In Conversation with Cathryn Peach of the Northern Festivals Network

Between Stillness & Storm – captured at bluedot festival – by artist Aiden Moesby

The Northern Festivals Network was conceived in 2014 in collaboration between Just So Festival, Head For The Hills Festival and Kendal Calling, enabled through support from the Arts Council’s Strategic Touring Fund. Backed by a second round of successful Arts Council funding, the Network is now seven festivals strong – a diverse array of award-winning events that includes bluedot, Underneath The Stars, Cloudspotting, and Festival No.6.

Born out of a desire to see greater information sharing within the festival sector and an improvement in the quality of family focused arts programming, the Network has empowered its members to more effectively overcome pertinent challenges within the industry, allowing them to fairly compensate artists, dismantle barriers to access, and takes huge strides towards sustainability. The quasi-collectivist approach has thus far resulted in some impressive artistic cross-pollination, a broader sense of community within the scene, and the united implementation of ideas both large and small.

Insights spoke with NFN Director Cathryn Peach about the multi-faceted work that the Network engages in, including its sustainability initiatives, promotional tactics, approach to programming, and more.

FI: Since the Northern Festivals Network is a collaborative venture I thought it it’d be good to talk about the benefits of cooperation first. How has coming together under this umbrella helped to strengthen the position of its individual members?

CP: There have been a variety of benefits, some harder to tangibly show, but felt strongly throughout the network. We all have grander ambitions as a result of discussion, and have felt that we could each see our individual visions more clearly and strategically through sharing them both with others and considering them in line with the aims that we set out as a network together.

More tangibly we have been able to explore access, sustainability, and fundraising further by integrating consultancy across the network – something we would have felt very hard pressed to justify individually, but collaboratively made both financial and strategic sense. As such we are on our way to reducing our carbon emissions by 50% as a network, to broadening our audience engagement and developing our individual fundraising; with funding such as the Granada Foundation and European EPIP being awarded to festivals within the network for the first time, as well as other festivals piloting individual giving schemes.

Alongside individual gains there have been major collaborations too. Most notably the creation of The Lost Carnival which was a joint venture between members Wild Rumpus (producers of Just So) and So It Is (producers of Head for the Hills – Ramsbottom Festival). The Lost Carnival ran first in Bury in 2015, moved to Crewe in 2016 and will be landing at Dunham Massey in 2017.

FI: Despite sharing similar aims, I’m sure each festival within the Network will have different idiosyncrasies and infrastructures. How do you tailor your approach to ensure that changes and features are implemented in accordance with the respective event’s unique characteristics?

CP: When building the Network we have ensured that it has stayed flexible to the voices of its partners. Ultimately the goals we have put in place are to feed the work of the festivals, so they have to work symbiotically. After being a consortium for four years, we have also had a lengthy enough period to grow to really understand each other’s vision’s and organisations.

In part though, these idiosyncrasies I think are part of the reason that we felt compelled to continue the network beyond its first round of strategic touring funding from ACE. It has taken time to develop a network that truly reflects and supports its members whilst driving forward ambition.

FI: The NFN is working with Kambe Events on its sustainability policies, and as part of this it has adopted the Vision 2025 pledge to reduce the carbon emissions of its member festivals by 50% within the next few years. How do you plan on achieving this across the different events? Will the strategies differ significantly between them?

CP: We have worked closely with Kambe who have brought us together as a network in discussion and in workshops and then liaised as individual festivals on bespoke consultancy.

This has enabled us all to develop a wide understanding of the environment in relation to our individual festivals, and not just what is relevant to the here and now, but also what will be relevant when our festivals have adapted initial changes.

We have then looked at the most viable changes for each festival and Kambe has worked closely with them to achieve this. The festivals have individually implemented a range of tools from reusable cups to an overhaul of waste streams as well as considering how we communicate this to audiences. After this first year of change we’ll review where we go next to make sure we can achieve 50%. In this way we have been able to come together to both learn and reflect but individually pioneer the pieces that work for each festival.

FI: Much of the Network’s focus seems to be on programming. Can you discuss some of the performances you’ve commissioned that will feature across festivals this summer? To what extent does each festival have a say in what gets commissioned?

CP: Our primary aim as a network is to make sure that high quality family arts can thrive. It was in this process of reflecting on the range of family arts that we were hailing as the best in the UK and Europe that we became concerned in a lack of diversity in the storytellers behind the pieces.

As well as touring 12 different pieces of performance this year we have partnered with Unlimited to commission two brilliant disability-led pieces of work that we are so proud to have been able to support. A promenade outdoor piece for early years, Adventures of Snigel by Caroline Bowditch, and a visual installation about the environment by Aiden Moesby, Between Stillness & Storm.

The individual festivals are integral in the decision as to what gets commissioned; they are involved from the start in determining whether the commission is necessary, what their money will be supporting, right through to the selection of the artist and piece. We all shortlisted together, gave tickets in support of shortlisted artists who were then able to visit festivals in the NFN to develop their proposals, and then were together when shortlisted commissions were presented.

Those who didn’t feel they could financially commit so far in advance have been able to become involved later, booking the pieces that have been commissioned.

To us it’s really important that each partner has a voice as we all come from different angles. By utilising these voices we know we can support the best piece of work to be made with the strongest chance of a brilliant legacy.

FI: Promotion also factors into your work. Are there any interesting marketing initiatives you’ve undertaken in order to increase awareness of the festivals in the Network?

CP: We have teamed up with leading northern cultural website Creative Tourist to produce a families culture guide for the North of England.

This includes a bespoke Festival Guide for each festival, put together by their excellent Music & Families editors. It also signposts out to other top quality cultural events to attend.

It was paramount that the collaboration not only promoted high quality arts at the NFN festivals, but directed our families elsewhere after the festivals. We hope that the families will encounter new and surprising work that will then inspire them to see arts year round.

FI: In order to improve accessibility at festivals, NFN has teamed up with All In Access. What are some of the specific policies that you’re focusing on introducing to the sector?

CP: All In Access are brilliant at considering the logistics of widening access to audiences, but also reflecting on the creative aspects of content. As such, Changing Places units have been introduced to festivals, alongside 360 degree tours and audio programmes.

We want to ensure that we aren’t prescriptive to our audience, that we hand over the decision making about how they access the festival, utilising logistics to support their journey but that it isn’t the main focus.

We’re also really aware that every person is different and we have implanted policies that will support our whole audience, whether you consider yourself to have an access requirement or not. We want our audiences to feel that they are one community together, as such our discussions and the policies we have introduced have been centred around how we do this.

FI: Is there anything else we should know about the Northern Festivals Network?

CP: We feel that it is central to the network that we are based in the North. There feels as if there is a national consensus that we need to be moving the focus from the capital and its vital that we create a space for conversations about infrastructure, how we support artists and how we develop ground-breaking innovative work outside of the South East. There is so much incredible work happening up here, to converse with those organisers, champion those pieces and to be a flag for some of the inspiring organisations here is such a privilege. We are thrilled to be part of considering how we develop this platform further and being key advocates of the region as it goes through such an important time of building recognition.

The Northern Festivals Network comprises: bluedot (July 7 – 19), Underneath The Stars (July 21 – 23), Kendal Calling (July 27 – 30), Cloudspotting (July 20 – 30), Just So Festival (August 18 – 20), Festival No.6 (September 7 – 10), and Head for the Hills: Ramsbottom Festival (September 15 – 17).

Northern Festivals Network