A party without a heart?

By - Wednesday 9th September, 2015

Did Croydon’s summer of festivals fulfil its Ambition? Two Citizen contributors debate that very topic

Giant bubbles at Purley Festival, July 2015.
Photo by Purley Festival, used with permission.

Katie Rose is a Croydon-based singer, musician, sound therapist and vocal coach who was part of the team running the Big Sing workshop at Ambition. Sean Creighton has experience of community and voluntary organisations at a local and national level. A committed activist and blogger on a range of topics, in particular local heritage, he led guided historical walks during the Croydon Heritage Festival 2015. 

Sean Creighton: Hi Katie – I’m told that we had different experiences of the Ambition Festival, so I’m very interested to discuss it with you – if only to find out if there’s anything we actually do agree on!

Katie Rose: Thanks Sean. I had a very positive and diverse experience of the festival – as a workshop facilitator, reviewer and audience member – so would be happy to share my thoughts.

SC: I canvassed responses as widely as I could following Ambition, and I concluded that support for a town centre music festival was patchy. Holding it was a gamble and overall, Ambition was poorly attended. It also didn’t attract large numbers of people from outside Croydon, one of its key aims. The weather didn’t help, depressing attendance on Friday and more or less washing out Sunday.

KR: I’m surprised that the negative feedback is high – and I think there’s much more to the story. Rain is of course an occupational hazard for festivals but it only rained badly one day.

SC: I think we agree that perceptions of Ambition vary, depending on where you went. Venues such as Matthew’s Yard, the Spreadeagle pub and the Oval tavern were full. But they already have an enthusiastic clientele to attend their events.

KR: I think that’s a fair point. But the programme also made imaginative use of less obvious sites, such as the transformation of Croydon Minster into an atmospheric concert venue, and we saw innovative use of outdoor spaces including the urban beach at Platform Ruskin Square and the Minty Fresh stage in Mint Walk.

SC: A friend who visited Ambition in the town centre on Saturday afternoon told me how effective she thought the Minty Fresh stage in particular was, and about the excellent facilities for festival goers in Queen’s Gardens. It was well thought out and planned, but almost empty.

KR: Yes, promotion is challenging. Whether people show up depends on accessibility, pricing, popularity of the acts, competition with other events, weather and proximity to shopping, food and drink. However, if a small number of people turn up and all have a wonderful time, as happened on Bob’s Blunda Bus, the event cannot be said to have failed.

SC: There were real successes but the Fairfield Halls Asian fusion event was only 25% full and attended chiefly by middle-aged white people. It’s an example of an event that just didn’t find its target market.

Image by Ambition Festival, used with permission.

KR: Absolutely, this is a very important issue for arts events throughout the UK. There are many issues to be addressed – including pricing, accessibility and outreach. Croydon has become more deprived relative to England in recent years and up to 25% of the borough’s population is in low paid work. We need to build relationships between sectors and get as many communities as possible involved in arts programmes.

SC: I wasn’t sure what Ambition’s target market was. There wasn’t a typical young festival crowd around, but I don’t think many of the acts appealed to older people. My friend didn’t see many family groups either – so who?

KR: With a borough as diverse as Croydon, there cannot said to be one target market. As an example, the Big Sing workshop at Matthew’s Yard was attended by 30-40 people from diverse backgrounds including the asylum seekers group Rainbows Across Borders, mental health service users, Croydon Carers and a family with children. Platform Beach was full of folks from diverse backgrounds. A beach – urban or natural – is very inclusive so this was an inspired idea.

SC: The most negative feedback has been about promotion. To quote a few comments: “the words ‘to be confirmed’ cropped up too often on the website… differences between advertised and actual times were up to two hours… [one venue] advertised bands all afternoon yet nobody was playing… you don’t book unless you’re sure who you’re going to see”.

KR: I’ve worked at festivals and and all can face time slippage and programming chaos due to the perils of organising audiences, artists and gear. A first-time festival will face unforeseen problems.

SC: I’ve organised two week-long festivals myself, both on tiny budgets. It’s certainly not easy. Promotion has changed, though, and I was concerned to hear that people who don’t use social media were not aware of Ambition. There was also a low level of publicity outside the town centre so residents who don’t got there didn’t know it was on.

KR: This was a brave and yes, ambitious attempt. There will have been sectors who were not effectively reached, and this is important learning for future events.

SC: Ambition was very much a top-down decision. I would like to have seen more input from organisations like the Croydon Arts Network. The key to success is finding what will attract Croydonians in large numbers. But bearing in mind the cuts the council coming in 2016-17, it’s likely there will be no substantial funding for a festival next year.

KR: I feel the festival was an important milestone and a celebration of Croydon’s rich culture and arts scene. From ambitious beginnings, great things can grow.

The Croydon Citizen

The Croydon Citizen

The Croydon Citizen is a non-profit community news magazine for London's most populous borough.

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  • Anne Giles

    We attended the Fairfield Halls Asian fusion event and the Tinariwen event. I don’t think there should ever be a target market. Nothing wrong with middle aged white people, as it happens. The Ambition Festival was never intended to be just for young people.

    • Bev

      I don’t think it was advertised enough. You cannot just rely on social media. There should have been a booklet with details of all events in every copy of the local Guardian like there was for the Heritage Festival a while ago. I knew nothing about many of the events until afterwards when people I knew spoke about it and I consider myself fairly well informed.

  • Charles B.Wordsmith

    I went to one of the free events at the urban beach outside East Croydon Station and really enjoyed it, and would have liked to have gone to more. I think it could have been advertised more with posters around the town etc, and disappointed to hear the council didn’t think it should be called The Croydon Ambition Festival because they thought the name Croydon would put people off coming. It’s hard to change the outside perception of a place if those in charge of it are embarrassed by its very name. Hope it takes place next year.