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IETM Exchange: Lessons learnt from Artsadmin

Adi, festival coordinator of ACT Festival in Sofia, Bulgaria

Back in November we were joined by Adi, festival coordinator of ACT Festival in Sofia, Bulgaria, on a staff exchange with one of our producers. In this blog Adi reflects on the experience and what she took away from it.

At the beginning of 2020, it is time for reflection and evaluation of 2019. Naturally, I start to question myself about the high and low points of 2019. As a coordinator of the only international festival for independent theatre in Bulgaria, ACT Festival in Sofia, my 2019 was mainly about all the work we put into the festival. Every year the festival presents eight Bulgarian performances and four international performances, one of which is a co-production. We also had a parallel programme with VR and screenings and, for the first time, we started a zero-waste initiative during the festival. As you can imagine, I was very happy to be part of the festival and the atmosphere it created. However, I can easily say that the highlight of 2019 for me was my short exchange at Artsadmin in November. 

As part of the IETM network for performing arts and with the support of i-Portunus mobility fund, for two weeks in November I was part of the magic of Artsadmin. I was hanging about in their office, taking part in all of their meetings, having private conversations with almost all of the team members and joining in on projects. 

From the first day I was thrown in the deep with the immersive experience of installing coir rolls in the Cam river in Cambridge, part of the art residency of Caroline Wright. In the next few days I had the unique opportunity to see first hand what the work of Artsadmin is, how it is organized and how it is executed. I met with the different teams – producing, marketing, finance, education, artist development and so on. At the end of my exchange I also talked with Deborah Chadbourn, the Executive Director and Róise Goan, the Artistic Director of Artsadmin. The most important thing for me in these conversations was to understand what the values of the organization are, what the process of making decisions is and what was the approach towards mistakes and missteps. And here are some of the things I learned and took back home with me:

  • Question and rethink everything. Artsadmin is now going through a change. The new directors, together with the board, the team and other stakeholders are inspecting all of the procedures and mechanisms that the organization is currently using. They are questioning every detail and trying to figure out what makes sense, what can be changed and optimized. The main concern is to make sure that every action follows the core goals and beliefs of the charity. I was so happy to see that it is possible for an established organization to continue evolving and changing in order to respond to the important questions of the day. 
  • Look at the detail. There is no small matter – everything should be thought through. In each meeting I attended, I was surprised how thoroughly everyone was discussing the topic. From the new website, to the way they program events at Toynbee Studios, to the matter of decision-making when they choose an artist or a project to produce – the detail is the devil, so everything should be considered. Even if it takes more time to actually make the decision at the end, that is not a problem and the conversation should not be cut off. 
  • Be inclusive and be green. The politics of Artsadmin did not surprise me – for years they have been moving towards more sustainable and inclusive ways of working. What surprised me was the degree to which they organize they work according to these principles. From the small things, like creating notebooks from recycled office paper, to much bigger projects, like the grant Artsadmin secured to turn Toynbee Studios in a carbon neutral and more inclusive building. Being accessible and inclusive is a main policy of Artsadmin. Not only through the programme Unlimited, but also with the everyday things they do. From the language they use to the way they plan their programme and the way they work with professionals and non-professionals – they always think first about the needs of others. 
Group selfie at the Artsadmin staff lunch

Culture has the power to change society. Cultural organizations have the power to create the new “normal”, new paths, new techniques and ways of thinking. However, cultural institutions have the tendency to safeguard the status-quo, to protect old values, often only for the sake of it, without critically thinking over these values. The big lesson for me and the reason why my time with Artsadmin is the highlight of my year was to understand that even organizations with tradition can be innovative, experimental and bold. Big thank you to the whole team of Artsadmin, the IETM network and I-portunus!