City arts festival
All major cities have something that could be described as a 'cultural offer' – theatre, music, public art, museums and libraries, sport, performing arts, heritage and arts festivals. On one estimate there were up to 1,000 festivals held in the UK in 2015. Some cities host internationally renowned events like the Edinburgh Festival. Other, often smaller, towns or cities in the UK, offer their own celebrations of the eccentric, obscure or endearingly niche.
But all serve a role as agents of urban identity and community engagement, as well as being significant visitor attractions. Some promote health and lifestyle benefits to the population or have links with more formal city-based health or placemaking initiatives. In the larger conurbations some take place in specific suburbs, or play a civic role in low-income districts, such as the Moss Side Festival in Manchester or the Gorbals Fair in Glasgow. But are they worth it and do they have a future?
A study by the Festivals Forum found that Edinburgh’s various festivals generated £245m in additional tourism revenue for the city. Another study concluded that concert and festival attendance in the UK rose by 12% in 2016 (compared with 2015) and the income generated by 11% to £4bn. The duration of any economic benefits also varies but is likely to be greater where a regular event becomes associated in the public mind with the city’s brand, rather than being a one-off. Hotels, retail and restaurants are key beneficiaries.
Figure 1: Distribution of net off-site spending in the City of London while visiting the city arts and culture cluster, 2012
Source: BOP Consulting / City of London
The Arts Council England has provided a framework for evaluating the benefits of cultural events – and perhaps for deciding whether to run an event at all – which covers both hard financial metrics, via economic impact assessments, and softer (harder-to-measure) factors such as social return on investment. This can prompt a bigger debate between those who argue that subsidising community arts is poor use of public money and/or that the positive impact is short-lived; and those who contend that assessing the full benefits of cultural experience shouldn’t be left to economists and accountants in the first place.
But there is some evidence that, while discretionary household spending tends to dip in recessionary periods, over the longer term it will hold up. Weekly household spending devoted to Recreation and Culture (admittedly a broader category) has risen roughly in line with spending as whole over the past fifteen years, and continues to represent about 13% of household spending.
There is lots of complexity in delivering an event that works; timing, location, price, format, security and let’s not forget the weather. But there are indications that the popularity of city arts festivals will endure, even if the financial benefits aren’t always provable. We predict many more such festivals by 2040 as organisers and communities recognise their contribution to placemaking, city branding, tourism and regeneration.