National Arts Festival

The Giant Match at the National Arts Festival, Grahamstown, South Africa. July 2-4, 2010. Photo: Kim Nowacki/Flickr

National Arts Festival goes digital to avoid cancellation

The National Arts Festival is a South African institution and usually draws thousands of visitors to the university town.

National Arts Festival

The Giant Match at the National Arts Festival, Grahamstown, South Africa. July 2-4, 2010. Photo: Kim Nowacki/Flickr

The SA National Arts Festival has found a way to make sure that the show goes on despite a spate of coronavirus-related cancellations.

Organisers of the two-week event scheduled to take place Makhanda (Grahamstown) from 25 June to 5 July 2020 have opted for the digital route to keep the famous festival going in the time of social distancing.

A digital compromise for National Arts Festival

National Arts Festival Fringe CEO Monica Newton conceded that holding the festival as normal was never going to be an option due to the restrictions on movement and mass gatherings imposed by the government.

“So here’s the thing, the National Arts Festival 2020 won’t be cancelled, but it will be different,” Newton told Music in Africa.

“We at the National Arts Festival have been worrying, thinking, worrying, arguing and thinking some more about what we do about the coronavirus pandemic sweeping the globe in relation to our very special annual festival.

“This our reality: Based on the ban on major events, we can’t allow more than 100 people to congregate anywhere. 

“Due to the travel ban and recommendations with regard to domestic travel and the use of public transport, our artists and visitors can’t get to Makhanda, and we can’t get to them. 

“We don’t want to contribute to the spread of the virus and fully understand that this is a time for isolation. That’s not what we do. We create experiences and celebrate the arts.”

Keeping SA connected

Newton said that their hope was that holding a digital festival would bring hope to South Africans and remind them of their connection even as individuals distance themselves. Crucially it will allow patrons of the arts to continue to support artists.

“Going virtual will mean that the festival can continue to support artists and the arts in 2020, by presenting work within a digital space,” Newton added.

“This way we can share some magic and hope with those who may still be confined to their homes. An opportunity to connect when we are being asked to distance ourselves from one another.

“Artists depend on festivals like ours to generate an income through selling tickets, getting their work seen and talked about locally and internationally, and networking with their peers. 

“Rather than cancel, we aim to create a new opportunity for artists and audiences alike to celebrate the arts, and to create an accessible platform for artists to share their work.

“Millions of people across South Africa and the world will be cut off from each other in completely unprecedented ways: unable to go to church, school or work, or socialise outside of their immediate family. 

“This is absolutely the responsible thing to do to contain the uncontrolled spread of COVID-19, but as social beings, it is going to chip away a little bit of our souls every day the bans are in force.”

Support the arts

The hope is that donors and sponsors will ramp up their support of the event given the inability to sell tickets.

“Our commitment to the arts remains steadfast and we invite you to take this journey with us.

“We can’t ask our supporters to make their plans, book their accommodation and transport, without the certainty that it will happen. And we can’t ask our service providers to stand at the ready if it may all come to nothing,” Newton went on.

The festival is the biggest annual event held in Makhanda and usually sees thousands descend on the sleepy Eastern Cape town.