Dear Mr Premier. Our Festivals Need More than a Name Change

Dear Mr Premier,

Congratulations on completing your first week in office.

Full disclosure. I sat on the board of the Montserrat Arts Council for two years and served as acting director of the same organisation from April 2019 to September 2019.

I, as many others, was disappointed in the decision to the change the name of our oldest festival from the same to carnival without public input. We have spent millions getting consultations on our tourism branding yet we didn’t see it fit to ensure the people were on board with a change of direction for the festival.

Since the name change was announced I have been in an awkward place. As someone formerly associated with the MAC and also as a media representative who has pushed all our festivals on my platforms to the best of my ability, I am never sure how to respond when people ask me what I think about the change, because I am torn. At best, the change is a cosmetic one as the MAC still lacks what it needs most to make it work. I don’t believe if we pretend it is all good it will somehow get better on its own. Hence the reason for this letter.

We may never agree on the name change but what is more important is that the carnival and all our festivals have the resources to sustain whatever change is deemed necessary and therein is the greatest problem.

Whether as festival or carnival, all of the activities require the input and creativity of our cultural practitioners. The MAC does not have the financial resources to support these practitioners based on the budget which was allocated this year. Our artisans really want to work but we make it really difficult for them as we do not have an environment which is supportive of their creativity in terms of the policies in place.

If a group or individual were to ask for sponsorship, the first response would most often be ‘we don’t have a budget for that’. Which is the truth. There is no budget line which supports making financial contributions to our artists. All funds are fully allocated and still do not cover even the basic services/workshops which the council should provide to deliver its mandate of developing culture. A mad dash then ensues to ask the board who will say no money and the PS who will say no money and then the wrangling begins to figure out how to find money to help someone with a legitimate request.

The MAC needs to have access to its full allocation at the start of the year. Always after much begging and pleading, money is often found but why go through this every year? Allow the organisation to have full control of its funding and not hand it out piecemeal, which is the current practice from your office. We are not speaking here of quarterly tranches of funds, I am speaking about 1000 for this or 7000 for that. It is not a very empowering position for the board or the secretariat to have to beg daily.

Not all requests require handing over cash. A simple win would be for anyone who is registered as a cultural practitioner to be eligible for a tax waiver on products which support our annual events. While an SRO does exist, it excludes the costume designers for example, who are an essential part of making our events colourful. The thinking is, that because they make money from people wearing their costumes then they should pay duty. However, to price costumes in a way which would allow them to profit after paying duties will keep people off the road. Our troupes are already very small. An increase in visitors due to our exciting and colorful parades and shows will offset any potential loss of customs duties.

There is currently a strategic objective to build a national registry which could facilitate this process and formalise this sector but it has not been actioned. Being registered will then allow Customs and all other entities to identify who is eligible to receive waivers, etc. It also will position the artists to treat their work more as a business, which is a necessity for building our cultural industry. Yes it would mean, that MAC and other organisations will have to pay artists more but they are worth it.

I have always been of the opinion that the MAC should have a team which strictly supports the management and marketing of all our festivals. Many have disagreed with my position as they believe that continued management by a government entity stifles the community from getting involved and companies from sponsoring events. I believe the real reason we are not seeing as much involvement is because we do not offer real value to the people and companies which have been supporting our festivals. We can do better to show them they are important to our culture.

GOM remains the largest funder of the four festivals on island December carnival, St. Patrick’s in March, Calabash in July, Festival of the Word in November and to a lesser extent Cudjoe Head Day and Montserrat Idol. All of the events suffer from lack of adequate funding, late planning and promotion and ad hoc execution. As they are run by volunteer committees, competing responsibilities often mean that not enough attention can be paid to ensuring the festivals receive the time needed to be successfully executed. A fully-functioning team of people who handle marketing, event logistics, festival production would ensure we can improve the overall experience offered by all of the festivals. These events remain our biggest draw to the island and still have much potential for growth. However, not giving them the financial and human resources needed to make them more professional will limit the possibilities for all of us. Two of the events named above were created by private entities but their heavy reliance on government funding means they should be given the option to come in under MAC rather than get the money and do what they will.

If not a festival commission or event production arm, then start with implementing the FES Guidelines. This is been a document which has gone through several iterations of the board and directors. It provides a framework through which the MAC can increase its oversight of the festivals to ensure that the funds are used to market and execute the event effectively. Currently, the MAC operates as a bank, without input into the festival execution outside of the December event. The FES doc as we call it, has no teeth because there is no funding allocated to fully execute it. As envisioned and drafted, it would allow for all registered artists to apply for cultural support to continue their development.

The MAC is a statutory organisation but it is being run like a government department. It needs to be cut loose so the board and the secretariat can fly. The cultural policy needs to be completed. This is necessary to attract donor funding from organisations which support cultural programmes. GOM/DFID does not have to be MAC’s sole source of income. There are also no governance documents and by-laws by which the board should operate. The assumption is made that when someone joins a board, they know how it should be run. It needs to be clearly spelt out so no one “assumes” and responsibilities and roles are clearly defined. How else do you hold the board accountable?

Our people have always been able to make rainbows out of raindrops and pull off the impossible. But there is no need to continue the practice of not giving something as essential as our culture the adequate financial and policy support it needs to improve. We say culture is important to our tourism sector. Please treat it as if it is so.

Now that the election is behind you, an increase to this December’s carnival budget would be welcome. It was stressful for all of us, not just the politicians.

By the way, will you still be MCing the Christmas Caroling event as you usually do each year?

Nerissa Golden, Editor of Discover Montserrat