The underbelly of economic impact

A few years ago, I attended the Edinburgh Fringe Festival (or, more accurately, Festival Fringe), an event which started out as an alternative to the more staid Edinburgh International Festival but has since grown to encompass virtually every nook and cranny in the city, with a reported 50,459 performances of 3,314 shows in 313 venues in 2015 (the 2016 Festival ended Monday). We saw dance performances in a conference center, a Swedish comedian in an underground club, a performance of Spring Awakening featuring actual British school children, a screening of Koyaanisqatsi, the groundbreaking Reggio/Glass 1982 film with live music by Phillip Glass Ensemble in a beautiful auditorium,  an avant-garde chanteuse in a temporary venue built just for the festival, a Scottish poet reading Robert Burns at the National Library, and (just because), David Sedaris.


The famous Edinburgh Festival venue, Udderbelly

I loved every minute of the Festival, and of being in Edinburgh. It’s a beautiful, lively city and we absolutely adored the combination of history, tradition and innovation on display simultaneously. We marveled at the relative youth of the assembled masses on the Royal Mile – unlike many other kinds of festivals we have attended, the average age of Edinburgh during the festival seemed to average around 25. We thought, here is art done right.

An article by Patrick Collison in today’s Guardian, however, points out that there may be another side to Edinburgh’s success. Collison talks about high prices at restaurants, hotels and pubs, at the same time that performers are barely breaking even. He says, “The business model for the creative industries is broken. For every performer at Edinburgh working for nothing, read musician on Spotify or writer on the net. Providers of content make peanuts, while the controllers of the infrastructure, such as Google, walk away with extraordinary profits.”

We in the arts are fond of justifying support of the arts by pointing out the economic impact of arts and culture to communities. When I teach my students about economic impact studies, I am always careful to point out that “impact” is defined as “benefit to other sectors,” not the arts themselves. Ticket sales are never considered in impact studies. I used to think this was a positive statistic (“look at the benefit, and that’s not even counting ticket sales!”), but after reading this article, I started to think about trickle down impact. Are arts and culture benefiting from the business they bring to their communities, or are they essentially working for nothing while others reap the rewards?

I do know people who have performed at Edinburgh and, knowing the profit potential, have used it more as a showcase, inviting potential presenters as well as adding reviews and information about their success as marketing boosters. But, as Collinson says, let’s think about the indie musicians on Spotify, the community theater, the fine arts festival. What are they getting in return for bringing business to others?

I have long felt that we in the arts industry need to step our economic impact from “the arts create impact therefore we must exist” to “the arts create impact therefore it is imperative that governments and businesses who benefit should be duty-bound to give some of their profits back to the arts.”  Right now, support from government and business operates on somewhat of an honor system; the entities who get it make sure the arts are included. But wouldn’t it be nice if there was a more formal system in place? Wouldn’t it be interesting if every community was able to work together to make sure that arts organizations and artists had the means to continue making art and making a living?

How can we do this?

About Ellen Rosewall

I am Professor and Chair of Arts Management and author of Arts Management: Uniting Arts and Audiences in the 21st Century (Oxford University Press, 2013). I believe that arts and culture are undergoing a profound change in the 21st century, and I love talking with people about how we continue to bring arts to our communities and individuals give the brave new world of social media, technology and economic changes. Join the conversation!
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