Leicester Arts Festivals: surveys and the city

(Note this is a longer version of an article originally published on Arts Professional : link)

Leicester Arts Festivals (LAF) is a support network consisting of twenty-four arts festivals and a number of supporting organisations, established in 2014. The festivals range in audience size from the hundreds to the hundreds of thousands, from the recently established to the decades old, and between them covering almost every art form, organisational type and event format imaginable in one of the most demographically plural cities in the UK. Amongst other activities, the network completed a year-long research project, collating baseline data and a comparative analysis of audiences from participating members. From twenty-four festivals, eighteen participated in an organisation survey and six participated in a survey of their audiences. Some interesting highlights and relevant issues for the wider festival and event community to consider are suggested below.

Organisations. An organisation-level survey first established festivals ages, audience sizes, box offices and types of venues or sites used. In terms of their pre-existing audience research, festivals were most likely to have already used short interviews or collected vox pops (75%) then audience surveys (67%) and were likely to undertake research themselves (50%) versus commissioning an external provider (33%). The majority (75%) carried out their research during the festival rather than post-festival. Many festivals carried out some kind of research ‘most years’ (67%) and had some longitudinal data (58%).

Cumulative scale. While there are no individual revelations as far as comparing the ages or sizes of festivals go, it is interesting to consider their cumulative scale when comparing annual festivals against one-off mega events, of which Leicester has recently accommodated its fair share. The Leicester City Premier League win parade in 2016 drew estimated crowds of around 240,000 (BBC, 2016), and the reinternment of Richard III has brought an estimated 622,562 additional visits although this covers the 2.5 year period between his discovery to re-internment (Focus consultants, 2015). The total LAF figures of around 150,000 per year compare well to these one off events. It is quite easy to argue that special or mega-events deserve a unique approach although some would be concerned that these take undue focus from recurring and smaller-scale events. The broad consensus in Leicester is that these mega-events have hugely raised the profile of the city in general, it’s cultural profile and particularly highlighted its ability to stage great festivals and events (Festivals and Events manager awarded MBE, Leicester Mercury 2016), all of which seem to outweigh any relative short-term negatives.

Crossovers. A key question in the audience survey asked which other festivals an individual had ever attended, with the options covering all festivals, including those that did not directly participate in the audience research. (An example diagram can be seen here) The most commonly attended festivals among the whole sample were broadly those that had been established the longest and are mostly free to attend. The top two were Leicester Caribbean Carnival and Riverside Festival at 32 and 20 years old respectively (60% and 59% had attended). Third and fourth were The Spark Festival and An Indian Summer which are 15 and 6 years old respectively (50% and 41% had attended). The Leicester Comedy festival, 23 years old, was fifth, with 36% having attended. Of these five, it is worth noting only The Spark and The Leicester Comedy Festival participated directly in the audience survey, which will have had an impact, though non-participating festivals evidently placed highly as well. This area of investigation gave further weight to collaborations that were already underway and provided ample suggestions for where festivals could potentially partner in future.

Student population. The role of the two universities of Leicester and the student population has been a point of discussion, both in terms of their general attendance and their involvement as event organisers, performers, volunteers and event professionals of the future. The 2011 census shows that the out-of-term population of Leicester drops by about 10,000 or 3% of the usual population of Leicester (NOMIS, Population density, out-of-term population, 2011), however both De Montfort and Leicester university had around 20,000 students each in 2015/16 (HESA, Students by HE provider, level and domicile, 2016). Compared to the census, not necessarily all students leave the city out of term and of course some students also return to Leicester by the same measure. Of all the Full Time Students captured by the survey, 37% had attended Cultural eXchanges at some point and 32% had attended the Leicester Comedy Festival at some point. However, while the Cultural eXchanges audience was, itself, composed of 36% students, Leicester Comedy Festival was only 2%. Both festivals have strong links to the universities and both directly participated in the audience survey. The specific topic of students aside, this shows the potential of considering what is relative when looking at multiple cases together. What seems fractional for one could be an important part of the collective and similar discussions have been had around a range of other demographic or socio-economic groups.

Visitors to the city were immediately apparent, with distances compared against individual expenditure levels and against reported audience attendance figures. The average for the whole sample showed 73% came from within the city and 27% from outside the city. Individual festivals varied greatly, for example the Leicester Comedy Festival was 33% in city, 67% out of city. With the addition of expenditure figures, it was possible to estimate £11.6m in total expenditure across all LAF festivals, of which £5.4m was from visitors to the city (not including multiplier effects).

Electoral wards from which audiences were drawn varied greatly from festival to festival, with only two sharing the same top-attending ward. The top three wards overall accounted for 52% of our sample (excluding non-city visitors) but only account for 18% of the population of the city. This led to debate around levels of saturation, competition and the kinds of activities and outreach that might be developed. It was noted that, probably in common with other cities, there is a strong political and economic drive to focus activities such as festivals in city centres. In general, the lower attending wards were situated towards the outer estates while the higher attending wards were closer to the centre. It was discussed that this may show similarities to the ‘footprint’ of cultural venues, other services or companies that are based in the city centre, and of course that it was likely some festivals who did not directly participate in the survey at this time would cover some of these supposedly missing areas.

These points of discussion aside, the research process overall was not without its faults. Many smaller festivals commented that they would be interested in participating however they did not have the resources, inclination or audience size to do so. All festivals agreed that permanent venues and continuously operating organisations all have a far wider window of opportunity to use these methods.  The general representativeness of the membership and the participating festivals was questioned and while the research was an easier sell to those who had ‘done this sort of thing before’, many other festivals adapted elements to their own approach and may be in a better position to collaborate in future projects. A quantitative survey is a common approach in events and festivals research but it is reasonable to continue to question its use as the default method of investigation. A review of methods in event research found that of 165 journal articles published between 1997-2013, 65% used a survey/questionnaire, down from a huge 92% of articles between 1997-2000. (Review of established methods in event research. Crowther, Bostock & Perry, 2015)

‘Big data’ has been a popular buzzword for a while and compared to those using this term to analyse trillions of data points, to use it in this context initially seems inappropriate. Nevertheless as far as localized festival data goes, this approach has seen increases in the three V’s of volume, variety and velocity in which data is collected (Gartner, 3D Data Management, 2001). As much as the festivals already had in common in the city of Leicester, the research allowed for a much richer consideration of their role in the life of city, of the cumulative and individual impacts these festivals were having and what common grounds they either shared or diverged from.

It is interesting to move further beyond thinking of festivals as inherently ‘of’ any given city, but to consider in more detail which aspects are being represented and expressed; whether by neighbourhood, demographics or by cultural tastes and motivations, and to piece these all together in the context of a wider ecosystem of festivals in the city. This allows us to ask practically, how are festivals best able to respond to demands of accountability (to funders, their peers and themselves), and more theoretically, where are the gaps and boundaries from which new partnerships and even new festivals might emerge? On a more strategic timescale, the lifecycle of an individual festival is also an important consideration, amongst those festivals that have fallen away and to consider what the external factors are that could make cities themselves more or less ‘festival friendly’? Despite concerns around festival bubbles and the festivalisation of cities, the variety of formats, artforms and audiences all indicate that there could potentially still more ground to cover. This also hints at the value of an approach more informed by ‘cultural ecology’ (The ecology of culture, Holden, 2015) where we more frequently view cultural events and their audiences in context with each other, rather than in isolation.


Acknowledgements: Festivals who participated in the audience survey included: Cultural eXchanges, Journeys Festival International, Leicester Belgrave Mela, Leicester Comedy Festival, Night of Festivals, The Spark Festival. Festivals who adapted elements or otherwise contributed partial data to the audience survey included: 14/48, Literary Leicester, Inside Out, Leicester International Music Festival. The programme of events around and including Diwali, provided some data, via Leicester City Council. Festivals who participated in the organisational survey included all of the above, and also: Black History Month, Everybody’s Reading, Festival2Funky, Handmade festival, An Indian Summer, Lets Dance International Frontiers, The Short Cinema, Simon Says, Uprising. The research was carried out by Richard Fletcher, an independent researcher with support from De Montfort University. The key technologies involved were Open Data Kit, QGIS and Geoconvert from the UK Data Service.

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