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Andrew Kelly and the Festival of Ideas George Ferguson

Written by George Ferguson

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George Ferguson with Sir Peter Bazalgette (then chair, Arts Council England), preparing for their Festival of the Future City session, 2015. (Jon Craig)

Bristol Ideas worked with architect – and Bristol’s first elected mayor – George Ferguson from the start, first on the Harbourside projects, then European Green Capital and more recently on Festival of Ideas and Festival of the Future City. Bristol Ideas also launched the annual mayor’s State of the City address and discussion with Ferguson which continued to 2024 under Marvin Rees.

I have always said that Bristol is defined more by the individuals who take initiatives than by our formal governance. Andrew Kelly is one of those key individuals who turned his ever-expanding mind into an institution with a reach far beyond the city: the all-encompassing Festival of Ideas.

Where do I begin? I first encountered Andrew in the 1990s, when I was involved in planning proposals for our abandoned inner-city docks area, now known as Harbourside. Having saved it from proposals in the early 1970s to cover it in a concrete spaghetti of urban highways and bland buildings, we envisaged it as a cultural revolution for the city, putting arts, science and the environment at the heart of this urban regeneration. I remember Andrew introducing us to the idea of the digital revolution that was going to change all our lives. Some of the ideas that we shared then materialised into great things, aided by a massive grant from the Lottery-funded Millennium Commission. Others, including the Centre for Performing Arts, withered on the vine, but the overall transformation was a testament to the power of ideas and has undoubtedly contributed to a better, more connected Bristol.

The Kelly ideas factory kept churning with our bid to become UK Capital of Culture. While the crown went to Liverpool, a worthy winner, the bid process made us look beyond the more obvious big attractions to the many smaller initiatives across the city that make us what we are. It also proved to be a useful learning curve for the development of the Green Capital Partnership and what was to become our triumphal bid to become European Green Capital 2015. Bristol Festival of Ideas became a key component of our year as green capital, with hundreds of talks and discussions by authors and others on everything from local food to liveable cities and global climate. Big names flocked to Bristol to share their ideas and experiences, feeding into my time as mayor and well beyond.

Keen to learn from other cities, the Festival of the Future City helped inform my mayoral programme. The annual State of the City mayoral address at its heart, in partnership with the University of Bristol, enabled me to highlight the lessons and achievements of the previous year and set the scene for the next. This continued throughout the 12 years of Bristol’s dalliance with an elected mayor, becoming an annual institution.

It is a sad fact of life that all good things come to an end, and in this case a remarkable initiative that lasted all of 30 years because of the energy and creativity of its conductor who corralled the prime movers in this city from the public, private, cultural and academic sectors to work together to produce something special. The Festival of Ideas may not have noticeably penetrated all parts of Bristol, but it has undoubtedly had a significant influence on public life and has played an important part in Bristol’s reputation across the world.

George Ferguson with Sir Peter Bazalgette (then chair, Arts Council England), preparing for their Festival of the Future City session, 2015. (Jon Craig)

George Ferguson was the first elected mayor of Bristol, 2012-2016. He is an architect and has been involved in many Bristol projects over 50 years.

This essay is taken from Our Project Was the City: Bristol Ideas 1992-2024, published May 2024.

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