Culture and money

No one should doubt that festivals have an economic impact - but are the claims made for them overst

At a recent conference to discuss the story so far for ‘Liverpool Capital of Culture’, Phil Redmond, its lugubriously amusing creative director and all-round TV deity, put it bluntly: "Culture is not just about people holding hands and singing songs. It’s about bringing people together. It’s about footfall. With footfall, people spend cash. With cash you get regeneration. That’s what it’s about."

A trot-through of the relevant statistics suggested that his city can indeed walk tall at the moment. An estimated £35m worth of worldwide media coverage on the back of the opening event featuring Ringo Starr; 800,000 visitors from 189 countries since January; more than 2.75m people have attended a cultural event in that time; plus a 25 per cent to 65 per cent increase in attendances at major attractions.

The list was formidable. If you think about regeneration in terms of a physical action - with more blood pumping into the system, and greater vitality reaching every bodily part - then, on that basis, Liverpool’s regeneration - as a direct consequence of Capital of Culture - has some of the miraculous properties of a reincarnation on Doctor Who.

How long-lasting the process will be, can’t be certain; the city looks set to withstand some of the recession’s worst buffeting as more people look closer to home for their holidays, but even if things tail off in 09, it looks safe to say that Liverpool’s transformation is beyond easy reversal.

The pattern of a surge in economic activity as a result of cultural festivities is discernible across the country. Take three of the festivals that have just been and gone: The Brighton Festival, Norfolk and Norwich Festival and Fierce! in Birmingham.

As at 2006, when an economic impact survey was compiled, Brighton Festival was estimated to contribute £20m to the local economy every year, while Brighton Dome and Festival employs 260 people, and attracts £750,000 in sponsorship per annum.

Jonathan Holloway, artistic director of the Norfolk and Norwich Festival claims that his festival’s cultural offering brings a calculable benefit to a deprived region of Eastern England. "With 20 per cent of the audience coming from outside the region, we estimate that in all about £4m is pumped into the economy." Last year there were some 70,000 visitors - this year he anticipates the number would approach 100,000. One startling indirect social benefit, he suggests, is that crime levels drop during street festivals.

Finally, although Fierce! is a modestly sized, cross-arts programme, the positives for Birmingham were defined starkly in 2004: 32 per cent of questionnaire respondents had travelled over 20 miles to the event, and nearly a quarter of respondents (23 per cent) came from more than 50 miles away.

The Arts Council’s research that year (Festivals and the Challenge of Cultural Tourism) found that festival visitors from more than 20 miles away spent on average £145.71 per day and stayed an average of 3.5 nights per visit. An estimated 100,000 plus people annually engage with the festival’s programme, we’re told. You don’t have to be a maths whiz to realise that Redmond’s equation about footfall applies here too.

So does that mean that any benighted urban - or even rural - location with a name, a car-park and a marketing strategy can set itself up with a festival and watch the regenerative cash flow in? Holloway, former events manager at the National Theatre, sounds a strong note of scepticism: "I do think there’s a tendency to put two or three events on one plate and call it a festival. Creatively, we should have huge expectations of festivals. I expect them to transform people’s lives for the better - I have no truck with the idea of festivals as a marketing tool."

All in all, festivals can bring tangible - and less tangible - benefits; you can’t measure things like civic pride and a greater sense of a collective identity but clearly the uplift that flows from a well-run arts festival isn’t limited to the satisfying ping of cash registers. When the planning and execution go well, you should get a virtuous circle of increased economic, social and artistic vibrancy. The motor of passion behind it, though, has to be the desire by artists to engage people - and, well, ensure they enjoy themselves.

The danger lies when the claims made on behalf of festivals become not only overstated but the very raison d’etre of the festival. And I can think of no better instance of this than LIFT (the London International Festival of Theatre) which starts this week. For the best part of two decades, LIFT played an invaluable role in bringing over the best work from overseas that its co-founders Rose Fenton and Lucy Neal could find. About five years ago, shortly before they handed their baby onto Angharad Wynne-Jones, the organisation became intensively introspective.

The artistic programme this year looks pretty thin. There are ‘four global reports from Australia, the Pacific, China and Canada’ - which translates as four dance and performance pieces by relatively unknown practitioners. It’s hard to work out what you’d rush to spend your money on. There’s little to catch the casual eye besides an insistent need on LIFT’s part to ‘get into conversation’ with people. At the heart of that is something called the Lift Parliament, described by Jude Kelly, artistic director of the South Bank as "one of the most important cultural developments for London in the coming decade". This is "a new concept in performance space where artists from around the world and the people of London can gather together to share stories, exchange knowledge and imagine and rehearse new futures".

Forgive the reliance of press-release quotes at this point but the Lift parliament, along with many parliaments one could mention, seems to have an instinctive love of hard-to-apprehend hot-air. Maybe I’ll be proved wrong when I step inside this strange vertical portable venue, when it pitches up at the South Bank - and get stuck into meaningful discourse with another dropper-by. But to pretend that dialogue around art can be as transformative as art itself and as empowering as political enfranchisement strikes me as a kind of evasive piety. To change the world you need to engage with the political system not hang out in a surrogate hive. To make a change, you’ve got to make the leap - not just catch a LIFT.

Lift Festival 2008 Stratford Park, Newham E15. 12–21 June. Tickets: 0844 412 4317 Lift