Behind the Scenes of the Nour Festival

By Nahla Al-Ageli

With an ever-increasing audience hungry and eager for the contemporary arts and culture of the Middle East and North Africa (MENA) region, here is a look behind the scenes at the people within the Royal Borough of Kensington Chelsea (RBKC) who have been instrumental in bringing together this year’s incredible Nour programme and working hard to ensure the smooth running of the Festival that launched on Monday and will now run for six weeks.

Nour last year attracted 24,796 real visitors over nine weeks and 25,000 followed it online through social media. This year the Nour Blog has been created where content is produced by a small number of guest contributors whose expertise covers journalism, literature, translation, food, theatre, film and the visual arts. Online visitors will be able to respond and interact by leaving comments.

Directly charged with delivering the Festival is the core Arts Service team of six whose work is supported and complimented by colleagues across the Council as well as external partners: Suzel Pitty (Culture Service Special Projects Officer), John Hampson (Senior Strategy Officer, Arts and Culture), Lottie England (leading on the launch event), Carine Mneimneh (leading on Digital and Social Media), Mai Moon (Communications Officer) and Jen Wood (Culture Service Development Officer).

Within the Council itself, there is also the ‘Nour Festival Steering Group’ comprising Council officers and external partners and the Cabinet Member for the Arts, Councillor Timothy Coleridge, whom the team report to and he in turn reports to his Cabinet colleagues. The RBKC is a publicly funded organisation whose aim is to serve the needs of its community and committed to fairness, openness and transparency in all its activities.

Starting in March, the Arts Service team made the open call for submissions by inviting artists and arts organisations – residing both in the UK and beyond – to come forward. With an overwhelming response of over a hundred submissions, the main selection criteria was to ensure: the contemporary and thought-provoking nature of the content, artistic excellence as well as the logistical elements of being able to find the right venue for each and the financing that would be required.

With an allocated but limited budget of £55,000 for direct commissioning work and marketing, Nour also relies on the direct investment by its external partners, who provide cover costs of up to four-fold this amount. So in addition to the open process, the team receives the important proposals from its existing and new partners that come fully funded with the venues onboard. This year, the Yemeni Embassy was an official partner who sponsored the catering, music and the art on show at the launch event.

The Nour Festival thus provides the overall highly respected umbrella brand and acts as the curator, key coordinator and point of liaison in relation to all its partners. This year for the first time, Nour is working with the Royal Geographical Society, the Electric Cinema, the Aga Khan University and the Finborough Theatre, alongside its more established partners such as the Victoria and Albert, The Tabernacle, the Science Museum and the Mosaic Rooms.

According to Suzel Pitty: “The high quality of these events is critical to the high profile and success of the Festival, allowing us to have a much bigger programme than we are able to directly fund or event manage ourselves. This year 17 events have resulted from open submissions whilst the remaining 29 developed directly with partners. We are always interested in brokering with new partners and welcome any expression of interest as part of or outside of the call for submissions.”

Once the artists and events were agreed upon, this kicked off the different stages of engagement for the Arts Service team– with plenty of time-zone scheduled calls and emails! – to agree on the marketing information and imagery to be used for each proposal, ensuring the widest possible promotion for Nour and the individual events and to finalise the logistics for the day to guarantee a happy audience.

Pitty: “We want to make sure that the experience for our audience is exactly what people have come to expect from Nour – open and accommodating, engaged and informative, inspired and inspiring. With 32 partners, 20 venues and over 80 contributors this year, this is by no means an easy task but everyone comes together in a unified response, working to make the festival the best it can be.”

This year’s programme of course needs no elaboration with some of both the big and small events already sold out as Nour continues to appeal to an ever-growing audience. Although the Festival was originally geared at the residents of the RBKC – and not just those of the significant Arab and Iranian communities – Nour now attracts national and international visitors who are keen on either the arts and culture of the MENA region or a particular art-form or cultural practice that they wish to explore further.

When I finally met Pitty and her team at the launch event at the Mayor’s Parlour, Kensington Town Hall, she said: “One of the hallmarks of such a festival is that no matter how much pre-planning and careful thought goes into it, something unexpected will inevitably crop up.

“Sometimes the unexpected is thrilling and exciting and we find ways to work with it – perhaps by incorporating it into the programme late in the day – or sometimes the unexpected is challenging and here we try our best to remain as professional as possible. For a festival like Nour, a bit of luck always helps, but you can create your own luck too!”

Note: Figures provided by the 2011 Census shows that 4.1 per cent of the population of the RBKC classify themselves as Arab (6,455) that ranks the borough second nationally after Westminster with 7.2 per cent. The RBKC is ranked second among all local authorities for the proportion of residents born in North Africa (2.2 per cent) and ranked first for the proportion of residents that were born in Iran.

Nahla Al-Ageli is a British-Arab freelance Journalist specialising in the Arts and Culture of the Middle East and North Africa (MENA) region from a London perspective. She writes a popular blog on the news, arts, events, interviews and other featured subjects for the British-Arab and the Arab-curious with London always thrown in the mix for good measure at www.nahlaink.com.

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