculiar clash of authenticity an globalization, in other words the global village vs. the local communities?

I don’t see any clash in there.

Clash not in a bad sense, let’s say a hug.

Yes, for me, what is a festival? It is a local event, it’s something that happens on a local level, it is something that happens within a community.

The festival, in the best sense, is owned by the community. It’s their festival and they are proud of it, they are participating, not only go to performances, but take care of their festival, they help promoting it, they talk about it, they invite their friends, they go to extra events, to educational activities, they bring their children and there is so many different thing happening on the festival, so many outreach programs and extra activities, that it’s clear that it’s a very strong local activity.

And then at the same time I think the responsibility of the festival director is to expose the audience to new art forms, to different kind of thinking, to different kinds of content, to diverse amount of content. And if this content is from another country, or from your own community, or from your neighbor or, from Asia, from Africa, it doesn’t matter. For me, it doesn’t matter. Many times it is. The further away you go, the more different cultures and the content that you can offer to your audience is.

So I think the festival has the responsibility to look for this diverse content that it can offer to the audience. So it is that the artistic director is looking for productions and creations that also happen beyond his or her local community. But that enriches the local community. Including the artists. the ones that are living in the city, that are creating, composing, painting, writing, making choreographies and so forth. To also bring to those artists inspiration  with other art forms or other artists that are brought into the festival.

Therefore, for me there is no clash, but there is a task to bring this kind of fertilization process between different people taking part in the festival. And then also, when we talk about global, there is a point of the content of globalization. I think that many many artists today they deal with these kind of social issues. they deal with  communities , they look into how the world is changing and what the environmental impacts are, how peace can be sustained, what are the new forms of democracy,  and things like that, so they are very closely related to, I think this is an artistic trend, and they are expressing it in the artistic creations, to what is happening in society.

And what is happening in society is a global  questions. So a festivals when it follows, not when it asks an artist to do something, but when it follows the artist in his or her research on global issues, and if then the festival offers to the artist a platform for presenting this creation that it’s including global issues, global topics into his or her festival. And then it’s a task again of a festival director, to curate and to give this content a framework and to provide thoughts and kind of bridge to the public. He gives a certain personal curatorship, a certain personal opinion about this artistic process and in that way the festival is a whole window to the world, instead of clashing. It’s there for the local community, but it’s a window to the world.

I think it would be more valuable if it, being local, attracts people from outside, so to say foreign guests.

It’s the uniqueness. What I mean is that the uniqueness of a festival, for foreign guests in particular, is when it focuses on what is there on the local level. Because the audience, the international community, I think is in particular inspired, coming, for example, to Plovdiv, when they are introduced to things that are happening in Plovdiv, I want to see the painter that lives in Plovdiv, I don’t need to see Fangor in the museum in Plovdiv. May be also Fangor, but, I am interested in what is happening here. And that’s the uniqueness of the place brings the content, and the uniqueness of the place inspires the artists to do something in this place,  particularly in site-specific, or work that happens outside.

Logo of the three Bulgarian EFA members

Did you know? There are three Bulgarian members in EFA: Varna Summer International Music Festival, March Music Days International Festival and the Bulgarian Festivals Association.

Indeed, this is all about the heartbeat of a place, how people interact, how they accept others in their community, this is part of the country. In that sense what do you think about event tourism?

My colleague, my  predecessor, Hugo De Greef, when he was running Brugge, 2002, European capital of culture in Belgium, and the Capital of culture is a very touristic tool, at the same time as it is and it should be a tool to develop citizenship and the cultural community and the ownership of the people in the city. So, he always said, when asked “Do you use European Capital of Culture as a touristic tool”:

“It’s not, it’s a project that I dedicate to the development of the arts, to the development of content, because I already have tourists in Brugge, ”, and then he said: “If you do not have the sea, you do not need to take care of the beach.”

Meaning that if you do not start with the content in the first instance, if you do not start with the uniqueness of the place, to think about the content of what’s happening in that place, of what society  is struggling with, how citizens think about that place, how people are living in this place, if they are feeling good, or they are feeling bad.

It’s  questions about quality of life, and if you do not start with this thing, which has nothing to do with tourists, then you do not need to think about the touristic visibility, or the touristic output, because there is nothing to output, you have to know what you have, but if you don’t know what you have as a product, you cannot sell it. I think the better the product is, the better the quality is, the more people owe it and take ownership and responsibility also to implement he vision of a place. Then the better the touristic product is, and I think then it’s valuable, it’s the task again of the manager to connect this product which is there, if it is a Capital of Culture, or  it is a festival, or anything else, to give visibility to this product and to sell it, in a way to promote it, to give it to the world, to throw it into the water and invite people to see it, but it’s not the driving force, it’s not the first motivation to do things.

Yes, it’s not, but still, as far fetched as this may sound, I see tourists as guests. This is what I meant by event tourism –  people who want to experience the place through the local perspective of seeing it.

Yes, there is definitely things that are purely tourists, or purely made for the audience, or for guests. But, turning it the other way round, the content of a place is not made for guests, o the content of a festival, it’s not made to please the audience.

The outreach is made for that?

Yes, it’s the second step. The first step for me is to serve the artists.

You just answered my question about the sustainable model of a festival. I will know jump to another subject, that is the new way of presenting art. What do you think about let’s say a festival that is being streamed via Internet?

I am not at all against use of new technologies, and I think it is again a question of the product, of the content of a creation, it might be part even of the creation itself, that it’s live-streamed and that it has secondary audiences, not only sitting at the Ephesus theatre in Izmir and looking to a performance, but being at the same time 50 kilometres from Ephesus in Izmir, in the city centre and having a beautiful stage and seeing the performance on that stage.

You are adding more sense…

You are adding not more sense, but you are adding more access to sense, you are increasing the accessibility or the access to a performance or to an artistic piece. And it’s also you can see it later, you can see it a second time, a third time. If something is online or recorded. You have also the example of opera performances at the Metropolitan Opera New York that is now all over Europe in huge cinemas, they broadcast in cinemas.

And I have many friends, that are big opera fans, that say it’s a wonderful experience, I can’t go to New York, but I can see it in my little city. It’s very of course important that technically everything is set up very well, it’s not half live streamed, it’s a very difficult exercise I think to have high quality when you live stream. You have to have good technical capacity, to do that. But at the very end for me a performance is not to sit at home and see it at home, it can be like that, but for me a performance also includes this whole ritual of..


Of participating, going to the performance, be there for it, feeling it, looking to your neighbors left and right, what they think, not think, but what they fels, talk a little bit about it and share, share a moment. It’s about sharing, live streaming it’s also sharing, it’s also sharing, because sometimes people are disabled or they don’t have the means to attend performances. But then I would rather increase the accessibility to bring those people to the performance than just giving them to tool to see it online or on the television.

I think art has live, feeling, and live streaming… But again, there’s opera productions, I know, that were made recently, where it was part of the artistic process, there was an opera performance and part of it was live streamed and the same public saw the same opera but made by two DJ’s. So the whole product of that opera performance was alienated from its original content and it was presented in a totally different way, but that is something else. That’s using new technology in creating an artistic product.

EFA - 60 year jubilee logo

In 2012 EFA celebrated a diamond jubilee. For 60 year the network of the association, formerly founded by 6 countries, has grown to 40 countries and more than 100 European and non-European festivals.

If European cities with their festivals were stalls, what would the Bulgarian stall look like to you?

Based on? Give an example of a stall.

Well, imagine I am a country, and I am a small shop, the other shops are the other countries, and we are at a fair of festivals, and we are selling something…

I don’t know. I think the German stall would be the same as Bulgarian, would be the same as every other, because it’s not the country I think that defines, according to my opinion, the outlook of the stall, but it’s the content. And then, if we speak about the festivals, it might be the same mission that the festival is proceeding.

For me a good festival, as I said before, is driven by the artistic creation process, which is linked and rooted to something that has nothing to do with the national outlook of something, it is rooted in the specificity of the place, the community, the uniqueness of the architecture,  the venue, also of course the social, political and cultural background, which differ, then, is it’s really a stall about Bulgaria, but this is when I reply this is a stall about  festivals, then they might be all the same. Because they are all different, every city is different.

Festivals – they carry the name of the city, Plovdiv something  festival, they belong to a city, a festival is always named to a city. So it’s probably a place where lot of cities and communities show their artistic output. And if it is a place about Bulgaria, it is something else. Then it show history, shows probably national things, like the white, green and red, it shows traditional food. But then it’s a fair where you present a country, like an expo.

I asked about the stall because I am trying to figure out the question about selling art.

I think it’s not the artists themselves that go on selling art. I think it’s the manager around the artist that is selling the art. I think when an artist is sharing his creation that it’s sharing, it’s not selling. It’s giving it to the community, or sometimes in the creation process, artists include the citizens already, they make them part of that creation process.

So I think they are not really busy selling anything, it’s then up to the manager, whose profession is not to buy and to sell, but to seek and how far this artistic person or this artistic creation can be part of his vision in a theatre, in an opera, in a festival, in whatever program, if this vision, or if this product, if there is already a product, can be part of what he thinks in terms of topics for the next festival or in terms of his or her general program, if it fits. And then he talks to the artist, and that’s a typical task of a curator, I think then there is a conversation about, at least when it’s a creation, you know, we also have things like Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony and the BBC Prom’s Orchestra, or the

London Philharmonic, or the Berlin Philharmonic, they are touring all over Europe, and they are touring with a certain piece, and you can of course discuss with the manager of the orchestra or the agent if they can do something different, but then you buy the orchestra. But again it’s people talking to each other, and trying to understand what drives them, what they want, if there is a common vision, if there is an understanding, and then they agree on something and this has a price of course, and you pay for what they agreed on, and it’s done.

I really loved your posts in EFA’s blog – Festival Bytes. It looks like you are a person that writes. Do you write?

No, not at all. This takes me five minutes. I can only write  in one thought and then  it’s done, or I could not write. If I have to think what I have to write, I cannot write.

You get stuck?

Yes. I think too much. I can only write when I don’t think and just write my impressions. That’s why I can only write after I went somewhere, because it’s when you are seeing something and you are inspired and you feel. When I write I still feel what I did.

One can see that in your texts.

Thank you.

So, you wrote about your Sofia Imaginary Festival. What’s you most memorable, not imaginary moment, from the festivals that you have visited? Something that still lingers in your heart.

Hm …Of course you can reply to this in different ways.

I can reply on an artistic level, which artistic  performance in the past has touched me most, or has inspired me most, I can reply on the context level, which was the  city that I didn’t know, that I was so surprised about, and I was happy to go there, I can reply on  social level, which were the people that I met in the place that I saw, which were the warmest, and the most welcoming and I can reply in terms of architecture, which was the city, the infrastructure, and venue that impressed me most.

So my point is wherever you go there is some point that is unique and that there is something that is new for when you see things, there is always something that if it’s not new, then it’s even the point that there is nothing new here for me, and that is the point that becomes important after the visit. Or there is a negative thing when you go somewhere and you think about it.

And so, when I visit places, for me, it’s beautiful to be open, and like to open your heart and go somewhere and let everything that comes, let it have an impact on you. People, venues, performances, the food, the drinks, the smells, the sounds, everything has an impact on you and you embrace it. And you take it with you, because it adds something to who you are, it adds up something to you mosaic of little pieces, of stones, that should not be just one colour, but should be many, many colours that at the end of life you have a complete mosaic that has millions of little stones and pieces on it.

And everything adds up to you and also it’s not only adding up, not only me accumulating those things, but it also makes me, brings me to the position of sharing it with others again, and to speak about it and to ..

Be colourful enough to give others..

Yes, to give these colours also back to others. That’s why I write sometimes the blog, not all the time, but this is for me a way not only to share but also to speak about these couple of things that touched me most in these places. I was for the first time in Africa and it was impressive. I was now in Cyprus and I saw that there is a little island divided in two, between Turkey and the Greek Cypriotic part, let’s say, and there is a wall there, and this is incredible, it’s really emotional, you cross that border by showing your passport, and there is many soldiers on the Turkish side that are protecting what!? There is no war, there is nothing. So you think about things when you see things, when you travel.

And I am in a very privileged position to travel to a lot of places and to see many many things. And that is what a festival has to do. What i do physically in my work, visiting the World let’s say, a festival should do – offering a window to the world, and bringing all these mosaic stones to its festival, different colours, different smells, diverse amount of different things. And then people not per se need to travel, like I travel.

It reminds about Bauman’s fragmentary reality. We don’t want to settle in our minds, we want to know more.

It’s curiosity.

As for the festival managers, especially in Bulgaria it’s more of a PR matter, what do you think?

I think it might be more than somewhere else, this is what I was told yesterday, during the conference [ed. at the BFA conference], because the pressure is so high.

The money is so little, there is so little understanding also of the arts, and of politicians and of business people to invest in culture, that managers feel under pressure to always show the impact of the festival, the impact in terms of economy, in terms of tourism, in terms of urban development, and in all that they forget that in the first instance they can only have impact when they have content before that. When there is something where they get time to develop over years.

Longer-term funding, three years, four years, giving people trust to develop their festival is something that in Bulgaria does not exist. So, how do you expect a longer term vision where you can really build up something from nothing, may be something that even failed, because you never know where the research process of an artist goes and in what direction, so it’s risky, festivals, I think. should dare to risk, and to fail as well. But if the money is only coming when you have a product, the audience is coming, when they are happy and they clap, then it’s very difficult to risk and to eventually fail.

It has a lot to do I think with the trust and the pressure that managers in Bulgaria undergo at this point. Again and again with the Bulgarian festivals Association which is a great initiative, train the managers, give them skills, but also inspiration and hope to speak about the content and to speak about the need to speak long term, not only short term. To have funding that is structurally not project oriented. And for that it’s good that there’s now a voice which is the Association that is representing the festivals and trying to bring the interest to the political level and be a dialogue partner with the politicians on different levels, from the local to the national level.

But still Bansko Jazz Festival, they didn’t have any subsidies, the just risked and they made it.

But I think sometimes it’s not about money, it’s true. I mean jazz festivals or other tend also to have an income, generated y sponsors more easily than old music festivals or folklore festivals, or an income generated by ticketing, so it depends on the festival. I am not saying that the festival needs public funding, not at all, and I am also not saying that everything we do has to be supported by public funding, that we open our hands and we get public funding and we can do whatever we want. Because there is also many things that are not needed. So it’s  again a question of quality and criteria to assess why funding, for what kind of topic and conditions and criteria is needed.

There are many things that have nothing to do with money. If you open for example your theatre 1 hour before the performance and  you invite people that cannot see to touch things on the stage in order to be able to think when they listen to the performance how it looks like, you just made  them touch everything, it didn’t cost a cent, but it is an incredibly important step that someone by choice, running this venue, makes, in order to increase access to the arts, also for those that cannot see. But still they can see and imagine how the scenery looks like when they touch it. Or deaf people when they feel the instruments, or when they are positioned in a certain way they have bigger accessibility, or the same with children etc. It has nothing to do with money, it has to do with attitude and has to do with the responsibility that a manager is taking, and allowing as much access to the art as possible.

Now a bit formal question, but still it’s interesting to know, currently in the country 8 Bulgarian cities have applied for European Culture Capital 2019.  What does it take for a city to be European Culture Capital 2019?

Well many cities don’t know what it is. Because they, I think there is a myth that the European Capital of Culture is a big success, that it brings added value etc. It’s tough for a city to be a Capital of culture I think. And I thinks that there are more failures than success stories happening. When you look back to the 30 years of Capital of Culture sine 1985, but I think then, if you look at the past, and if you assess capital of culture, for me the most important element that comes out as a learning lesson is that the Capital of Culture has again to be owned by the people, living in that city.

So what does it take? It needs it’s citizens to carry this project, it doesn’t need a mayor or marketing, or branding, before there is the need in the city, that is carried by the citizens, to go for such a moment. It’s only one year! It helps to create to create the whole dynamic, it’s always like that, if you have the need and the content, if you have people that take care of this content, you also need the vision how you materialize it. And then you materialize it by starting to walk towards a goal, which is 2019, there is this bidding process now till 2015.

And you see it in all these cities, there is a huge dynamic, which in itself is good. There is a process of mobilizing citizens and people , the artistic, cultural, community to bring in and to pull together, to create synergies and a platform to bid for this Capital of Culture project 2019. And I think the only sustainable way of using this title in a healthy way, because it’s one year as I said, it’s just a moment, in a process that should guide the whole work. The bidding process itself is interesting.

It doesn’t matter if the city gets the title or not. Already the bidding process should be used and capitalized in a dynamic way, including all citizens into this project. And it’s only sustainable then I think if new forms of dialogue between the people in the city, if new sense of ownership for the city or people, if new artistic networks between the local artists and the international artistic community has been created. If there is a lasting longer term financial commitment of the city towards art and culture and the citizenship in the city and of course from here you need a budget from a ten years after, at the same time that you need a budget to spend in the year itself, I think only if you have these kinds of things, then it’s a good capital of culture, again as I said before, starting with uniqueness of the place, with the content, that is in the place, what’s happening in the communities, in the streets, what’s happening in the everyday life of the people living in these places, from there starting to define the content, that is I think also important.

And what destroys this is politicians that do not give it to the citizens, but they keep it for themselves. They keep it as a branding, as a kind of power tool to promote themselves and to promote their cities. It’s very important that the owned it as well, but as long as municipalities keep it…

What do you mean by keep it?

That they don’t dare to give it for example to a non profit organization that is running the bidding process.

But are they eligible to to this?

Yes, yes. The municipalities are signing the contract, they are signing the bid, which I am also against, I think the civil society organizations and not only the municipalities at the end should be able to apply.

As long as it’s just the mayor, of course, the municipality is an important factor, but I think hey are doing good, they would do better if they give that to an organization that does work on the content, that does, by its mission, work with the citizens in the city, and not keep it for themselves. I mean how can they write a bidding for the content and about all this, when this is not their everyday work. The are not cultural managers. They are running a city, they are running a municipality, but they are not running a cultural project. There’s creative people who do that, who have the tools and the skill to do that.

Is that in Bulgaria or?

No, no. It’s everywhere. But there is a good example of a city in Italy, which is competing in the same year as Bulgaria. There are models through which they give to NGOs and other organizations, of course, in close collaboration with the mayor, and always reporting, and the mayor might be the president of the board or something else, but look at the example of Lecce in Puglia, the bidding book is done by somebody who is not even from Italy, somebody  from outside, who is now living there and who is helping with his experience from Lindz, Nerenberg, So there are many examples where it works, but there’s also many examples where it does not work.

Thank you very much for your time. Finally if you would like to share something that I haven’t asked you, please go ahead.

I want to share what I said yesterday, at the conference. Because I am here for the conference of the Bulgarian Festivals Association which is now in its second year of existence, and I‘m working very closely with the president of the board and with Juri Valkovski, the executive director, I think they are doing an incredibly important work a which is very very ambitious and they need the support which they do not have yet. Because on the one hand the members expect the network to deliver all kinds of training and tools to improve their skills and on the other hand it’s the network that should build the bridge between the festivals and the political decision makers and lobby fo better conditions for festivals and so forth.

So I just wanted to say that this is an incredibly important work, that it’s important that there are people like that to establish new things and new structures to create constant dialogue between different kinds of actors in society, between managers, artists, political decision makers, and the sponsors, business people and that’s what we do with EFA for many many years. To kind of create dialogue that forms between people that otherwise might not talk so easily.

 Thank you Kathrin for your perceptive and sense-opening view on festivals and on shared experience!