Case Studies

The Network Powering our Light Festivals

The Network Powering our Light Festivals

By Susan Mulholland

Light festivals in England are as festive as, well, the festive season itself. Parks, city centres, forests and public gardens are being transformed and attracting new audiences in search of their festive treat.

For the established light festivals in the North of England, the continued popularity is encouraging but comes with the added challenges of maintaining exclusivity and programming those ‘wow’ pieces, year on year with the same, or less funding.

How then, are members of LUTN tackling this? For Phil Holmes, Artistic Director, Lightpool, the solution lies in the power of the network itself. We talk about how the network is crucial when collaborating on international programming or commissioning new work from UK artists and what the benefits are to festival directors, audiences and artists of such joined up thinking.

Wavefield Lightpool Festival


Wavefield  is a playful installation featuring a series of light up, sound emitting seesaws which get louder and brighter the more people play on them. The work was created by Canadian designers from Lateral Office and CS Design, with a soundscape by Toronto composer Mitchell Akiyama and featured in several UK light festivals in 2019.

“The power of the network was the only way any of us could have afforded that work.” Although financial issues aren’t the only criteria for selecting work, directors have to be realistic. International work is expensive because it’s heavy, so needs to be on a freighter and might need a crane to install it. There are then costs for artists’ flights and accommodation. You might need security for the art work. Something like Wavefield might cost almost half of our budget.”

So why take such a financial risk?

“The risk is less if you’re sharing the cost of course but you want to show that you are a premium festival. The big international pieces bring credibility, like a department store needing the kudos that comes with selling Chanel. The demand comes from audiences too, each year they want something different, something they haven’t seen before.”

Another factor to consider is that if several festivals programme the same work, there’s a danger that they can lose their unique identity. How do directors mitigate that?

“That’s another strength of the network; we talk to one another. Not everyone will want the same piece in the same year, and we are each mindful of not replicating a festival in a neighbouring region. It’s not straightforward though, some of us are NPOs whilst others are waiting for funding decisions before they can fully commit to taking a particular artwork.”

If the majority of the large-scale work needs to be imported, what about home-grown work? How is the network working with artists here in the UK?

Phil recognises the challenge in this; “Funding models in other countries are different, for example, Lumiere in Lyon, has a budget of millions of euros. We can’t compete with that but that doesn’t mean we’re not trying to develop artists here.”

Butterflies Lightpool Festival


LUTN’s Shine programme aims to nurture and develop new talent, giving artists the opportunity to exhibit or perform new work at a number of Light Up The North festivals. Network members can contribute financially to the scheme, thereby sharing the cost of developing a new artist and their new piece. Shine artists must be new artists and can be people who haven’t worked with light before.

“Last year two of the people were architects, this year one of the artists is an electrician so they’d never done anything in this field before – it’s exciting.”

The nurturing is not limited to funding, artists can have guidance on their designs, budgets, risk assessments and further fundraising.

“That’s great for artists, whether they are huge like Wavefield or a new artist; for Wavefield they’re making more money which they can re-invest in new work; for new artists it is the support of the network to make the work happen in the first place and then the exposure and crucial credibility.”

The network is not only enabling new work to be created, but also able to use its international standing, to export that work to festivals in other countries. 2022’s Shine artist Ann Bennett has gone on to exhibit at international festivals including in Cluj-Napoca, Romania.

Given the financial challenges faced by all members of the network, there’s clearly a huge task at hand, organisations have shown extraordinary resilience in recent times, but some big changes need to happen. For Phil, one answer may lie internationally.

“The international connections we already have are important and could bring further opportunities for co-commissioning and co-programming. LUTN is hoping to join the International Light Organisation, of which Durham Leeds and Blackpool are already members.”

Whilst the funding landscape is a little uncertain, the passion and drive to bring the very best lightworks to the UK is still burning bright.

Susan Mulholland is a writer from North East England.