Art festivals know the show must go on

Sunday, January 31st, 2021

The Meet in Beijing International Arts Festival, an annual event which draws artists from around the globe, has had to adopt massive changes this year due to the COVID-19 pandemic. From Jan 7 to Thursday, the festival will bring 42 performances from 24 countries with most of them staged online.

With discussions among international artists about topics such as the influence of the pandemic on theaters, artists and art festivals and their importance for cities and for people, a forum, titled Arts Festivals and City Life, went online over Jan 26-27, with some of the guests sharing their ideas at Tianqiao Performing Arts Center in Beijing.

“Audiences anticipate and celebrate the Meet in Beijing International Arts Festival every year but this year’s festival was quite different,” says Li Jinsheng, president of the China Arts and Entertainment Group, the event’s organizer. He adds that the festival attracted more than 30,000 artists from 120 countries and regions and more than 4.3 million audience members since 2000.”However, we are glad to see warm responses from artists from around the world when we invited them to share their art works and their stories through online events. They are finding alternative ways to communicate with their audience.”

Theater director Tian Qinxin says: “Every year, we gather together to celebrate art from different cultures during Meet in Beijing International Arts Festival, which is a great time for both artists and audiences.” Tian was appointed director of the National Theater of China in December 2020.

“The city of Beijing, where I was born, has been a great source of inspiration for my works and I never stop exploring the city,”Tian adds. She is known for her plays, such as Beijing Fayuan Temple, which is set against the backdrop of the 1,300-year-old Buddhist temple. “While enduring the crisis, we are still making art. That’s what we do best.”

One of the online guest speakers was the Edinburgh International Festival director, Fergus Linehan, who talked from the headquarters of the organization, which is situated at the top of the Royal Mile, just next to Edinburgh Castle.

“Although I am here today, our offices and public areas have been closed since March 18, when we started working from home. This was the year that, for the first time in 73 years, Edinburgh’s Festivals did not go ahead. This meant a very different summer for all of us who work on the festivals but also for everyone who lives in this city,” the director says. “It was also a great disappointment not to be able to welcome thousands of artists from all over the world, including those from China. Chinese artists have played an important role in our programming. In recent years, we have welcomed the Shanghai Symphony Orchestra with maestro Yu Long, dancer-choreographer Yang Liping’s dance company and soloists, such as pianists Yuja Wang and Lang Lang. We look forward to resuming our rich and rewarding collaborations with China when the pandemic is behind us.”

Since its founding in 1947, the Edinburgh International Festival has become a world-famous cultural event as well as playing a role in the social and cultural enrichment of the citizens of Edinburgh, Linehan says, adding that the annual event attracts audiences each year of more than 4.5 million.

“The past eight months have been enormously difficult for people who have been cut off from their social, cultural and creative lives. Coming together to share stories with each other and celebrate our shared sense of humanity feels more urgent today than any time since our founding in 1947,” he says.

David J. Fraher, president emeritus of Arts Midwest, a nonprofit arts organization from the United States, has been to China more than 60 times over the past 21 years. As the Arts Midwest’s founding president and CEO from 1983 until August 2019, he recognizes the important role art festivals play, both in the vitality of the artistic community, and the quality of a city’s life.

He also notes that since March, nearly every live indoor performance in the US has been canceled. Most outdoor festivals and performance stages were also canceled or closed in response to the public health crisis. In data updated in early December, more than 60 percent of US arts organizations remain completely closed to the public.

“As the COVID-19 experience has unfolded differently in countries across the globe, I can project that when we in the US finally emerge from this nightmare, our performing arts landscape will be vastly altered,” he says. “On the positive side, we have built new skills and capacities. We have learned how to connect with preexisting and new audiences through expanded digital platforms.”

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