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What is a festival worth?

September 27, 2010 1 comment

Sarah Smith

If you live in Bristol, or are a frequent visitor, you will know that it is a city of many festivals. Sometimes it seems as though there is something going on every weekend – the international balloon fiesta, the harbourside festival and the kite festival are among the most well-known. Others include the organic food festival, the festival of nature, a street and circus festival and, last weekend, BrisFest, a three-day community-based music and arts festival.

Many of these events have received support from the council in the past but in the current climate of cuts, this funding is under threat. It is important for publicly-funded arts and cultural organisations to be able to demonstrate the impact and social value of their activities if they are to receive any further financial support.

The traditional approach to measuring the economic impact of festivals has been to look at how much visitors to a festival spend. By this measure, the Glastonbury festival is estimated to be worth more than £70 million to the Mendip District Council. This captures how much money a festival brings into a local economy. But what if most of the visitors to a festival are local and would have gone out and spent their money elsewhere in the city? And what about valuing the wider social benefits from a local festival? BrisFest is run by a registered charity with the aims of showcasing local arts and music, aiding community cohesion and promoting music, art and culture more widely. It also offers work placements, skill enhancement and training to volunteers within the music, arts and events industries.

A recently completed project – done as part of a MSc dissertation – tried to find ways of valuing the wider social benefits of BrisFest. This project was supported by the capacity-building cluster on the economic impact of the third sector, an initiative, funded by the Economic and Social Research Council, the Office for Civil Society and the Barrow-Cadbury Trust, that offers opportunities to develop partnership projects with not-for-profit organisations focusing on impact.

One of the innovative features of the project was a survey of local residents asking whether they thought the council should support BrisFest and in particular whether the residents would personally be willing to pay for the festival through the council tax. More than 80 per cent said they would be willing to pay something and the estimated “value” of Brisfest to local residents according to their willingness to pay is in the region of £450,000 (for comparison the total financial cost of the festival was around £160,000 this year).

Of course, further work could be done to test the robustness of this result. Nevertheless, it provides some preliminary evidence on the potential magnitude of the wider benefits from cultural events. Bristol’s many festivals help to define – and signal – the creative character of the city. The survey also found for example, that “cultural life” was the single most important reason given for living in Bristol (above jobs and family). The character of a city is an important factor in commercial and residential location decisions and, even in these financially straightened times, may be something worth paying for.

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