National Arts Festival remains steady in tough economic climate

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The National Arts Festival reported “solid and consistent” support for the arts in a tough economic environment, as it announced its 2016 attendance and sales figures.

“We’ve seen a slight flattening of our numbers over last year’s record-breaking attendance figures, with ticket sales and attendance at Festival events totalling 227 524,” Festival CEO Tony Lankester said.

“While this is around 5% down on last year, it exceeds sales from our 40th anniversary edition the previous year, in 2014. The long-term trajectory is still good – the Festival has grown by 61% over the last decade and continues to outstrip inflation in terms of how much money audiences are prepared to spend on the arts. A sober year in the middle of a ten-year party isn’t necessarily a bad thing!

“That said, we were encouraged by the number of shows at the Festival that reported sellout houses.

“Audiences were being a lot more selective about how they spent their money this year. They sought out quality on our ticketed programme, and they also gravitated toward some of the many free offerings we staged.”

The Festival reported an increase in attendance at free events, including the popular SAfm Sundowner shows and the Public Art performances.

Thirty-one productions on the Main programme enjoyed sales greater than 80% of capacity. These included The Inconvenience of Wings, Animal Farm, House of Truth, The Firebird, Blonde Poison, Ruth First: 117 Days, Pieter-Dirk Uys’ The Echo of a Noise and the Cape Dance Company’s double bill.

Once-off performances by musicians AKA, Caiphus Semenya, Ringo Madlingozi and The Kiffness were completely sold out, as were Simphiwe Dana’s two concerts, and those by the East Cape Philharmonic and the Standard Bank Young Artist Award winner for Music, Avigail Bushakevitz.

“Our decision to include comedy on the Main programme a few years ago continues to bear fruit, with the fourth Very Big Comedy Show selling out, as well as Alan Committie’s smash Love Factually,” Lankester said.

Turning his attention to the National Lottery Fringe, Lankester noted that there was an encouraging emergence of young producers creating platforms and opportunities for artists.

ExploSIV Productions, Siv Ngesi’s production company, was the most successful producer on the Fringe with four shows featuring among the top 30 grossing on the Fringe. Other companies with multiple entries on the same list include Andrew Simpson (three), Follow Spot (two) and Pickledginger (two).

“Individual, experienced producers taking productions under their wings and helping them navigate the tricky waters of a successful Grahamstown run is the kind of ‘benevolent entrepreneurship’ we encourage. It helps the artists and is just smart practice when it comes to finding – and exploiting – economies of scale,” Lankester said.

Comedy continues to dominate the National Lottery Fringe, accounting for 49% of ticket sales. Follow Spot production’s Bon Soir 1.5 topped the leaderboard of top grossing productions, closely followed by the same company’s Big Boys the Third and the perennial Raiders franchise from Theatre for Africa.

Theatre (including musical theatre) still had a good showing, with eight productions on the top 30 list – including Artscape’s Ityala la Mawele, the return of Jemma Kahn’s 2015 smash hit We Didn’t Come to Hell for the Croissants and Rob van Vuuren’s Silver Standard Bank Ovation Award-winning Dangled. Three productions enjoyed sold out runs – Pay Back the Curry!, Big Boys the Third and bRENT – A Mobile Thriller.

While the arts took centre stage this year, much of the drama at the Festival played out against a backdrop of a water crisis which saw taps run dry during the event, and many visitors commented on the potholes and lack of maintenance evident around the City.

Lankester has urged the municipality to develop a long-term plan for Grahamstown’s infrastructure.

“Our municipal officials responded brilliantly to the water crisis, doing their best under difficult circumstances. But they were just papering over some more serious cracks that our leadership now needs to address,” Lankester said. “We can’t responsibly invite thousands of people to this city every year if we can’t guarantee their comfort and health. It’s as simple as that.”

A 2013 economic impact study by Rhodes University put the value of the contribution of the Festival to the Province at R340m, with R90m of that being felt directly in Grahamstown. Lankester has challenged the Municipality to protect the event’s future.

Top 30 grossing productions on the Fringe (alphabetical order):

  • A Man and a Dog
  • Apologies in Advance
  • B!*ch Stole My Doek
  • BeSpoke
  • Big Boys the Third
  • Bon Soir 1.5
  • Butlers and Broadway
  • Camp Carrawak
  • Chasing Shadows
  • Comedy Masterclass
  • Dangled
  • Don’t Burn Your Sausage!
  • Dr Stef’s Sidesplitting Hypnosis
  • Dracula
  • Gym and Tonic: Subtitled Memory of a Muscle
  • Hairy Potter and the Stoned Philosopher
  • Hashtag Lottering
  • I Came, I Taught, I Left
  • Ityala la Mawele
  • Life
  • Mind Over Magic
  • Pay Back the Curry!
  • Raiders Spaced Out The Moon Rock Musical
  • Salt
  • Stuart Lightbody’s Sleepless Dreams
  • The Best of Rob van Vuuren
  • The Oxford Imps
  • The Time of your Life
  • We Didn’t Come to Hell for the Croissants
  • Whistle Stop
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