Criticism of the Gentse Feesten is far from new. The ten-day party marathon is still bursting at the seams and – to the regret of those who envy it – still bears an image of booze and gorge. All attention is focused on the squares, which means that the extensive cultural offerings, such as theater and comedy, often get a bit snowed in. Successive city councils have tried to intervene in recent decades. But all policy plans to place a greater focus on culture and to make the Festivities more Ghent-like, remained largely dead letter.
And that’s frustrating. “During corona time, we missed a great opportunity to renew the Festivities,” says puppeteer, actor and Ghent Festivities icon Luk De Bruyker, alias Pierke Pierlala. “During that quiet period, we sat down with all organizers and actors to submit a file to recognize the Festivities as intangible heritage. That would have been a good time to think about the future of the Festivities. But that has not happened.”
Other Gentse Feesten actors are also involved. One of the pain points is that the squares in the city center have been moving towards the same usual suspects to go. For example, PoléPolé will have the Gras-en Korenlei and Trefpunt the Baudelo Park. This makes it difficult for other, novice organizers to find work. A few weeks ago, Die Verdammte Spielerei, a rather bizarre walking fanfare, already threw a bat in the henhouse. The group announced that it wanted its own square during next year’s Festivities, namely the Emile Braunplein. For several years now, this has been taken over by the Mardi Gras Festival, which aims to bring the carnival atmosphere of New Orleans to Ghent with brass players, dancers, fire eaters and a lot of glitter and glamor.
De Bruyker, who has always been asking to focus more on Ghent and popular entertainment, already supports the demand from the fanfare. “What’s so Ghent about Mardi Gras? You can ask yourself that question. You can also ask the same question about other squares. How do they differ from, say, the Lokerse Feesten or Marktrock?”
Alderman of Festivities Bram Van Braeckevelt (Green), who took over the torch from Annelies Storms (Vooruit) in January of this year as agreed, is willing to listen to the complaints but still requires some patience. According to him, it was not so opportune to make major changes after the corona period, which was difficult for many organizers.
In 2030, Ghent hopes to become the European Capital of Culture and the ships hope to be able to present completely renewed Gentse Feesten by then. “I especially want to organize a major urban debate, with organizers, residents and visitors,” he says. “We have to do the thinking exercise: how do we see the future of the Festivities? And we can then gradually innovate between 2023 and 2030. We have to look at this in the long term.”
The ships cannot yet say what that renewal should look like. Only that the Festivities “must remain free and Ghent and that there should be more focus on cultural events”.
But De Bruyker does not really believe in the renewal plan. “I’ve been hearing plans like this for thirty years. Usually it stays with a plan.” The problem, he says, runs deeper. “If you want to focus more on cultural events, the Festivities and Culture competences should be with one and the same ships. That has not been the case for a long time. Now we even got a change of ships halfway through the legislature.”
Ghent should knock more on the table in Brussels to ask for money for the cultural event that is the Gentse Feesten. De Bruyker: “When you see what resources are going to the Summer of Antwerp, you know that we are not well endowed here. And that is the fault of the politicians.”