Brian Rudman

Brian Rudman is a Herald columnist looking at Auckland and national issues

Brian Rudman: Art festival packs economic punch

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Photo / Richard Robinson
Photo / Richard Robinson

Great news from this year's Auckland Arts Festival. Not only did the three-week event in March make a modest "operating surplus" of $40,000, it also increased audience numbers to 120,000, up 30 per cent on the 2009 festival.

To achieve this breakthrough despite the economic recession and the pall of gloom lingering from the February 22 Christchurch earthquake suggests the festival has finally established itself.

The quake, eight days before the opening day, hit sales. Festival chief executive David Inns says ticket sales fell from $25,000 a day to about $3000 when the earth shook.

This was grim news for organisers. With the news media dominated by events in Christchurch, the planned publicity drive for the final week fizzled.

Sales slowly picked up, partly through the judicious use of social media, but audiences in the first few days were smaller than hoped.

But gradually, Aucklanders came to the party, and headline shows like The Manganiyar Seduction, Smoke and Mirrors, and Xerxes ended with sold-out houses.

One of the most popular events was White Night, for which about 4000 people turned up to visit art galleries and museums across the region, which had stayed open late for the event. Free transport was provided between venues.

Festival chairwoman Victoria Carter also singles out the increased support from the corporate sector, with sponsorship income more than double that of 2009, despite the economic downturn.

Of the earthquake, Mrs Carter said she understood that "people wanted to put their discretionary dollar elsewhere".

Acknowledging Auckland's already busy theatre scene, she said "festivals are important not just from an economic point of view but also because they enrich us and enable talented local artists to tell their stories".

What we need to hope for is that this good news filters through to the bureaucrats preparing Auckland Council's major events strategy.

A month ago, they presented a draft masterplan to develop a global events destination without one mention of the Arts Festival. Even after I highlighted this glaring gap, the authors argued to a council committee that while it was an important social event, it did not rate as an "anchor" economic event.

There appears to have been no independent economic impact reports commissioned in relation to the Auckland Festival, but a Berl report assessing last year's International Arts Festival in Wellington suggests the Auckland planners are out of touch.

Wellington claims attendance figures of 290,000, made up of 103,000 customers at ticketed performances and 185,000 attending at free events. The breakdown for Auckland's 120,000 total is 52,000 at ticketed events and the rest at free shows.

The Wellington-based analysts note the Wellington festival continues to be a significant contributor to tourism and economic development.

The 2010 festival generated an economic output of $39.2 million, with total GDP gain of $20 million. It created 324 full-time equivalent jobs. Berl added that the intangible benefits may well outweigh the economic dollars. If bragging rights are included in the "intangibles," then Berl could well be right.

Festival chairwoman Fran Wilde last August declared the festival "has turned Wellington into one of the world's great festival cities".

You also can't put a dollar value on the way the Wellington community, from the mayor down, has from the festival's earliest days 25 years ago embraced the event.

How different it is in Auckland. Here, the city's major event strategists seem determined to deny any of the above. An important social event perhaps. But an economic pillar, certainly not. It's time they reconsidered.

- NZ Herald

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