Arts festivals foster cultural exchange: Increased EU support for festivals could enhance their positive impact on society

European arts festivals are the ideal platforms to promote the core values of the EU, such as supporting cultural diversity and encouraging transnational integration, according to a new report1. The researchers recommend an increased ‘presence’ of the EU at contemporary arts festivals across Europe, through active participation, direct funding and sponsorship.

The EURO-FESTIVAL research project was set up in 2008 to evaluate the impact of arts festivals on society, their relevance to Europe and to the aims of the EU. The researchers found that the inherent openness, interest in diversity and spirit of tolerance that drives art, literature and music festivals makes them ideal vehicles to carry a political message or to incite cultural discussion, beyond the level of the nation-state.

EURO-FESTIVAL looked at 13 arts festivals across a range of genres, which represent some of the more prominent of contemporary European arts festivals: the Venice, Cannes, Berlin and Jewish film festivals; the Hay, Berlin and Borderlands literature festivals; the WOMAD, Umbria Jazz and Barcelona Sonar music festivals; and the Vienna Biennale, Brighton and Vienna urban mixed-art festivals.

For each case study, the researchers attended the event in one or more years and took detailed notes on a specific list of criteria. These included the overall staging of the event, the size and type of the attendees, how each performance was received by the audience and the nature of the festivals’ revenue. The researchers interviewed between 10 – 20 individuals for each event, including festival directors, sponsors, artists, journalists and stakeholders. They also collected information from voluntary questionnaires completed by members of the audience, designed to look at public attitudes towards art and festivals. As part of the process, the researchers also examined festival brochures, official and unofficial documentation and any media reports written before, during and after each event.

Using the data, the researchers produced a detailed and insightful analysis of the history of arts festivals in Europe, their evolution, their role in contemporary society and a discussion of methods used for gauging the impact of a festival on society. They highlight the link between the historical incentive for festivals, which were typically held to help “overcome regional divisions”, and the trend in contemporary arts festivals towards encouraging internationalisation and cosmopolitanism.

Alongside identifying the potential benefit of arts festivals to a multi-cultural society, EURO-FESTIVAL looked at the challenges facing existing festivals and factors that might discourage the emergence of new festivals. These are predominantly linked to financial sustainability, with many festivals relying on a mixture of public subsidies, private sponsorship and income from ticket sales.

The proliferation of festivals in Europe represents a growing interest in sharing cultural ideologies across society, and policy makers should view them as providing an opportunity to endorse such a progressive, collaborative outlook.

The project’s policy-oriented recommendations are to increase practical and financial support by the EU for festival initiatives. This will benefit the arts festival community and the EU vision of an integrated Europe. The researchers suggest that this could be achieved through direct funding, sponsorship of debates and/or focus groups, supporting legal frameworks and infrastructure or through initiating ‘exchange networks’ for groups of artists between different festivals.

According to the report, active support by the EU in fostering public initiatives that encourage a gradual progression towards better social and cultural integration is likely to be far more effective in bringing about progressive change than ‘top-down’ approaches, achieved through direct state intervention.

Alongside their encouraging findings, the researchers are keen to highlight the limitations of the study. Specifically, that the research focused only on a small range of festivals in Spain, Italy, Austria, UK, Germany and France, all of which had similarly young, educated and middle-class audiences. The researchers suggest that further exploratory studies across a wider selection of case studies are necessary to test the extent to which their findings can be generalised. Nevertheless, the report provides a timely review of the contemporary arts scene, its potential role in Europe in the coming decades and positive recommendations for relevant policy areas.


1 See:

EURO-FESTIVAL – Art festivals and the European public culture (duration: 1/1/2008 – 31/12/2010). FP7 Socio-economic Sciences and Humanities, Activity 5 “The Citizen in the European Union”, Research area 5.2 “Diversities and commonalities in Europe”. Collaborative project (small and medium scale focused research project).


Contact: Andreas Obermaier,