Posted April 17th 2011 at 11:08 am by
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Perugia, Italy: Festival City

QUESTION: What is the economic impact of a festival on a city?

Perugia, Italy: Festival City
Hundreds lined up outside the Teatro del Pavone to meet Italian author Beppe Severgnini, who spoke at Peugia’s 2011 International Journalism Festival.

Today marks the final day of Perugia’s annual international journalism festival, an event that attracts the world’s foremost thinkers on the present and future of journalism.

Perugia residents Arianna Ciccone and Christopher Potter founded the festival in 2006 because they noticed that, in a country that hosts festivals of all kinds, there was no annual journalism festival.  “The question was: Why?” said Potter. “There didn’t seem to be an obvious answer, because a lot of people are interested in journalism, especially these days when everyone is a potential journalist.”

Although the first festival was modest in size, the 2010 edition boasted 120 events, over 300 speakers, 250 journalists, and 220 volunteers.  Attendees totaled 30,000.

I visited Perugia for the first time three years ago during the summer between my two years in urban planning school.  An opportunity to intern at Brunello Cucinelli, an elite Italian cashmere company, presented itself.  I’d developed no particular interest in urban planning after one year of study, so I seized the day.

Perugia, Italy: Festival CityUpon arrival in Perugia on a summer evening, I found the entire city square packed and dancing to a live New Orleans jazz band.  It was Umbria Jazz, a Perugia tradition since 1973.  In a walk around the city, I found posters for a chocolate festival in October as well as for this journalism festival.  In June of 2011, Perugia and nearby Assisi will host their first international architecture festival.

What makes a city a good candidate for a festival capital?  “Perugia makes a nice setting for a festival for a number of reasons.  One, it’s nice to look at. Secondly, it’s quite close to Rome airport for international visitors.  Thirdly, it has a large student population, which makes the audience bigger than it might be for different city of a similar size. It’s the capital of Umbria, which, together with Tuscany, is the tourist heart of Italy. It’s got an open city council that likes to encourage festivals of this kind,” said Potter.

This last point, that Perugia has a city council open to festivals, may be among the most important.  A city’s council and its people have to embrace a festival to make it work.  The journalism festival is sufficiently funded to make all events free and open to the public.  This policy decreases the insider/outsider dilemma that could arise from a throng of foreigners descending on a city.  Although I did not interview council members or locals, Perugia’s festivals, at least to me as an outsider, have a feeling of participating together.

The size of a city is another factor in making a festival a local success as well as a success for the field of inquiry.  “If you go to a big capital city like London, Paris, Berlin – you just get lost in the flow.  Whereas if you go to a small place like Perugia, it’s the main event for a month. Now somewhere in between — like Barcelona, Zurich, or Hamburg — those places might be more receptive because you can establish an identity of the festival with the town itself.”

Of the places you (reader) have been, which places seem the best candidates to host festivals?  I vote for Providence, Rhode Island; Cartagena, Colombia; and Portland, Oregon.

Perugia, Italy: Festival City
Ahmed Ashour of Al Jazeera Talk presents at (Media?) revolution in Tunisia and Egypt in the grand Sala dei Notari in Perugia.
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I did a brief Internet scan to find research that assesses the net economic impact of a festival, and didn’t find much.  It would be interesting if there were a formula of some sort that a city could use to determine whether it would experience financial gain from a festival, and what it would take to do so.  Although job creation seems an unlikely result of a festival, surely local businesses can benefit, and perhaps there is a long-term benefit in terms of returning tourists.

Information on whether a festival impacts a community’s sense of place is much more widely available. I did a quick search of recent MIT Urban Planning masters theses and found Humanizing the city: festivals as a human adaptation of public space by Joshua Fiala and Designing a moment in time: First Night and Boston’s public spaces by Ben Stone. (Unfortunately, you need an MIT ID to download a full version of either of these theses. Email colabradio@mit.edu if you would like to contact either author to ask for more information).

I don’t know that it would be worthwhile to place a dollar value on something like ‘placemaking’, but surely knowing how local businesses experience festivals would be interesting and worthwhile. Festivals are expensive and require a substantial budget to get off the ground at all. The International Journalism Festival enjoys financial support from the local government as well as a number of corporate sponsors.

Journalism festivals may have one inherent advantage: “Being journalists, they write.  And when they write, they write about where they are, if they like it.  And if they like it, it’s nothing but good news for the town concerned,” said Potter.

So here I am, case in point. I like Perugia, and I’ll come back.
Perugia, Italy: Festival City
View from a room at the Hotel Brufani, Perugia. Many festival speakers stayed at the Brufani.

Post and photos by Alexa Mills.

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4 Responses to “Perugia, Italy: Festival City”

  1. Tony Yet says:

    Thank you for the article. It’s been great insight.

    I think Austin, TX is also a great city for festivals, most notable for SXSW.

  2. Alexa Mills says:

    Thanks for the comment, Tony! Austin is awesome. Good point! I should have cited Austin. I actually had the same experience with Austin as I had with Perugia – I accidentally landed there in the middle of a festival. I think it was Austin City Limits 2009. It was such a great experience. It rained, and a festival volunteer just gave me her umbrella so that I could stay dry.

  3. Annis says:

    Hi Alexa. Here are a few thoughts on this, just off the top of my head: The person who was doing real work on the benefits of festivals to cities at MIT was Mark Schuster before he passed away. He and Dennis Frenchman and Joachim Sabate published Event Places, Llocs AMB Esdeveniments, in which they examine some of these issues.

    Though my research focuses more on community-generated parades than city-sponsored festivals, my impression is that festival events have a number of effects. For example, like parades, city festvials can build a network of civic leaders who manage, promote, and participate in the events. The festivals also organize a visible constituency around whatever is represented in the festival – whether it be music, folk art, journalism, or architecture. I do wonder whether cities that deliberately host a wide variety of festivals like you describe are doing something similar to cities that vie to host big conferences. I say that because in the US/Canada, cities often come to be associated with one festival that helps to define an image for the city and in some cases, direct investment in that city. (Montreal and its jazz festival comes to mind.) Festivals in the US seem to have emerged in the 70s and often occupied underused spaces in cities. As they grew, they helped spur reinvestment in those areas, I believe. I wonder when this interest in festivals emerged in Perugia. Though they don’t seem focused on one festival, it does sound like a festival format allows for fewer barriers between the visitors and the residents to the city than the conference format… Interesting post.

  4. Alexa Mills says:

    Thanks for the info, Annis! I found one of Dennis Frenchman’s event places articles – http://designobserver.com/media/pdf/Event-Places_i_665.pdf

    Yes, I did think about the difference between a conference and a festival while I was in Perugia. In many ways, the journalism festival was actually a conference, except that it was open to the public. It’s a nice approach.

    The recent American Planning Association annual conference here in Boston was so expensive (http://www.planning.org/conference/registration.htm) that I didn’t even consider going, and I’m in the field of Urban Planning AND I live in Boston! Perugia’s Journalism festival enjoyed corporate sponsorship. I’m sure the Planning conference didn’t have as much support, and perhaps in the US it would be harder to get enough sponsorship to make the conference open/affordable.

    But urban planning, like journalism, seems like a topic that the general public might enjoy learning about.