The NAF – National Arts Festival goes virtual

The Makhanda National Arts Festival has, for over 40 years, served as a trigger for the economic growth of the region by attracting national and international visitors to the Eastern Cape. This year, the event made history with the launch of the first-ever digital iteration of this significant South African arts festival.

When COVID-19 shuttered theatres, cultural spaces and festivals globally, rather than cancel the 46th National Arts Festival, the organisation decided to take the experience online. Amazingly the successful transition took just over 100 days, resulting in a richly diverse collection of works totalling more than 270 hours of excellent viewing.

Speaking on the first day of the newly launched online Festival, Chairman of the National Arts Festival Board Ayanda Mjekula, stated that the occasion was bittersweet for the Eastern Cape. “It will be the first time in 46 years that the festival will not significantly contribute to the GDP of the town and the province. In 2018, the contribution was R377 million, R94 million of which went to the province and the city respectively and R20 million to artists and supporting industries. This year the new Festival approach was largely informed by sustaining the livelihood of those artists.”

The festival, planned to run from 25 June to 5 July and extended to 31 July, was held entirely on the National Arts Festival website

The event consisted of a Daily Programme with new shows added every day, a Fringe for artists to stage their works and sell individual tickets, the Fringe Galleries – a collection of online art for audiences to browse, and the Virtual Green where hundreds of crafters and traders were showcasing and selling their wares. Threaded into the Daily Programme were both the Standard Bank Jazz Festival and the Creativate Digital Arts Festival. Visitors could choose from a full VNAF

Pass which would include the Daily Programme for the full eleven days (including the Standard Bank Jazz Festival), a daily pass – for which audiences could stream works falling on that specific day on demand – and a Jazz Pass for those who were focused on the jazz alone. Single tickets for shows were also available.

“Not being able to host the National Arts Festival in 2020 had its share of challenges including the loss of its annual contribution to the economy of the town and the province at large. But virtual shows and tours take various gems of our destination and its offerings to people in the comfort of their homes amid travel restrictions” explained ECPTA CEO Vuyani Dayimani.

“We hope the interim approach not only provided the opportunity for a larger audience to experience the 2020 festival but will drive more people to the festival in post Covid19 years. As a signature event on the Eastern Cape calendar, the ECPTA continues to support the work of the festival and understands its contribution in driving tourism numbers and GDP to the province. During this hard time, we have to rally together to save livelihoods and sectors hit hard by the pandemic”. He went on to praise the NAF’s commendable innovation in keeping the destination top of mind at the height of the COVID-19 pandemic.

Although the 2020 Virtual National Arts Festival is now closed, the need for this safe online space for the arts outlives the Festival period. So the platform has been dedicated to the artists who need it and the audiences who have loved it.

The space will be called the vFringe and will be open to artists of all disciplines. For now, the registration fee for putting work on the platform will be waived and artists will receive 90% of the ticket sales. But most importantly, they will continue to be visible and compelling while theatres, galleries, venues and festivals remain limited.