The National Arts Festival: when size apparently does not – but does – matter

This article is to continue the debates/s and discussions around the National Arts Festival, particularly around both its “market” and “non-market” reasons for participation by artists on the Fringe. These discussions were sparked by an initial article in which I interrogated the size of the Festival (the Festival claimed attendance of 225 000 plus), and whether artists really left with more money in their pockets, as claimed by the Festival in its post-Festival 2014 media release.

This article also explores the related debate around the “economic impact” of the Festival as well as the debates about who benefits from the Festival, including criticism of the Festival as an event for, and of, “the rich”. If there is some overlap with my previous article and subsequent discussions, then it is to build on, or elaborate the key points in this article.

To begin with, the National Arts Festival states on its website that it “is an important event on the South African cultural calendar and the biggest annual celebration of the arts on the African continent.”

In his opening address at the 2014 Festival, the Minister of Arts and Culture – Mr Nathi Mthethwa – stated: “This Festival has moved forward. It has become a magnet that draws people annually to this great “Happening”, the second largest festival of its kind in the world, after the Edinburgh Festival. It is to be celebrated that it attracts a huge number of international artists and audiences. More than 200,000 attendees are expected. This has become a much bigger and better festival. It is worth celebrating”.

It is unclear whether these statistics came from the research of his own speechwriter/s, or whether the statistics and appellation were fed to the speechwriter/s by the National Arts Festival (it is often the case that organisers of events provide material to speechwriters for inclusion in a ministerial speech at the event; this is not peculiar to the arts, nor to South Africa).

However, after my initial article, Tony Lankester, the CEO of the Festival made the following correction: “We are not the second largest Festival in the world and have never claimed to be. That is something that has crept into popular discourse and repeated so often it now gets trumpeted as fact by many, including on occasion, some employees of the Festival. But it is not an appellation that we want. Of course there are many ways of deciding “biggest” – ticket sales, number of performances, number of productions, or any one of those divided by number of days to get a daily figure. But by no measure would we rank second….at best, for most, we might climb into the Top 5. Apart from Edinburgh, there are Adelaide, Avignon, Brighton, Edmonton and I dare say a couple of others…In any event, it’s not really about the size because, as you say, Grahamstown can’t really take that many more people so is there any sense in trying to be/remain the biggest?”

Despite this correction, the Festival sends out confusing and contradictory signals both about the size of the Festival and about whether size really matters to it or not. While Lankester recognizes that there is little sense in “trying to be” or “remain the biggest” and says that being the second biggest festival in the world is “not an appellation we want”, the Festival nevertheless promotes itself as the “biggest annual celebration of the arts in Africa”. Does this matter? And if so, to whom and why? Lankester states that “it’s not really about the size” because, as pointed out in my article, Grahamstown simply does not have the infrastructure to accommodate a massive influx of people. To actually have 225 000 festinos descend on the city would triple the population of Grahamstown for eleven days; not only aren’t there sufficient beds to accommodate such an influx, the city’s water and electricity resources – already under strain during a normal, non-Festival period – would collapse under the demand.

When the Minister stated in his opening speech that “more than 200 000 attendees are expected”, it would appear that in his mind 200 000 different people would attend the Festival; he did not seem to know that by “attendance”, the Festival means one “festino” attending many events. Did the Festival subsequently advise him or his speechwriter/s about what “attendance” actually means? Grocott’s Mail, the local Grahamstown newspaper, reported on the speech thus “Mthethwa stunned the crowd when he revealed that 200 000 visitors were expected to attend this year’s festival”. The newspaper clearly got it wrong. Did the minister get it wrong too? Was the Festival happy for the Minister and the newspaper to continue with their mistakes, or did they make the necessary corrections as they did after my first article appeared?

Size matters when you’re marketing your festival to sponsors. The Department of Arts and Culture – as well as others who would have attended the opening speech – is a sponsor of the Festival. Sponsors sit up and take notice when one says that “attendance was up to 225 000 this year”. The Festival’s 2013 economic impact study reveals that the average festino spends 5,4 days at the Festival. If – conservatively – she sees 3 or 4 shows per day (including paid-for performances, free art exhibitions and other free events) that would account for 11 000-15 000 actual people who attend the Festival. This is fewer than what the two-day Cape Town International Jazz Festival attracts to its event, so the National Arts Festival would not be the “biggest annual celebration of the arts” with regard to the number of people who come to the Festival in South Africa, let alone in Africa where Moroccan festivals attract 500 000 people!

In pitching to sponsors though, an “attendance” figure of 225 000 is a lot more impressive than 11 000-15 000. While Lankester claims that “it’s not really about size”, why does the Festival stress its attendance figure – inflated by tens of thousands of freebies – rather than the actual number of attendees?

The – actual – size of the Festival (in terms of real numbers) DOES matter to artists. If the Festival is essentially a market for one’s work as an artist, then the size of the market is important, particularly if one is competing against 600 other events in that market. If an artist brings a work to a market on the understanding that there are 225 000 festinos, that is very different to a market that – in reality – is 20 times smaller!

The Festival believes that artists are under no illusions about what to expect when they participate on the Fringe. Until my initial article though, many artists did not know that festival “attendance” included thousands of free tickets or that attendance was calculated on the basis of one festino attending numerous events. I would suggest that Fringe artists would be under fewer illusions if they knew the actual number of tickets sold between the Main Festival and the Fringe, and if they had a further breakdown of Fringe ticket sales for different genres: dance, drama, comedy, physical theatre, children’s theatre, contemporary music, etc.

From the Rhodes University economic impact study, we know that only about one-third of producers actually made a profit on the Fringe in 2013.

If Fringe theatre producers had an idea of the average amounts made by Fringe theatre artists, they would be under even fewer illusions. What percentage of Fringe productions sell less than 100 tickets, 100-200, 201-300, 301-400, 401-500, 501-600, etc tickets? What percentage of Fringe productions make less than R5000, R5001-R10000, R10001-R15000, R15001-R20000, R20001-R30000, R30001-R40000, R40001-R50000 and R50001 plus? If these figures were then overlaid with the length of time that these producers were active on the Fringe, this would provide existing and new entry producers a far better idea of the financial risks regarding participation in the Fringe. They would be able to make better decisions about the amount of sponsorship they would need to raise to supplement their potential losses, or about whether it was possible to participate in the Festival at all.

If the number of productions on the Fringe grows while the actual number of people buying tickets for Festival events stagnates, declines or does not increase substantially, then the financial – as well as non-market – risks to Fringe producers increase as they are required to compete more among themselves for a non-growing market, or a market that is not growing at the same rate as the already-saturated Fringe.

Rather than the smoke and mirrors of “attendance figures”, the Festival should reveal to artists the real numbers of ticket buyers – is this increasing on a year-to-year basis? Is the Festival delivering – is it able to deliver – a market that would make it financially worthwhile for Fringe producers to take the risk to participate?

In my initial article, I argued for a smaller Fringe commensurate with the actual market of the Festival. In response, the Festival solicited an article from one of the authors of the Festival’s economic impact study which the Festival posted with an introduction by Tony Lankester saying “She (Jen Snowball – the author) has written a great, short paper which I won’t pre-empt or try and summarise” (other than to say it is “great”?).

That article is titled “The non-market benefits of Fringe production at the National Arts Festival”. Clearly, the ironies of this article are lost on both the author and the Festival as first, my initial article did not question the non-market benefits of Fringe participation and in fact, listed 9 such benefits, but more importantly, the authors of an economic impact study related to the Festival are telling artists about the non-economic benefits of participating in the Festival! In essence, the Festival is saying – to its sponsors – that it is having a positive economic impact, but to its artists (or at least not on two-thirds of them!) it is saying that they should be grateful for the non-economic benefits offered by the Festival.

Even if the primary motivation of Fringe producers may not be to make money, few can suffer major financial losses so that market-related concerns are by no means less important than non-market concerns as the Festival and its economic impact researchers have tried to imply. Why should – Fringe – artists carry the primary financial risks so that the Festival can claim to be “the biggest annual celebration of the arts in Africa?”

The economic impact of the Festival

Let’s reflect briefly then on the “economic impact” of the Festival as it has a direct bearing on who benefits – most – from the Festival. I need to state upfront that I have not read the full report; I requested a copy last Thursday from the Festival and at the time of this post today, had not received it yet. I am thus relying on media statements, newspaper reports and the Snowball article for my reflections.

Understandably, the Festival seeks to show its economic impact in the region and on the city of Grahamstown, not least because of its funding from the Eastern Cape government. The 2013 Economic Impact Study undertaken by Rhodes University’s Economics Department showed that the Festival contributed R349,9m to the Eastern Cape’s economy, R90m to the Gross Domestic Product of Grahamstown itself, and festinos were responsible for a further injection of R27,3m into the Eastern Cape before and after the Festival.

These are not unimpressive figures, and for what the Eastern Cape government grants as funding for the Festival, it receives – according to these figures – a significant “return on its investment”.

But, beyond these general figures, the more important question about this economic impact is: who benefits from this? This is a question that is particularly pertinent in the Eastern Cape, with its unemployment rate hovering at 30%, while unemployment among young people (under 25) is even higher at more than 50%. The unemployment rate in Grahamstown itself is even more dire at around 70%!

According to the study, the “major beneficiaries are the tourism and hospitality industries…”. Who then are the major beneficiaries? Which companies? Which restaurants? Which hotels and guest houses? Who owns them? How many are owned by black people who comprise 86% of the Eastern Cape’s population? Does the economic impact study reveal such detail? I would venture that it is companies that have been around for some time, or where owners have had access to capital, resources and networks for a while, who are the major tourism and hospitality beneficiaries of the Festival both in Grahamstown and in the broader Eastern Cape region.

At the launch of the economic impact study, Lankester is quoted as saying “In Grahamstown, one can conclude there is additional benefit to the education industry – the private schools and Rhodes University – who benefit from positive perceptions of the city and its uniqueness perpetuated by the Festival”. I wonder how the Eastern Cape government – the major funders of the Festival – and the local community feel about this i.e. that it is Rhodes University and private schools that benefit from the Festival? The Festival does not showcase what happens in the poorer parts of Grahamstown; it is the higher end of the city that benefits from “positive perceptions…perpetuated by the Festival” according to its CEO. These institutions benefit not only from such “perceptual marketing”, but more directly through actual income earned from their residences and venues used for the Festival. What, if any, are the real economic benefits to the residents and institutions of Makana municipality’s townships? How have these benefits grown since the last economic impact study?

The 2013 study also alludes to the contribution of the Festival to social cohesion, with nearly 70% of respondents agreeing with the statement “The Festival is an event where people from different cultures and backgrounds can meet and talk together”. Prof Jen Snowball, one of the authors of the study concluded that “this is an encouraging indicator that the Festival offers important opportunities for interaction and conversation across race, class and cultural backgrounds.”

This may very well be the case for people from all “race”, class and cultural groups coming to the Festival from the around the country, but what about festinos and the locals? What about social cohesion between the privileged communities of Grahamstown and the many who live in desperate poverty? Does the Festival contribute to social cohesion within the city itself (and if so, how, and is it sustainable) or is the Festival merely a privileged space for national conversations to take place despite the local inhabitants? Did this economic impact study test the views of local inhabitants and whether the Festival contributes to social cohesion or not, to the extent to which the Festival makes the local inhabitants – many unemployed and indigent – feel part of Grahamstown?

Now, of course, the Festival’s core business is to produce a festival. But the Festival takes place in city, regional and national contexts. The Festival obtains funding precisely because of its perceived contribution to improving the economy and – indirectly or directly – conditions of people living in the city. When the Festival sells itself as having more than an impact in and of itself, when public funds are used to support the Festival, then it is appropriate to question who ultimately benefits from the Festival, and whether this represents a fair range of beneficiaries.

Fringe Festival beneficiaries

While it is run by a private, non-profit company the National Arts Festival is essentially a state-subsidised market, paid for – largely – by taxpayer funds from the Department of Arts and Culture, the Eastern Cape government, the National Arts Council and with funds from the National Lottery Distribution Trust Fund.

It would be appropriate therefore to determine who the primary beneficiaries of this state-subsidized market are.

In 2013, the top twenty Fringe shows in terms of ticket sales had eight returning shows and three sequels or franchises of previous shows. In other words, more than half of the top-selling shows were shows with festival brands. This percentage is even higher at 70% when applied to the top ten Fringe shows in terms of ticket sales. The same top ten ticket-sellers feature in the top ten income-generators, but not necessarily in the same order i.e. some sold more tickets at lower ticket prices than others who made more money from fewer people paying higher ticket prices.

Twelve of the top twenty ticket-sellers were comedies (Dr Stef’s Side Splitting Hypnosis, Big Boys II, Riaad Moosa Doctor’s Orders Tour, Raiders: The Whisky Trader, Rob van Vuuren – What What, Race Card, Jou Ma Se Comedy, Fully Committed, The Epicene Butcher and Other Consenting Stories for Adults, The Brothers Streep, Boet and Swaer and Ash and Van Exposed), six were dramas (The Three Little Pigs, Crazy in Love, Dirt, The Snow Goose, Brothers in Blood and Rainbow Scars), one was performance art (Unreal) and another was dance (Bitter Sweet).

The 39 Steps (Comedy), Face the Music (Music theatre) and Money Maker (Drama) replaced Fully Committed and my dramas produced by Artscape – Brothers in Blood and Rainbow Scars – in the list of top twenty income-generating shows, while all the other top twenty ticket-sellers also featured in the top money-making list.

As pointed out by Tony Lankester at the time: “There is a strong correlation between the lists of productions which do well in terms of actual tickets sold and in terms of the rand value of those tickets, which is logical. Where productions have done well in terms of numbers but not on rand value this can be attributed to relatively low ticket prices (Rainbow Scars and Brothers in Blood were priced at R50 and Fully Committed R55; while Face the Music and 39 Steps were at R75, Money Maker at R80)”

Another interesting observation by Lankester at the time was: “It is interesting to note that productions which win Standard Bank Ovation Awards can do well in the rankings – 6 of the top 20 by number won awards. However a total of 32 Ovation Awards were made, which means 26 productions won awards but found it difficult to make the list. One reason for this might be that audiences do gravitate to the known and familiar – witness the large number of returning productions and productions which are sequels or franchises which make the list. This could be as a result of good marketing; Ovation Awards won in previous years; productions building on successful runs in previous years”.

Five shows among the top-twenty ticket sellers and four of the top-twenty money-making Fringe shows were by ‘persons of colour’.

While the figures aren’t publicly available to see whether these percentages hold true for the rest of the Fringe productions, it would appear from the 2013 top-twenty lists that
a. returning productions and franchises based on past successful runs at the Festival are more likely to do well than “premieres”
b. for Festival producers then, it may be better to premiere a new production before the Festival so that it comes relatively settled and with some branding and momentum to the Festival; all such productions are eligible for the Standard Bank Ovation Awards which are made to productions that have not appeared at the Festival before, but which are not necessarily premiering at the Festival
c. as pointed out by Lankester, audiences are attracted to the “known and familiar”, so that it is difficult (though not impossible) for new productions and creative practitioners to “break into the market” at the Festival, and for most it will be 3-5 years before they develop their brands at the market
d. winning a Standard Bank Ovation award – a non-market reason for participating on the Fringe – does not necessarily translate into higher audience numbers or ticket sales at the Festival at which the award is made (sometimes the award is made too close to the end of the production’s run, or what the judges consider to be artistically meritorious or ground-breaking may not be consistent with word-of-mouth about the piece); winning such an award would be useful for marketing the work after the Festival or for getting the attention of international and local producers or for marketing the same production at the Festival in subsequent years
e. the Festival Fringe is kinder to practitioners and producers that have come to the Festival over a period of time (I would venture that more than half of the producers of the top twenty productions on both lists have been coming to the Festival with productions for ten years or more)
f. it is possible for some Fringe productions to charge relatively high prices (sometimes more than Main productions) and attract good audiences so that the experience – rather than the price – is the main attraction
g. the shows that have sold the most tickets and/or generated the most income are – generally – shows that have runs of 8-11 performances rather than the average 5 or 6 performances (it makes sense that the longer the run, the more time for word-of-mouth to build momentum)
h. shows or producers with well-known brands and/or who have been coming for a while, tend to get longer runs than newer or less well-known producers and shows
i. those who do well on the Festival Fringe in terms of ticket numbers and income are still overwhelmingly white
j. it is possible for persons of colour to do well on the Fringe (even for first-timers such as Riaad Moosa who topped the income list in 2013, while Siv Ngesi’s Race Card – a returning production – featured at 6 on the income list), so that although the Festival’s audience is still primarily white, this is not in itself a barrier for black Fringe producers and practitioners


The Festival may – in terms of the number of productions and events it offers – be the “biggest annual celebration of the arts on the African continent”. This is not the same as being the “biggest annual celebration of African arts on the continent” (that’s for another article!). While this appellation may appeal to sponsors and international partners, the reality of such a large festival with a stagnant or slow-increasing market, is a challenge for participating artists, particularly those on the Fringe who carry the most financial risk, while the Festival lays claim to its size.

The economic impact of the Festival – like its attendance figures – cannot simply be taken at face value; both need thorough interrogation – and less smoke and mirrors – if the Festival is to shift in order to serve its own artist stakeholders as well as its broader community more effectively.


About mikevangraan

Mike van Graan is currently a Richard von Weizsaecker Fellow of the Robert Bosch Academy in Berlin. He is a playwright, and most recently served as the Executive Director of the African Arts Institute. He was the founding Secretary General of Arterial Network, a civil society network of artists, activists and creative enterprises engaged in the African creative sector and its contribution to human rights, democracy and development on the continent. Currently, he also serves as a Technical Expert to UNESCO on the 2005 Convention on the Protection and Promotion of the Diversity of Cultural Expressions.
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