What makes a city a Festival City?

I’ve been thinking about this question since I started planning for my trip to Edinburgh, which is clearly a Festival City and not merely a city that happens to hold a festival. But where does the distinction lie? I think of festival cities as places that get completely swept up in an event throughout the town, where residents and visitors are equally likely to attend events, and where the normal order of things is suspended for several days.

But what causes these features to be present in some cities but not others?

New York, for example, is a worldly city with a million cultural things to do, but those things are about equally available and appealing throughout the year. There are festivals, of course, celebrating an exhibit, a composer, a film competition, or the like, but these festivals tend to occupy just a few pages of that week’s 100-page Time Out. On the other hand, a city like Montreal, where I lived for several years, transforms itself into festival central for the entire summer, starting with the Fringe Fest, Grand Prix weekend, the Jazz Fest, Just for Laughs, Francofolies, and more. Downtown streets become pedestrian-only spaces for much of the time, and there are noteworthy free and paid events happening almost every night. The festivals are able to attract big-name acts, which is great for the period of the festival; however, there may be a relative shortage of, for example, big-name jazz acts visiting during the rest of the year. I think of New Orleans (mardi gras, French Quarter fest, jazz fest) and Austin (South by Southwest) as other Festival Cities.

So, here are some of the qualities I associate with arts festivals and Festival Cities:

1. They are multidisciplinary, mixed-arts festivals. Festivals that limit themselves to a particular medium or genre will also limit their audience. One of the things that is so impressive about the Edinburgh Fringe program is the diversity: comedy, spoken word, theatre, music, and cabaret, each of which can be subdivided into too many bizarre subgenres to count. A man in an animal suit performing a monologue about his mother while riding a unicycle? The Fringe probably has about a dozen such shows. Want Shakespeare or Mozart straight up? The Fringe has that too.

2. They are democratic festivals that include free and ticketed events, in public as well as private spaces. Holding events outdoors and marking a street as “Festival Central” brings extra visibility to the event and allows people to attend while spending as much or as little money as they choose. The democratic nature also allows for an eclectic group of artists who participate.

3. The cities have a notable arts scene outside of festival season. I also think of festival cities as having a significant presence of college students and artists who are eager to be involved in the festivals.

4. The cities have lousy weather for a good portion of the year, which makes locals want to take advantage of the few months when temperatures are pleasant. This was definitely true in Montreal and my hometown of Buffalo, where locals never let a sunny day pass without a visit to a terrace. I suspect it is also a factor in Edinburgh, which can be dark and soggy for months.

What else could be added to this list? I hope that after two weeks in Edinburgh I’ll have some additional thoughts.

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