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Festivals Toolkit: Artistic Programming

The heart of your festival is the work you present. It is your principal calling card representing your key values and aspirations to your audience, artists, existing and potential partners. Each of these constituents can be a factor in your programming policy as in drawing up your programme you are trying to achieve a blend that achieves several objectives.
Festivals image artistic programming

Of particular importance when programming your event should be your target audience. Amongst the critical questions you can ask are:

Is the act/artist suitable for the expected age range of your spectators? Can they perform outdoors as well as in a venue if necessary? Good practice in programming begins with some fairly simple actions:

  • Try and see the act before you book it, or, at least get a recommendation from someone who has.
  • Always write a letter of agreement detailing fee, programme schedule and any equipment or facilities that you or the 'act ' agree to provide.
  • Assign an artist liaison person from your team to look after the performers and advise them of their slot in the programme.

There is further general advice available on how to programme available from the Canterbury Council Event Toolkit

In order to find suitable artists you may wish to contact music promoters, other festivals, venues or look at directories provided by bodies such as Arts Council England.

For example:

Who is responsible?
For many festivals the issue of programming comes down to what can be squeezed into every day life because no one is paid to do the work. Such an approach often means that programming is undertaken by two or more people. It is vital that good communication exists between them and that regular meetings are held to monitor progress.

Educational work
In order to develop the family audience festivals need to find ways of programming challenging and exciting programmes of work for/by children and young people. This is a major area of focus for funding bodies and in addition to supporting specialist events focussed on their needs (e.g. Spark Children’s Festival) there is a wide range of advice available on programming for young people, visit the Arts Council England website.

In addition, the Creative Partnerships programme which is a government-funded national initiative, exists to support projects that develop schoolchildren's potential, ambition, creativity and imagination. It is not a funding body but builds sustainable partnerships between schools, creative and cultural organisations and individuals.

From local to international
A major aspect of the development of any festival is the extent to which it can develop from a local base, artistically and in terms of audience support, to offer a programme that seeks to reflect a more national and ultimately international dimension.

It is likely that this will only occur several years after it has been established when it may have developed a level of confidence and a financial base that will support the additional challenges that a more diverse programme will bring.

If your festival is considering diversifying its programme then there are a number of resources that you can access for advice and support. Internationalism is a major feature of ACE policy and it has published several documents that relate to this topic, see:

Other resources include:

Commissioning new work
Many festivals have extended their programmes through commissioning a composer or choreographer for example to produce a piece of work for them. ACE has published some guidance on this in Approaching Commissions (see below in the Related documents section).

Membership of a Festival Organisation
One of the most effective ways of developing your artistic programmes is through meeting and talking with others who operate in the same field. On a day to day basis contact between arts organisations including festivals can be infrequent. Formal collaborations are not the norm as distance and different timing can make it hard to share artists on a tour, for example, although in Derbyshire Festivity has been set up in order for all festivals operating within Derbyshire to jointly collaborate on a number of issues, including artistic programming. Many festival organisers will make a point of visiting other festivals during the year in order to see a range of work that is new to them, e.g. the Edinburgh Festival Fringe, the Buxton FestivalBuxton Festival Fringe or Spark Children’s Festival in Leicester.

An alternative is to meet with other festivals at one of the annual conferences that are organised each year in the UK. These events will usually include round table discussions where festival organisers can meet with like minded people to discuss issues of mutual concern/interest. In addition to that is a programme of key note speakers, panel discussions and an exhibition/market area for suppliers, artists and funding bodies.

The key organisations to consider for membership are:

For those festivals with a particular focus on carnival and procession then specialist support might be obtainable from organisations such as:

Further reading:
Arts Council England, Carnival arts information sheet

Related documents

The following document is in Word format. You can download software to view Word documents for free from the Word viewer page (opens in a new window) of the Microsoft website.

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