The opening conference of the Bulgarian Festival Association in the eyes of a foreign participant

Bulgaria is no exception. It has been invaded by festivals. Time has arrived to unite forces and establish an association. Two dozen festivals founded the Bulgarian Festival Association. In making the first steps, the BFA received help from the America for Bulgaria Foundation, not the least by generously sponsoring the conference “Why Festivals?” in the National Palace of Culture in Sofia, on the 2nd and 3rd of November, 2012.

Hungary is the most obvious personal choice for comparison. Two groups – arts festivals and folklore festivals – have had their association for more than two decades, having currently 43 and 26 members respectively. The real equivalent to BFA is the ten-year-old Hungarian Festival Association with 275 festivals.


The founding conference deserves praises. Well attended, the great majority of the over 200 participants sitting till the last session, balanced programme, proper venue, flawless technical equipment, high level translation into (and probably from) English, and – often the hardest test – strictly kept timetable, which also allowed for the involvement of the audience. By balanced programme I mean several things: the string of sessions and intervals, the even level of interest raised by the content of each session, the composition of speakers. The latter included top level administrators and desk officers in charge, researchers and foreign guests, and a selection of successful festival organisers.

All this promises effective operation for the new-born association. Need there is for it, because next to the respectable record of festivals in Bulgaria, the conference drew a tableau dominated by dark colours. Here is a selection of the grievances, a motley list as stuck in the mind of an outsider.

·        By most indicators the country has not reached the pre-2008 levels as yet.

·        Low average income determines a limited purchase power of the population with regard to festivals.

·        The programme offer of festivals may be competitive – but not the pavement of sidewalks in the streets.

·        The state of education in the country is a serious threat for the future of festival audiences.

·        Research shows polarisation of chances in culture. Over 90% of citizens in the poorest region of the country (and the entire EU) feel worse conditions for access.

·        To a less tragic degree, but perception about chances to culture deteriorated also in provincial cities.

·        A few per cent more villages report total absence to cultural opportunities than earlier, chances declined also for the elderly (60+).

·        Cinemas disappear at an accelerating rate.

·        Public support to festivals is meagre in comparison to the 70% the state contributes to the tickets in permanent institutions.

·        Global stars charge the same even if they perform to lower income public.

·        The culture ministry has set to registering festivals – but criteria and consequences are not fully transparent.

·        EU money can be used for festivals – but the rules, especially those requiring public procurement, are totally alien from festivals conditions.

·        The lack of serious evaluation is a weakness of cultural (and festival) policies in the country.

·        It raises concern if the local government that subsidises intends to do the evaluation, too.

·        Festivals (excepting film-festivals) fail to respond to researchers’ queries, although data are vital in formulating strategies, festivals argue that lack of communication contributed to low level of trust.

·        Few festivals rise above the everyday offer: more feasts in the calendar than in our souls, as the poet says.

·        Differently from cities abroad and in the country, Sofia has no festival of its own.

·        Fantastic open-air venues wait for festival use, in vain.

·        The vibrant new youth festival failed to attract support and attention (calendar!) from the local government.

·        Hundreds of festivities celebrating Bulgarian folklore remained out of sight for BFA.

These items were handpicked from several hours’ flow of conference interventions. An outsider may not have grasped all of them fully and was not in a position to check or judge each grievance. Anyhow, such a condense dose would produce incurable depression. Luckily there is another list: the record of successes and strengths, communicated to the participants of the conference. Together with the dark prospects, achievements and opportunities also spur Bulgarian festival organisers for joint action.

·        Spending Structural Funds money on festivals (“innovative cultural events”) is a unique Bulgarian feature. The festival community has successfully intervened at the culture ministry in favour of the sound use of this source.

·        Although few European festivals are tourist destinations by themselves (excepting rock festivals), researches prove the robust role that culture plays in the attraction of places.

·        The research that revealed bleak picture about cultural opportunities in general, has reported about sharp improvement in Sofia.

·        Several festivals have enormously contributed to the image of the place (Kavarna, Bansko, maybe also Burgas).

·        There are cities that are devoted to festivals: 11 ones run and 25 more subsidised by Plovdiv, and others have pledged recurrent support to festivals (e.g. Burgas, Ruse).

·        There are cities that appropriate record percentage on culture (e.g. Gabrovo).

·        Some festivals have proved the capacity to exert lasting changes in citizens’ habits.

·        The promise to attract lots of visitors can convince any mayor or plaza owner to open up for a festival.

·        Festivals are instrumental in keeping inhabitants from leaving their hometown.

·        Sofia film festival achieved its high level accreditation with much less public support than its peers in the region; displaying innovative features like Sofia Awards, Sofia Meetings (a filmmakers forum).

·        Film festivals, or their offshoots, help fill the void created by the disappearing of cinemas.

·        The national budget will shift to programme planning, which offers chances to emerging fields like festivals.

·        The culture ministry has decided to establish a budget chapter for festivals and is working on a registration system.

·        There is a growing need for evaluation methodology of festivals, and openness on behalf of the authorities in this regard.

·        Vienna has offered to help in the upgrading of the cultural strategy of Sofia.

·        The website of the Association can act as a platform for the festival cause.

·        The European Festival Association offers assistance to Bulgarian festivals in general, and in the form of the Atelier for young festival managers in particular.

·        Learning about medium term public financial schemes (Flanders), and places where culture is exempt from austerity cuts (Flanders, again) offers models to follow.

·        The stability of festival support in other cities (e.g. Vienna and Belgrade, or the case tripartite support to Budapest Spring Festival) may be attractive for Sofia – which nevertheless subsidises over 150 events a year.

·        Knowing festival success stories from outside (from Austria, in this case) gives inspiration.

The interventions from the rostrum or the floor touched upon great many other important issues affecting festivals. Financing was a recurrent issue, in which regard the detailed statistics about the structure of the festival budgets in Hungary may have been informative for the participants. When similar data are available, can one confirm the opinion of the deputy minister for culture about the excessive share of state subsidies in Bulgarian festival budgets.

Systematic mapping (registering and/or surveying) of festivals will relate to another of his remarks about the low number of multi-profile festivals (as opposed to events focusing on a single genre).  

The final remarks do not claim to be the summary conclusion of the conference. They reproduce the observations that the author of these lines made at the final session.

·        The importance of attracting visitors to the festivals’ host cities was a pivotal issue during the conference. The outsider was nevertheless surprised at the almost total absence of references to financial and other resources of public tourism promotion, next to subsidies from ministries and municipalities.

·        By pulling together decision makers, festival operators and observers, the event was an important stage in the emancipation of festivals in Bulgaria. Which is one front in the European warfare waged for acquiring more solid recognition for the paramilitaries of culture, bringing their status somewhat closer to that of the regular forces. (Excuse me for the bellicose metaphor.) 

·        Beyond national and local authorities, the advocacy for festivals’ positions should be extended to the EU, where the Creative Europe programme and the Structural Funds are being decided. (Concerning the latter there is an important Bulgarian link.)

·        The composition of the membership of the new Bulgarian association, gaining representation also at the conference, implies that the European Festival Association should also reflect the diversity of the European festival scene. The noble historic legacy of EFA induces EFA to usually feel most comfortable with highbrow priorities and communication.

Péter Inkei



Statistical data extracted from the Hungarian registration system of festivals were offered for reference to the Bulgarian festival operators. One of the diagrams presented to the conference shows the composition of the revenue side of the budgets of 394 events registered in the system. The data come from a broad range of events, including mass rock festivals and small folklore feasts, festivals of classical music but also of gastronomy. They cover a span of three years between 2010-2012, presenting the latest data that respective festivals have entered into the system. The different shades of green represent various forms of support, while earned income is indicated by red and pink.

When data arrive from an approximately comparable set of Bulgarian festivals can one discuss the structure and one or other segment of the budget.

On the European scene music festivals are considered to be the representative genre. Therefore out of the 394 registered festivals in Hungary the budgets of the 16 largest music festivals were also presented.

The two sets: the inclusive total and the musical selection showed relatively similar features. The most significant specific feature of music festivals is that sponsorship is half as important as with the general average. This is counterbalanced by more income in the two fundamental segments: the municipal support and the ticket sale. Behind the averages, however, there is quite substantial internal variation. This is illustrated with three parts of the budget in the group of sixteen music festivals.

·        Behind the 28% percentage share of the subsidy granted by the local municipalities at one end of the scale is 68% of a festival run by a district of Budapest, while at the other end a large rural event received 0%.

·        The scale of box office revenue was similar, 55% at a popular art festival in Budapest at the one end, and 1% at a chorus festival in a country town.

·        Variation is smaller in case of sponsorship. A chamber music festival earned the most with 24%, and organisers from four festivals reported nil.