Organising Pestival arts event

 3 February 2011

Bridget Nicholls was awarded the first Zoo Arts Fellowship at ZSL London Zoo. Her large-scale science arts festival, 'Pestival', was recently awarded Conservation Project of the Year by the Observer Ethical Awards.

Nature and cultural heritage

"The exciting thing about the zoo is that it's all a canvas, it's all a theatre. You've got artists experimenting and doing projects with other animals and other scientists and technicians and technology.

"So it's kind of a great laboratory in itself, in a zoo where you've got bridges and canals and other animals, it's an exciting place to work. It's our own theatre, who needs curtains?"

Getting funding for Pestival

"The idea for Pestival we started in 2004, and we did the first one in 2006. We got a small grant of £10,000 and we got a lot of in-kind funding, and 10,000 people came in one weekend at the London Wetland Centre. We went 'wow, this works!'. And then we were invited to South Bank Centre to put it on there, which is obviously a huge step - 21 acres, very different project.

"I really embrace art and natural history as a cultural comment. It's really important to see the natural world as part of culture itself."

"So the first thing we did was apply to the Wellcome Trust, who have an arts and science grant. When you get a strong funder who wants to put in a lot of money, then other funders feel more comfortable funding you.

"So we had an ABC structure and event that we could put in place. Obviously A was the full-on maximum amount of money, down to C or D if all the money didn't come in. We had cutoff stages all along the way of where we could deliver a certain amount of the event. But I think you have to be prepared along each way to decide what you will and won't keep or drop, and be quite strict about that."

Getting organised for an arts festival

"What I did, as soon as I was capable of it, was get a strong advisory board. I really thought, 'What do I, or don't I, know?' I've got this idea that I really want to deliver, and I have good writing skills and good ideas, but I don't have the strategy, I don't know how these things all work. So I just really thought, 'who do I need as a strong advisory board to bring me those elements that I don't have?'

"I invited twelve people from science, education, arts and business to come and be part of my advisory board. Then I met up with them every few months, or I'd phone them if I had a query and they'd help me.

"So I had a lot of guidance, and I think if you're setting up, that's essential, because otherwise everything is new and it's a bit overwhelming. I'm currently mentoring someone through the Cultural Leadership Programme. I think it's really important because of the help and mentoring that I had, that you have guidance for other people once you've learnt those skills."

Advice for producing a festival

'"My advice to someone who wants to put on a festival or arts event on the scale of Pestival is to apply for research and development funding first, so you have some seed funding to sit down and really research your subject matter.

"Because of the help and mentoring I had, I think it's really important to give guidance to other people."

"Then make sure that you have strong processes and a framework in place for later on, so you have a 'ways of working' booklet you can give to anyone that comes in, so they know exactly where you stand and how to work with you.

"Then really just make sure everything you do is very well researched, and then you can enjoy the project because you've got all of this behind you. And it will race and suddenly go out of your hands, so if you have all of this at the start, it stands you in good stead."

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