Festival of Ideas

Festival director Joan Concannon talks to about York’s fifth Festival of Ideas and its growing success

Image: York Festival of Ideas

Image: York Festival of Ideas

Now in its fourth year, York’s Festival of Ideas is bigger, better and more exciting than ever before. With more than 150 events over 12 days, the festival offers a wide range of thought-provoking events, not only in the Arts and Humanities as well as in Science and Economics. However, that’s not even the best bit: all events are completely free. From Michael Morpurgo in the Minster to a discussion with the Chief Scientific Advisor of the Government, all you have to do is book your tickets online, turn up and enjoy. What more could you possibly want?

The Festival is headed up by the University itself, meaning that students are at the core of the event. When discussing the event with director Joan Concannon, she was keen to emphasise the importance of student involvement. Not only are internships available for students (“We don’t believe in slave labour!”), there is also the opportunity to present their work to professionals.

“From a University point of view, we are passionate about the importance of higher education and the research that comes alongside it. Very often, we have big name speakers coming along and so we attempt to wrap around that in a way to showcase the research done by our students. It really gives students the opportunity to present their ideas to really important and influential experts and test their ideas.”

This is one of many reasons why the Festival is for students. The Festival of Ideas is unique in the way that it is not solely Arts and Humanities based. Science and Economics are equally important features of the Festival, the Surveillance Focus Day is particularly promising with exciting speakers and interesting conversational points.

Image: Penguin

Image: Penguin

The Festival theme contributes to this greatly, as it is carefully chosen to suit everyone. “We try to choose a theme that is interesting enough to grab people’s attention,” Joan explained “but is also flexible enough that a scientist or an art historian or a physicist or anyone else in between can think, ‘Well, there’s something in that for me.’”

The prominence of many of the keynote speakers also makes a visit to the Festival most worthwhile. The Deputy Chief of staff at NATO, the Defence and Intelligence Editor at the Guardian – leader of the Snowden investigation – and the co-inventor of the world wide web are but three of the many high-profile speakers who will be presenting at the Festival.
Thanks to the Festival’s growing success, it is becoming easier year on year to invite such speakers to York. Success that is thanks to the increasing number of Festival partnerships, as well as corporate sponsorship. Most recently, the Festival managed to secure a media partnership with Classic FM. This is a great achievement for the Festival, Concannon told me, as Classic FM shall be providing constant promotion of the Festival on their station.

However, Joan is still ambitious for the Festival and does not want to stop there. As well as Classic FM, the Festival of Ideas has gained a partnership with BBC History magazine and Channel 4. Nevertheless, a partnership with a major national newspaper is the next goal for Concannon.

Of course, the Festival of Ideas is just one of many large scale cultural festivals that occur in our city. York’s very first International Shakespeare Festival was held with great success a few weeks ago as well as the York Spring Festival of New Music.

But why is it that York is so capable of such grand cultural events on such a regular basis? “There is a very receptive view in the city towards festivals and their value,” Concannon told me “and there is a real willingness to collaborate within the city. York’s cultural leaders are very conscious of and passionate about the way the city is viewed, not only by tourists but its residents. Of course, students are considered residents just as much as those who are locals, and so this festival in particular has been tailored in a way that enriches the experience of everyone who lives in York.”

Image: John Tenniel

Image: John Tenniel

Once again, this was an important factor when the Festival was in its early stages. “There had been the idea of the University having a book festival, although at the same time Jane and I were having discussions with smaller cultural organisations in the city about how they were being obscured due to their size.

“We started having conversations with cultural partners in the city about sharing information so that we could all keep connected in regards to what people were doing. Meanwhile, I was also embarking on conversations with alumni, of whom we have an astonishing range from various publishing companies. Many of them, when discussing the idea of a book Festival, said to me ‘oh no, not another book festival. Do something else!’”

It was then that Concannon and the Festival directors started to look beyond the Humanities. “As a University, we shouldn’t be constraining ourselves by people’s perception of book festivals. It shouldn’t just be about literary things, although of course there is nothing wrong with that. Given the strengths we have in social sciences and science itself, however, we decided it would be far more interesting to promote the totality of the University. Everyone was really taken by this idea, and so the festival in 2011 was our pilot. We began with the Beckett conference, then built 22 more events around and it thought, ‘You know what, I think we’ve got something here’.”

As a University, we shouldn’t be constraining ourselves by people’s perception of book festivals.Given the strengths we have in social sciences and science itself, we decided it would be far more interesting to promote the totality of the University.

Although in its fifth year, the festival is still in its early stages and ready to branch out in a variety of ways. The way Concannon herself envisages this, is through student participation. “The big driver for me now is reaching out to where students are. We need to work in partnership with students to make it even more of a success.

“For me, the best thing now would be for a group of students to come to me and say, ‘well, it’s a bit grown up now, we’d like to do a Fringe’. Students can do anything they want within the festival. Although, nobody really owns the festival, a high level of student participation would definitely allow them to feel that it is theirs. What’s more, it makes the programme far more interesting and stimulating.”

Competing with the likes of Hay and Bristol’s own Festival of Ideas, York’s Festival of Ideas is certainly up there with the best. Considering the opportunities available (for free!) over the 12 days, there is surely something that will take your fancy. This is a festival designed to be by students for students, so it would most certainly be worth your while getting involved, one way or another.

York Festival of Ideas, 9-12 June, is being held in venues across the city.
Visit www.yorkfestivalofideas.com/2015 for more information and to book tickets.
Follow the action on Twitter @yorkfestivalofideas
If you have booked tickets for an event but are unable to attend, please let the festival organisers know as soon as possible.

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