Alumni, Arts Festivals, MA Arts and Cultural Management

Rethinking Arts Festivals: An interview with Mitch Tam

by Kirsty Warner

This week’s interview is with CMCI Alumni Mitch Tam, CoLab Festival Coordinator at Trinity Laban. In this interview, he discusses his current job role, if his expectations matched the reality of his career path and the trajectory of the arts festival industry.

Mitch Tam is an expert in festival programming and public outreach. He has extensive experience having worked in the international arts festival sector for over 6 years. He undertook an MA in Arts and Cultural Management at King’s College London between 2020 and 2021.

Can you give me an overview of your current job role? What is a typical working day like for you?

I currently work as CoLab Festival Coordinator at Trinity Laban Conservatoire of Music and Dance. I produce the institute’s annual two-week arts festival intertwining creativity, innovation and cross-disciplinarity. CoLab takes place every February, over 900 students from the faculties of dance and music come together with visiting artists and the staff members to create, develop and rehearse projects. In CoLab 2022 where I coordinated, we delivered 79 projects and launched the project’s sharings and performances in concert halls, theatres, chapels and outdoor sites in the school’s neighboring communities. 

My working days are quite divided into phases over the year. During the summer term, I curate, design and plan the upcoming festival with the Head of CoLab. I recruit, engage and allocate artists and students to different projects during the autumn terms, and produce, execute and document the CoLab festival during the spring term.

Can you tell me about your career journey? How did you get to be the CoLab Festival Coordinator at Trinity Laban?  

After graduated from a music degree, I worked in Hong Kong Arts Festival and began my career in arts management. The fruitful years at Hong Kong Arts Festival led me to work with various arts genres including classical music, contemporary music, opera, Xiqu (could briefly be understood as Chinese opera), ballet and contemporary dance. Throughout the years, I was equipped with knowledge of stage management, front-of-hosue and ticketing matters, event planning, finance and budgeting skills, negotiation and arts education project development. Specifically, I obtained the skills to critically approach festival settings where events and performances are meant to happen in parallel and simultaneously.

I then came to King’s with my experiences, questions, struggles and curiosity about the industry, and in search of my own understanding through the ACM course. King’s also provided me with good insights about the UK’s industry, and equipped me with a great analytical and critical mindset, which helped me to stand out during the job interview and eventually landed in this role at Trinity Laban.

Are there any expectations you had about this career path that you have found differed from reality, in both a good or bad way?

I am quite surprised that my current role as CoLab festival coordinator aligns with my past work experience in Hong Kong and my Master’s study at King’s. Practical work skill sets including those elaborated above are well transferred between festivals. The industry insights and the theoretical and philosophical thinking about arts and humanity from King’s also enable me to articulate well and think through questions and problems when working in CoLab Festival.

I feel lucky that my work experience and personal passion in both music and dance can be sustained and applied in full when transferred across the two festivals – from Hong Kong Arts Festival to CoLab Festival. Particularly, I have a strong interest in cross-disciplinarity, mixed genres and new approach to conventional performing practices, where CoLab festival is a great platform for me to explore these quests.

I would assume that Covid-19 had a significant impact on the arts festival industry. Would you say the industry has changed as a result? And looking to the future, what do you believe the trajectory of this industry to be? 

I think the pandemic challenges the industry to reflect on to what extent  an ‘arts festival’ should  necessarily be defined as ‘live performances gathering people in real space’. I believe Covid-19 did push and shift our behaviors and perception to the virtual world, including the norms of work-from-home, the practice of virtual conference and a more assuring attitude to online meeting practice. These shifts change and offer alternative expectations to the industry.

I believe industry practice is an honest reflection of the society’s taste and favor. Covid-19 urged us to adapt to a setting with no in-person contact, and it accelerates the industry practices to testify and experiment with a lot of virtual and technology-driven models. Many institutions might have equipped and started to invest in their digital infrastructure since the pandemic, and these groundworks prepare the industry to format into a more hybrid model combining virtual and actual world in arts festivals. I believe a more flexible use combining virtual reality, digital technology and live, on-site performances is the result of the trajectory leading the industry to.  

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