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The Thames Festival – still shipshape without sponsorship

Sculptor Richard Wilson tests the bells for his Thames-borne opera, 1513: A Ship’s Opera
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You founded a festival 16 years ago, and each year it’s gone more and more street, more and more wildly theatrical, more and more sensational.

Your theme and centrepiece could hardly be more iconic, it’s the River Thames, and your weekend festivities at the end of the summer draw 350,000 punters. So what do you do when your two major sponsors, worth half your budget, withdraw?

You are, if those details are added up, Adrian Evans, and his first instinct was unequivocally to scrap it. But his second thought was not so logical: to expand it.

The Thames Festival will happen again this September but instead of it being a weekend endorsed by Barclaycard and HSBC, it will last for ten days, from September 6 to 15.

What will be missing will be those bankers, the fireworks and the all night street party, something the Mayor of London, who bungs in £60,000, will be sad about, but one hopes he will see the point.

Because what is there instead is a Thames Festival that is no longer confined between Westminster and Tower bridges but which is taking in the whole river, from source to estuary, and a host of new commissions, from theatre makers, visual artists, poets, musicians. There will even be a three-act opera, put together by a sculptor, Richard Wilson, which starts at the Thames Estuary and reaches its climax with Tower Bridge as its backdrop.

The festival has its steadfast small scale partners, and the loss of Barclaycard and HSBC was not unexpected, their contracts had both run their courses. But Evans could find no replacements.

[pullquote]What the lack of sponsorship has effectively done is to free Evans up[/pullquote]

He has thrown away the business plan that evolved since 1997 and drawn up an entirely new one, and what persuaded him was the simple fact that the subsidy – the festival is a national portfolio organisation – from the arts council has remained constant while the sponsorship was transitory.

What the lack of sponsorship has effectively done is to free Evans up. The fireworks and carnival were expensive, and then there was the costly headache of closing streets, manning them, clearing up afterwards, making sure local authorities were happy, all of which has gone. No doubt he would always prefer to have the sponsorship, but what he has ended up with is a properly curated arts festival, not a street party.

The lesson, hopefully, is that big number corporate sponsorship is not only not the saving of an arts festival, but that without it, you can actually create much more of an arts festival. What we don’t know yet is whether it will work, but Evans is already well on his way with plans for 2014.

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