‘White and middle class’ Bristol Harbour Festival to undergo ‘reimagining’

‘There is confusion as to what the festival is’
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Major changes are set to be made to Bristol Harbour Festival amid concerns that it is too “white and middle class”.

A report to the city council’s cabinet on Tuesday (August 2) recommends that the award-winning extravaganza, which attracts 250,000 people every July, should be “reimagined”, potentially with fewer stages, and be more inclusive.

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Feedback from consultation last autumn suggested that many older and disabled people, families and Black and Asian communities are put off by large crowds and a “drinking culture”.

The report said: “The consultation highlighted the ‘whiteness’ of the festival and the invisible barriers to members of the global majority, as well as participants with mobility issues or neuro diverse needs.”

It said the feedback “highlighted the need for a more diverse programme, greater community engagement, cross-city collaboration and wider opportunities for young people”, as well as being greener, but remaining free of charge.

The report referenced the toppling of Edward Colston’s statue, Black Lives Matter protests and the dialogue around inclusivity, and said the festival “now needs to better reflect and serve Bristol’s communities and the evolution of the city in the context of global events”.

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It said: “The perception of the Harbour Festival for the global majority communities within Bristol is that it is not for them, and that the cultural offer is primarily serving a white middle-class audience.

“Many of those of different cultural backgrounds find the over-consumption of alcohol and the commercial approach to food off-putting.

“The narrative of the work of the festival is lost and the branding harks back to the Harbour Regatta, celebrating the boating community which is predominantly white.”

The report said there was “confusion as to what the festival is”.

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Cabinet members are expected to approve a one-year extension with the current organisers, with 2023 used as a “transitional” event ahead of retendering a four-year contract worth the current annual council investment of £160,000 up to 2027.

The report said the increase in costs made the existing model “near impossible”, so it would need to change, with initial ideas including more sponsorship and introducing an overall creative director, which does not currently exist.

“Currently, large number of stages in Harbour Festival are programmed by a team of freelance programmers who are engaged by the event contractor, many of whom have programmed in the same way for many years,” it said.

“One option for the new tender would be to look at how the festival is programmed, engaging a creative lead on this whose background is in the cultural sector and can clearly relate to our ambitions as a culture service.

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“Revisiting the programming model would give great scope to approach things differently, which may result in a reduced programme of higher quality work which aligns with our aims.

“This could mean less stages, or a reformatting of how work is allocated across the stages.

“Bristol has been in the spotlight over the last two years, especially its harbour and history.

“The perception of Bristol on a national and international stage is one of diversity, creativity, independence and energy.

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“The festival needs to reflect recent events in its addressing of the issues around the harbour as well as celebrating the diversity that Bristol represents.

“There is an opportunity to harness this alongside the beauty, heritage and innovation of the harbour through events, dialogue and performance.

“The end of the current contract presents an opportunity to review the role of the Bristol Harbour Festival and how it responds to the city’s history and recent global and local events – the pandemic, BLM movement, climate and ecological emergencies and activity surrounding the history of Colston and slavery in the city.”

It said the aims included establishing the festival as a free, flagship event that had greater diversity and participation and was welcoming for families.

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