Arts festivals 'are reaching saturation point': Survey finds directors out of touch with audiences and many events lose money

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The Independent Online
THE number of arts festivals in Britain has reached saturation point. More than half lose money, and some festival directors are out of touch with their audiences.

The warning is contained in a report published today in the middle of the Edinburgh Festival and just before London's Notting Hill Carnival. The report by the independent Policy Studies Institute is the first national survey of arts festivals and was commissioned by the former Office of Arts and Libraries, now part of the Department of National Heritage.

The warning applies to the current Euro arts festival, which was instigated by the Government and has not been the success that it was hoped.

The survey of the 527 arts festivals (including 107 folk festivals) shows that, in 1991, festivals sold more than 4 million tickets, ranging from 90 for an Early Music Festival to more than half a million in the case of the Edinburgh Festival fringe. More than 1.5 million people attended the Notting Hill Carnival.

Festival income is generated from box office receipts ( pounds 17.6m), business sponsorship ( pounds 6.8m) and local authorities ( pounds 7m). More than half of the festivals said their most recent venture had incurred a deficit. Some organisers told the PSI that tough competition for funding discouraged them from including innovatory work, making programmes unadventurous.

The comment comes at a pertinent moment. The Edinburgh International Festival, which has a deficit approaching pounds 200,000, has a drama programme largely of 'neglected playwrights,' an old National Theatre hit, and very little new work.

The PSI report says: 'The proliferation of arts festivals was an issue raised by many festival directors, one of whom expressed the view that, because it is portrayed by parts of the media as a 'bonanza of fun', the coverage given to the Edinburgh Festival had been partly responsible for this proliferation . . . Some festival directors expressed the view that the number of festivals could reach saturation point, so that festivals would find increasing difficulty in competing for audiences, artists and funding.'

Indeed a planned London literary festival last year failed to take place because it was unable to raise business sponsorship. Heather Rolfe, the PSI researcher who compiled the report, said yesterday that new festivals would have to be very innovative to get private or public funding.

A number of festival directors said that in the future they planned to include more music, which appealed to younger people. Other festivals, however, are ambivalent about the need for change. The organisers of the Aldeburgh Festival and the Warwick Folk Festival are quoted as seeing a loyal audience as a sign of success, that they have developed an audience that trusts the organisers to stage performances they will enjoy.

Nevertheless, the most damning part of the report is its conclusion that festival organisers are out of touch with their audience. It says: 'Few festival organisers know the extent to which ticket prices influence audience figures in general, and they are not able to know with any degree of certainty what the relationship is between ticket price and the class composition of festival-goers.'

It says that some festivals are 'highly resistant to change in their audience, and concerned to retain the original identity of a festival'.

Arts Festivals in the UK; Policy Studies Institute (0800 262260); pounds 14.95.

(Photograph omitted)