Surva festival used to attract thousands before the pandemic, Source:

Culture on the ropes

Culture on the ropes

How Europe’s artistic and cultural events and practices keep their head above water amid the pandemic

The Surva International Festival of Masquerade Games traditionally held in Pernik, Bulgaria, was cancelled for the third year in a row this January due to the explosive Covid-19 situation. Surva is Europe’s largest event of its kind, drawing over 5000 participants and hundreds of thousands of spectators. Apart from being a top-notch tourist attraction, the ancient pagan ritual performed by outlandishly costumed and masked kukeri and survakari is on UNESCO's Representative List of the Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity.

Aim lower, act locally

Pernik Municipality which organizes the festival since 1966, has decided to play it safe, aware of the heavy blow that its cancellation will deal on the local communities and hospitality industry. Alternatively, small groups of performers will be sent to strut about in their scary outfits and clanging bells in Sofia, Bulgaria’s capital city and in villages of the region where the tradition has been kept alive since Thracian times.

Long list of cancellations

As sad as Surva’s fate can be, it is just one entry in a long list of cultural events that have been cancelled, postponed, or scaled-down since the outbreak of the pandemic in early 2020.

The first global lockdown hit travel and culture tourism especially hard, with 95 per cent of museums closing doors in March-April 2020, and World Heritage sites not accepting visitors in nine out of ten countries, according to UNESCO data. As tourism is a horizontally structured industry with multiple interdependent players, the prolonged Covid-19 crisis-affected cultural institutions, performing arts, traditional crafts, catering and accommodation businesses, tour operators, and more, leading to layoffs and bankruptcies, as more often than not, state supports proved to be but a temporary solution.

Large European music festivals suffered cancellation in two successive years, including Britain’s Glastonbury, Denmark’s Roskilde and Barcelona’s Primavera Sound, now hopefully rescheduled to the summer of 2022.

European Capital of Culture reshuffle

Even sprawling, year-long initiatives such as the European Capital of Culture were not immune to pandemic-induced restrictions. 2020 title-holders Galway (Ireland) and Rijeka (Croatia) were forced to suspend their programmes and were granted an extension by the EC until 30 April 2021. Organizers did their best to switch all Covid-sensitive events online.

The initiative’s calendar was further reshuffled, with the title year of Novi Sad (Serbia) moving from 2021 to 2022 and the other two European Capitals of Culture 2021, Timisoara (Romania) and Elefsina (Greece), rescheduled to 2023.

As the Omicron variant fuels the fifth pandemic wave, Novi Sad is joining Esch-sur-Alzette (Luxembourg) and Kaunas (Lithuania) as this year’s European Capitals of Culture. On 22 January, Kaunas will officially assume its tenure with a globally broadcasted opening show on Žalgirio Arena dubbed “Confusion” - an allegorical portrayal of the rise of the city of Kaunas painted through video, light, movement and music.

The final refuge

What distinguishes artistic persons from the rest of us is their ability to derive inspiration in good and bad times alike and be resilient to austerity. So, as the Covid-19 pandemic rolls along, the artistic and cultural sector has been demonstrating unparalleled solidarity and resourcefulness in mitigating its impact on its members.

Many initiatives to support and revive the sector during and after the pandemic have been launched since 2020. The ones that are most relevant to the festival community, for example, are shown on a page created by the European Festivals Association (EFA) which provides useful links, regular updates and calls to action.

But does culture deserve all of this attention right now, when the climate, energy and health crises come on top of each other and the basic sustenance of millions is at stake? A quote from The Meaning of Culture by the English philosopher and man of letters J.C. Powys (1872-1963) can end the debate: “Culture is the bedrock, the final wall, against which one leans one’s back in a godforsaken chaos”.



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