Grassroots fringe festivals add innovation and authenticity to major events.

By Andrew Mason and Rebecca Scollen[1]

Festivals are traditionally community events, expressions local culture celebrating a successful harvest or aspects of a region and its people. Festivals are powerful engines of place-making.  As major events, modern festivals are promoted widely and make potent contributions to place branding, tourism and place identity. As such, large festivals must be professionally managed to ensure success and minimise risks.  In managing such large events there is a possibility that local authenticity can be lost if festival organisers apply a dominant ‘top-down’ approach. The top-down event management can create a same-ness amongst festivals, diluting the brand and limiting local participation and engagement.  This tension between professionally managing a major event, such as a festival, and the desirable authenticity of bottom-up community involvement can be managed with the inclusion of fringe-festivals.  Fringe festivals allow for experimentation and innovation, which are necessary for the long term sustainability of a major festival. With experimentation comes risk, but by allowing experimentation in the form of a fringe festival the risk is managed and largely mitigated. Fringe festivals can also allow bottom-up community involvement, reflecting wider aspects of the local community and adding authenticity and diversity to the festival proper.

Andrew MasonRebecca Scollen, (2018) “Grassroots festival keeps city alive during severe drought”, Journal of Place Management and Development, Vol. 11 Issue: 3, pp.266-276,

In this article for the special issue of the Journal of Place Management and Development on Grassroots Festivals and Place Making, we discuss the role of a grassroots initiative to create ephemeral public art which addressed the crisis faced by a regional community in the grip of long term drought.  The Australian city of Toowoomba is a hub in the fertile farming region of the Darling Downs.  With a reputation as ‘The Garden City’, Toowoomba residents celebrate their region’s climate and rich volcanic soils with an annual floral festival called The Carnival of Flowers. As an expression of place making, the festival reflects the community’s relationship with their region. The Carnival showcases the many public and private floral gardens and is the city’s major tourist event of the calendar, but in 2007 the city was in crisis, facing the worst drought since European settlement.  The long-term drought decimated the floral gardens and threatened the viability of the Carnival of Flowers.  A recently formed community group, the Arts Council Toowoomba (ACT) took the initiative to propose an addition to the carnival which would fill the barren garden beds with public art created by members of the local community in response to the drought.  With the support of local council and the Carnival of Flowers organisers, Avant Garden was included as a smaller fringe-festival style event within the major festival. The article ‘Grassroots festival keeps city alive during severe drought’ reports on the success of the Avant Garden project as a community generated event, adding authentic community participation in a meaningful contribution to place making that has resonances even a decade later.

As a bottom-up initiative Avant Garden invited local people to create temporary public art works in response to the drought using largely re-cycled materials.  Many of the artworks created by these emerging artists captured a whimsical spirit of resilience in the community facing an uncertain future due to the crisis of drought. The article draws upon a survey of audiences’ reactions to viewing the artworks and found that the Avant Garden project was reflecting the broader community and was popular with locals and tourists alike. The Avant Garden project models grassroots authenticity in engagement and the sort of innovation, and broadening of representations, that can be well managed by adding fringe festivals to major events.  The Avant Garden project ended with the end of the drought, but Arts Council Toowoomba used a similar model of art in response to crisis when the city was devastated by flood in 2011. This project was called Splashing Back. In retrospect, Avant Garden is one of the seminal place-making events marking the recognition of public art in Toowoomba.  Subsequent place-making events include the First Coat Street Art Festival, launched in 2014.  Held over three days, the First Coat festival saw national and international artists converge to colour city walls with large scale murals. Place-making events such as these have reflected the passion of the community and have represented the city as a vibrant hub for the creative arts.

[1] Department of Arts and Communication, University of Southern Queensland, Toowoomba, Australia