Established in 2007 as a one-off commemoration of the bicentenary of the Anti-Slavery Act, Freedom Festival has grown into a year-round organisation with an expanding annual festival. It employs 4.5 people FTE, one of whom is artistic director and chief executive officer Mikey Martins, who took up the post in 2015. Staff numbers rise by three or four in advance of the festival to aid delivery, and during the festival itself by approximately 40 people including production staff, catering and security. As most of the festival is presented free to audiences, ticket income is negligible, and the festival is primarily funded by Arts Council England and the local authority, with a smaller amount of private sector funding, trusts and foundations support and EU subsidy.
Mission: creating a context for people to come together in public space
As an organisation, Freedom Festival has a clear mission: to stage a festival, which has already grown from a single day to three days, with plans to expand to nine days, addressing ideas around freedom. However, Mikey Martins argues that public subsidy “creates a responsibility do more than just put on a party”. He acknowledges it’s obvious to say, but “as a predominantly outdoor arts festival, that is free to access in the streets of the city, Freedom is very different to a festival that takes place behind the closed doors of a theatre. It’s so visible to such a huge amount of people it becomes immediately associated as a civic event. You’re creating a context for people to come together in public space, to stand shoulder to shoulder with strangers having a good time.”
This has been important in terms of regeneration in Hull: “For a long time the city centre wasn’t particularly popular in terms of shopping or leisure. Investment in the city through 2017 City of Culture is pulling the city back together: you’re seeing a lot more people hanging out in the centre of Hull and very proud of their city centre and all the redevelopment that’s happened. It’s brought the city centre to life and we feel that we have a role in that.” But Martins argues it’s also important in terms of “health and well-being. We know our work has a huge economic impact on the city, as a by-product the festival benefits businesses and restaurants and hotels and so forth, but I would love to see the arts sector be able to quantify why it’s important to people to stand in the street with strangers, what that social interaction is that makes you feel part of that community.”
Martins also emphasises that the creation of a context for social gathering requires thinking about local artist development and infrastructure. “We see a gap here, we see a fantastic exciting opportunity, because there aren’t enough professional organisations supporting artist development and talent development in a city which now has culture at the heart of its offer.”
How this development might happen varies, with one clear pathway beginning with the workshops and participatory projects Freedom offers throughout the year, which lead to “a final moment at the festival, which brings those people from those wider areas, and perhaps isolated communities, to the event itself”. Some of those participants might be “people taking part who are not necessarily artists, they just want to get involved”, but this is also a way for Freedom “to identify people who have become a little bit more ambitious. We try to follow those individuals or those groups and help them step up to the next level, where they think maybe we could do this part-time and get paid.” That might happen by “pairing them up in a collaborative project with professional artists”, or sending them to workshops elsewhere in Europe.
This is made possibly by Freedom’s approach to networking and international collaboration: it’s part of Strategic Touring, Without Walls, and In Situ, a European-wide network of 20 festivals. For Martins, these collaborations are “fundamental: there’s a real commonality across many artists, but when you combine different perspectives from different cultures that does something really important”.
One key way in which Martins has been influenced by practice elsewhere, but particularly in France, is in his approach to creating a sense of community behind the scenes of the festival. “We feel it’s important to feed the artists, really look after them. Eating together is financially challenging, but it’s important because it creates a context for artists, volunteers, production crew, board members, sponsors, funders to all be in that same space – and that’s where interesting things start to happen, conversations start to happen. It’s amazing how many collaborations start there.”
Asked to describe the challenges or barriers that Freedom faces, Martins’ instant reply is: “Money, of course – although it’s not as straightforward as that.” For instance, a lack of money might be reflected in a lack of capacity, or “lack of hours in the day”. Funding shortages are also, he argues, the reason “in the arts industry, you’re eternally justifying your work. I don’t hang out with many plumbers, but I don’t think they would be justifying their work when they get up in the morning.” And lack of money fosters an atmosphere of conservatism: “To keep a festival innovative, you’ve got to keep moving it, keep surprising people, be brave and do new things, and you’ve got to take risks, and that’s very difficult in the arts because we’re all so conscious of sustainability in a difficult sector.” This conservatism is exacerbated by “a lack of imagination, because if you haven’t seen something you can’t imagine what that could be”.
There are, however, opportunities within these challenges: a small team, for instance, “can be flexible and responsive to change”. And Martins sees potential opportunities in the political situation generally in the UK, even though it is at odds with his international, and particularly European, perspective. “We will work around it because we’re part of a very strong European network and feel very supported by that. There was an awful lot of shock for a while around certain political decisions in the past 18 months, but there seems to be an opportunity arising to be more bold and more relevant. More and more people want to fight back, more and more people want to challenge the political situation, more artists are making work that fits in with our mission to talk about freedom. So a weird by-product of all the chaos at the moment is that there’s a lot more opportunity to work with really exciting partners in terms of challenging notions of freedom.”
Hull has benefited from a high level of investment in infrastructure and regeneration thanks to City of Culture 2017, raising the question: what happens in 2018 and beyond? Martins agrees: “It’s a very good question and it is up to us to create that. It’s about how you use this moment as leverage to get you to the next place.”
He is looking forward to working with the other National Portfolio Organisations in the city to “continue to cultivate and support the artistic community in the city, working together to co-commission and create work in Hull”. And this year he’s expanding the festival’s public talks programme to include “a two-day seminar in which we’ll talk about architecture, urban planning, place-making, and the evolution of cities through art in public space”, with the intention that members of the public who are already engaging in workshop and participatory activities will come and learn about the arts industry from another perspective. Martins feels this is important because: “you can do all the participation you like, but there has to be a point where you talk about the business of it and invite the same people to be part of that. In all these things artist development is fundamental, but it’s also trying to establish within the city that a career in the arts might be possible and that arts and culture are important to society and to the fabric of a place.”