Finding “Revitalization” in an Island Art Festival

Visitors to the 2019 Setouchi Triennale

By Meng Qu

The Setouchi Triennale attempts to revitalize twelve remote islands with depopulating and aging communities by hosting an international art festival to promote tourism. Citing the presence of more than a million visitors during each festival iteration, the Triennale officials and the media have claimed that the festival is a successful model for government policies aimed at community revitalization and tourism, leveraging new cultural assets to draw tourism-related revenue to the islands. As the general director of the Triennale, Fram Kitagawa wrote in the official 2016 guidebook:

At the community level, what truly brings people happiness are such things as the knowledge that one’s family is safe and secure, sufficient assets, belonging to a community, health and security, bonds of friendship, the simple act of greeting people in the neighborhood, taking part in events and festivals, appreciation for nature and the changing seasons, and reliance on one’s community.

Those words represent “revitalization” from the perspective of Setouchi Triennale organizers. However, within the festival, a true understanding of the goal of "revitalization" that considers perspectives of different stakeholders is rarely present.

The author with Setouchi Triennale general director Fram Kitagawa (left) in 2019.

When discussions arise over the nature and effect of the art festival on a particular island, I prefer to focus on the people who actually interact within and around that island: tourists, new and old residents, and people who open new businesses. Does the local population, the visiting population, the “relational population,” or even people from neighboring islands with no art festival connection, all share the same definition of revitalization as festival organizers? And what is special about community revitalization through an art festival, as opposed to other forms of community development not dependent on large-scale art tourism projects? What’s the gap between a utopic vision and the reality experienced by islanders?

Conducting interviews in the field

With these questions in mind, I embarked on what became a five-year-long research project examining Setouchi Triennale “revitalization” outcomes and comparing them to the goals of festival officials. This project incorporated participant observation and mixed-methods fieldwork conducted during both festival and non-festival periods between 2016 and 2020. I found evidence of differing interpretations of revitalization among festival officials, locals, in-migrants, local small businesses and tourists.

Particularly, there was a gap between festival officials’ aims of "revitalization" and community expectations, and different outcomes across different islands and communities despite a similar approach for all islands. I came to understand the festival’s aim of rural revitalization as frequently a pretext to attract urban tourists and their money, benefiting the profit-generating side of the festival more than the pressing social needs of island communities themselves. This raises an ethical issue common to placemaking initiatives that often seem more like “placebreaking.”

Festival artwork on Shamijima.

The more I interviewed and observed people in a growing number of island communities, the more I realized that there is no single interpretation of “revitalization,” even among individuals in the same group. Concepts of community sustainability, island identity, and future ideals are strongly influenced by individual respondents’ imaginations. The themes I uncovered felt less and less like the results and conclusions one would expect from social sciences research, and more like a large relational artwork.

I began to consider that I would never find one conclusive answer for my question—that I was forever at the midway point on the long road of this project, continually looking for more answers. But then I realized the real value of this inquiry is in encouraging more islanders to join the conversation: What does revitalization mean to you? It’s a question that is never settled, and that demands ongoing discussion.

As Research Director for Art Island Center, my view of revitalization for declining, peripheral island communities has increasingly focused on building resilience and sustainability through creative solutions. Bringing the old way of life back is not usually possible, but we can bring the vital essence of those memories forward while creating something new and fresh. A community that everyone—young or old, outsider or longtime local—can enjoy, share, and build upon.

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