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Making the case:Fitrovia's flyer for Edinburgh Art Festival www.fitzrovianoir.com

The Edinburgh Festivals Impact Study published this week charts new territory in articulating, evidencing and advocating for the value of the Edinburgh Festivals.

Cultural and civic leaders first began articulation and evidencing the impact of major investment in culture with John Mysercough’s pioneering study on the economic impact of Glasgow’s 1990 City of Culture programme. Until that point, the arts were largely funded because they were the arts but an increased recognition of their role in delivering other social and economic objectives led to new investment in return for impacts in these areas. Over the last 30 years the UK and most of the Western world has largely valued financial growth above all so its not surprising that we have created a highly developed niche service industry which weighs and measures economic impact  with increasing refinement.

But the Edinburgh Festivals Forum has recognised the limitations of measuring only the economics.  After the collapse of the banks, society has moved beyond financial monotheism and returned to valuing our non-material journeys and actions as individuals and communities.  In that context, a contemporary cultural impact study should, as this one does, involve looking for impacts of positive individual learning, enlightenment and learning, and social development. And, in the context of the twin challenges of climate change and shrinking public expenditure, the study identifies that impact will need to be evidenced through the lenses of environmental impacts and financial sustainability, a concept the authors BOP link closely with the Festivals’ diversity of income streams.

The report contains much interesting data and analysis to support public investment.  What it does not focus on is a simple comparison on the difference between the levels of public subsidy, attendances and economic benefit between the last study by SQW in 2005 and this one in 2010.

This is probably because, using a simple comparison, it appears that the economic growth between 2000 and 2004 was, as recognised by the Festivals and funders, unsustainable.  Every £1 public investment in 2004  generated  £61 new output. Using the same measures, every £1 of public investment generated £35 new output.

SQW BOP

2004

2010

public investment £3m £7.5m
no of attendances £3.1m £4.2m
gross economic impact £184m £261m

So the Festivals are wise to move beyond the economic .The report highlights the good news, and the press release further distils positive findings on all these dimensions to present the best picture of the many fantastic benefits of £7.5m public investment in the Edinburgh Festivals including:

The Festivals play a starring role in the profile of the city and its tourism economy, with 93% of visitors stating that the Festivals are part of what makes Edinburgh special as a city, 82% agreeing that the Festivals make them more likely to revisit Edinburgh in the future and 82% stating that the Festivals were their sole or an important reason for coming to Scotland.

85% of all respondents agree that the Festivals promote a confident, positive Scottish national identity; and 89% of Edinburgh respondents say that the Festivals increase local pride in their home city.

The Festivals encourage and widen access to the arts, with 77% of audiences saying that the Festivals had enabled them to discover new talent and genres, and nearly two-thirds saying that the Festivals encourage them to take risks and see less well-known performances, events or films.

Only the most positive findings are promoted  by the Scottish Government including that “ 93% of parents agreed that attending Festival events as a family increased their child’s imagination.”  In fact the social and educational impacts for the Festivals are, as anticipated, significantly lower that those for arts programmes which are longer term and sustained, rather than event based.

As we move beyond economic impact and in to evaluating the benefits of culture through several wider lenses, we need to develop the metrics and methods for impact analysis of the arts so that they are robust, as suggested by Bill Ivey and by John Knell and Matthew Taylor.

But more than that, as a sector we need to have the confidence to put the results of such studies into context and not just to change our methods and level of reporting just to make our case.  We need to move beyond looking for evidence to help our arguments for public funding and design a rigorous and lasting research method which measures what we are trying to achieve.

The Edinburgh Festival Fringe is a 21st century concept born 60 years ago ahead of its time.  Always about openness and community, the Fringe Director holds the ring and does not curate, programme or select product. Her job is to support all comers in participating in the Fringe.  The Fringe Society “aims to continue to be the world’s foremost ‘open access’ arts festival.

And what a success it is. A huge array of diverse performance activity from amateur groups, students and fledgling professionals, from all over the world.  Last year there were 31320 performances of 2088 shows in 247 venues.  The Fringe contributes £75 m to the Edinburgh economy , a fat slice of the aggregated economic impact of the Edinburgh Festival to the Scottish economy of £186m. It employs 15 people. And all of this with a tiny amount of public subsidy, £20,000 from Scottish Arts Council  and £48,000 from City of Edinburgh Council , according to the 2008 accounts.

 What fantastic value for money.

For years there  have been healthy grumblings about controls and costs, the power of the supervenue, the preponderence of comedy. Last year these were quietened by the roars around the havoc created by the failure of the new  box office system but this year, with the added  pressures of the recession, this year the rumblings are becoming thunderous.

Is the Fringe too big?

Is it too expensive?

Why does City of Edinburgh Council charge so much to grant licenses to venues?

The Fringe Society and others are considering these and other issues.  The Fringe intends to review and modernise its constitution. Some of this will be around a modernisation process to comply with contemporary good practice in for good governance around skills and the number of terms for which a trustee can serve. And around avoiding conflict of interest.  The 2008 accounts reports that two of the directors, Antony Alderson and Charlie Wood, are associated with Red61, the company which runs the box office systems, and  that they have declared that interest. Alderson is also director of the Pleasance and Wood director of Underbelly, two of the ‘big four’ super promoters.

But constitutional matters are only part of the equation and structure must follow strategy.  The primary issue is how to create the right conditions for the Fringe to thrive for the Common Good.  The rising costs which make participation prohibitive for many companies are not simply the easily targeted costs of licensing venues.  The largest costs identified by some performers are the cost of advertising and promotion and many believe it to be essential to hire a professional PR firm in order to be able to compete for audiences with the professional venues.  For in the free market of the Edinburgh Fringe, its the big cats who are kings.  Getting an audience is cut throat because you have to make sales very fast in a very short space of time in the most competitive market imaginable.

So some important decisions for the Fringe Society.  It can change its consitution. It can make some interventions to protect the non professional and new. If the Fringe remains committed to open access and the free market,  there is no guarantee that the fledgling, amateur and small beasts, birds and bees will flourish or even survive.  Even if it decides to restrict or ring fence, or to change pricing structures, the big cats will still be the kings of the jungle. So the Fringe Society is not the only stakeholder who needs to look at how to create a healthy cultural ecology. Those stakeholders who  share in the Common Wealth of the Fringe should collaborate  to create the right conditions. And that means putting in some frames and trellises, protective potting sheds and glasshouses and some judicious pruning and weeding.  And cutting costs of licensing venues.