The future of the National Arts Festival

MANY THANKS: Probus president, Doug Sutherland, left, with National Arts Festival CEO Tony Lankester, at the club’s meeting recently. Picture: ROB KNOWLES
MANY THANKS: Probus president, Doug Sutherland, left, with National Arts Festival CEO Tony Lankester, at the club’s meeting recently. Picture: ROB KNOWLES

NATIONAL Arts Festival chief executive officer Tony Lankester left Probus Club members in little doubt that the world of entertainment, and specifically the arts festival, was evolving and would need to change as technology and the needs of the public changed.

Lankester spoke of the 40-year history of what is one of the premier arts festivals in South Africa, and how economics and technology will, in future, influence the festival. Some facts and figures from this year’s festival are that R7.71-million was brought in from festival attendees in terms of ticket sales, but this was down from R8.45-million last year.

More than 227000 people attended the festival, but this was also down from the previous year’s figure of more than 241 000.

More than 60% of attendees use English as their first language and more than 50% of attendees were students or professionally employed people.

The good news is 81% of respondents to the questionnaires handed out at the festival said they felt the festival offered value for money. “But audiences want satisfying, quality work,” said Lankester. “They also expect the festival organisers to curate, to choose and recommend what they should see.”

With respect to the Fringe, Lankester said it could shrink as free market principles kicked in, but then bounce back. “Alternatively, the Fringe could take over and become the mainstream.” Lankester said genres would blur over time, as artists refuse to be put into boxes. “Artists are looking to grow and want international recognition,” Lankester said.

Other predictions Lankester made included that television would recede in importance, as 3D and immersive movies took over.

However, he was clear that audiences would still want to attend the intimacy of live theatre.

He also said festival business would change, and could only survive if it diversified its revenue stream.

“Eleven days a year is unsustainable as it is too vulnerable to ebbs and flows. “Sponsors want perpetual value and deep relationships , ” he said.

He pointed to the 12 festivals held in Edinburgh, Scotland, every year, where attendees spent £35 (R606) for every £1 of subsidy. Similarly, UK concerts and festivals generated £31-billion (R537-million), with 9.5 million music tourists creating more than 38 000 permanent jobs.

His final prediction was that, in 40 years, Grahamstown would produce less than 50% of the revenue for the national arts festival, and that technology could not be ignored.

Lankester ended with a plea, in that Grahamstown needed to sort out its infrastructure. If it did so, tourism would boom. He said creative city projects would stimulate creativity, but that Grahamstown needed another industry.

Finally, Lankester said all his predictions could prove incorrect.

However, those listening were treated to an excellent speaker who made them consider the future of the National Arts Festival and what measures should be taken to sustain it.

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