ArtsFest is one of the biggest and most popular urban festivals in the UK, is the UK’s biggest free arts festival, and exists to celebrates the West Midland’s astounding wealth of creative talent. Usually, it is an eclectic mix of music and arts, poetry and dance, drama and crafts, from the traditional to the innovative and showcased by amateurs through to successful professionals. This year, however, it was desperately disappointing.
The programme was overwhelmed with group after group of folk-pop-rock musicians. While this style of music is very rarely my taste, I do appreciate that it is popular and, if done well, can be entertaining. However, I was surprised, and somewhat disheartened, by the sheer number of the same type of act, repeated at almost every slot, at most of the venues, for the entire weekend: even the bookshop Waterstones, which one would imagine would host the more literature-focused acts (readings, creative writing workshops, poetry performances, etc), hosted more acoustic folksy bands than anything else.
Admittedly, very occasionally there was something different – a poetry slam, a Shakespeare recital, a book fair, a dance session (albeit to some folksy-pop-rock band): some of the stands in the main central square showcased pottery, face painting and jewellery. But these did very little to make a dent in the overwhelming number of music acts – a peculiar choice for the organisers of an arts festival in an multicultural and diverse city, especially as the music acts themselves were mostly of the same ilk. Surely, the opportunities for music and dance from numerous cultures were there; indeed, the ArtsFest website claims that “you can see ballet to Bhangra, dub poetry to indie rock”. But no, this year it was the acoustic folksy-pop that filled the weekend. The website also states that ArtsFest ‘features performances, workshops, exhibitions, installations, talks and screenings, across the performing, visual and digital arts genres’. Yet this year, there was a distinct lack of exhibitions, installations, talks and screenings, and I saw no trace of any of the digital arts.
While there were many acts in last year’s programme that were not to my personal taste (and some which were truly awful!), there was, at least, ‘something for everyone’, which is what I expect from an arts festival. The ‘arts’ include creative expression through painting, dance, poetry, film, drama, literature and crafts, as well as music, and, furthermore, music itself is also infinitely varied, so why the organisers of this year’s event chose to interpret ‘arts’ as ‘folksy acoustic bands’ is beyond me. It produced an uninspired programme, appealing only to a few, and only for the first couple of hours.
ArtsFest is a brilliant idea and it has the potential to bring together seemingly disparate backgrounds, traditions, ages and interests into a massive celebration of the creativity, skills and diversity of human kind. But last weekend it was reduced to a one-trick-pony of an event, and even that trick is done infinitely better at the annual Moseley Summer Folk Festival just up the road from the city centre (they, at least, have food and cider stalls!).
I could not have been more disappointed with Birmingham City Council and the ArtsFest organisers. Fingers crossed that, for next year, they assign themselves a quota for each type of act, and make the effort to source and encourage performances, exhibitions and workshops from the whole spectrum of the arts, which Birmingham and the West Midlands are easily able to provide to a willing audience.