Bristol's Harbour Festival to change over fears it is too 'white and middle class'

0208 harbour festival revamp
The Harbour Festival returned for the first time post-pandemic last month Credit: PA

Bristol's Harbour Festival is too 'white and middle-class' and needs to undergo major changes, according to a new report.

The study, which was submitted to Bristol City Council's cabinet today (2 August), recommends that the the annual event should be "reimagined" and made more inclusive, with fewer stages.

The award-winning festival celebrates the city's maritime heritage and showcases local artists, attracting around 250,000 people across a weekend in the summer.

But feedback from a consultation last autumn suggests that many older and disabled people, as well as families and black and asian people in the city, are put off from attending.

The responses showed that many people feel the festival "is not for them" and believe it primarily entertains a "white middle-class audience."

It also suggests that large crowds and a "drinking culture" at the event has impacted attendance.

Bristol's Queen Square packed as hundreds of people take in the festival entertainment Credit: ITV News

The report said: “The consultation highlighted the ‘whiteness’ of the festival and the invisible barriers to members of the global majority, as well as participants with mobility issues or neuro diverse needs.”

It said the feedback “highlighted the need for a more diverse programme, greater community engagement, cross-city collaboration and wider opportunities for young people”, as well as being greener, but remaining free of charge.

'Confusion as to what the festival is'

The report referenced the dialogue around inclusivity, the toppling of Edward Colston's statue in the city and the Black Lives Matter protests. It said the festival “now needs to better reflect and serve Bristol’s communities and the evolution of the city in the context of global events”.

It added: “The perception of the Harbour Festival for the global majority communities within Bristol is that it is not for them, and that the cultural offer is primarily serving a white middle-class audience.

The Harbour Festival is one of the largest free outdoor events in the UK. Credit: ITV News

“Many of those of different cultural backgrounds find the over-consumption of alcohol and the commercial approach to food off-putting.

“The narrative of the work of the festival is lost and the branding harks back to the Harbour Regatta, celebrating the boating community which is predominantly white.”

The report said there was “confusion as to what the festival is” and the end of the current contract allows for a review of the role of the event.

It also added that Bristol "has been in the spotlight over the last two years, especially its harbour and history" and that the perception of the city, nationally and internationally, "is one of diversity, creativity, independence and energy."

It said: “The festival needs to reflect recent events in its addressing of the issues around the harbour as well as celebrating the diversity that Bristol represents.

“There is an opportunity to harness this alongside the beauty, heritage and innovation of the harbour through events, dialogue and performance."

Potential for fewer stages and an overall creative director from 2024

It is expected that the Cabinet will approve a a one-year extension with the current organisers, with 2023 used as a “transitional” event.

A four-year contract worth the current annual council investment of £167,000 up to 2027 would then be retendered.

The report said rising costs make the existing model "near impossible, so overall changes will be needed. These could include adding more sponsorship and the role of an overall creative director, which does not currently exist.

“Currently, large number of stages in Harbour Festival are programmed by a team of freelance programmers who are engaged by the event contractor, many of whom have programmed in the same way for many years,” it said.

The report said the festival's branding "harks back to the Harbour Regatta, celebrating the boating community which is predominantly white.”

“One option for the new tender would be to look at how the festival is programmed, engaging a creative lead on this whose background is in the cultural sector and can clearly relate to our ambitions as a culture service."

The report also said that this approach could see less stages or changing how work is spread across the stages. This may result "in a reduced programme of higher quality work which aligns with our aims," it added.

It said the aims included establishing the festival as a free, flagship event that had greater diversity and participation and was welcoming for families.

Story: Adam Postans, Local Democracy Reporting Service