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The reasons why….

Published on 23 July 2014

An online discussion, spurred by an article by writer and activist Mike van Graan and responded to by Festival CEO, Tony Lankester, deals with the economics of presenting work on the National Arts Festival’s Fringe. In the course of the discussion, van Graan and others have made a call for the Fringe to be “curated” or to have work selected in some way. The main (but not sole) driver for this argument seems to be that a smaller Fringe would result in greater box office returns for those productions included in the selection, with an attendant increase in quality which would, presumably, result in a better experience for festivalgoers.

Naturally there are many views on the subject, inevitably founded on personal or anecdotal examples and research. Professor Jen Snowball, at the Rhodes University Department of Economics and Economic History has, for a number of years conducted research at the National Arts Festival and examined the feelings of audiences, artists, locals and the media around the event. In an attempt to bring some science to this debate, she was asked by the Festival to read Van Graan’s article and to respond using her research as a starting point. Her response is below, and can be downloaded in PDF version in its entirety here – The non-market benefits of NAF production

We hope that this contributes to the debate.

The non-market benefits of Fringe production at the National Arts Festival

Jen Snowball and Tim Abel


A recent article by Mike van Graan on WordPress argues that Fringe production at the National Arts Festival is expensive and likely to result in financial losses for producers. He blames this on the large number of Fringe shows and suggests that if the number of shows rises at a faster rate than audience numbers, the logical results are smaller audiences and bigger losses for all producers.

Our research verifies that Van Graan is quite correct in stating that the majority of Fringe producers at the NAF will not make a profit. However, this only becomes the deciding factor of whether to take a show to the Festival or not if making a profit is the main motive of Fringe producers.

To really answer this question, one needs to ask Fringe producers themselves, which we have done twice so far: once in 2007, and once in 2013. In 2007, a representative sample of 80 Fringe producers were interviewed about their experiences and expectations of producing at the National Arts Festival. Sixty-four per cent of those interviewed were professionals, 26% semi-professionals, and 10% student productions. This raises the first interesting point: Is making a profit really an important goal for semi-professional and student productions? Unlikely, as the data shows that they are also likely to be sponsored by, for example, their universities. Van Graan’s analysis thus doesn’t really apply to all Fringe shows. One also needs to keep in mind that professional shows also sometimes receive sponsorship, which can help to cover costs.

In the 2007 interviews, data were collected on the total cost of the production for each of the 80 shows, including transport, venue hire, props, accommodation, food, advertising, the technical crew who earned a salary and performers/artists (who often participated on a profit-sharing basis). What is interesting is that only 32% of producers expected to make a profit (defined as covering their costs by more than 10%), 34% expected to make a loss, and the rest hoped to break even. Of those who expected to make a profit, the majority were professional companies. Including sponsorship, 32% of shows in the sample actually did make a profit (although not always those that expected to). Despite this, the average rating by producers of their overall Festival experience was 6.5 out of 10.

Statistical analysis showed that professional shows had higher average earnings and were more likely to make a profit, as one would expect. The genre (music, dance, etc.) did not affect the likelihood of making a profit, except that comedy shows were slightly less likely to make a profit than other show types (possibly because of the large number of comedy shows, resulting in stiff competition in this category). Shows with high production costs were less likely to make a profit. Experience and skills (human capital) were also important: The number of previous NAFs at which the producer had had a show increased the chances of making a profit, as did work experience (time in the industry).

The 2013 study was based on 43 online survey responses from producers (who together produced nearly 80 shows at the NAF), and 4 in-depth interviews. 57% of producers agreed (35%), or strongly agreed (23%), with the statement that “The overall benefits to me and my show of producing a show for the NAF outweigh the financial costs, even if my show makes a loss”. Only 14% of producers disagreed with this statement, the rest (28%) being neutral. Taken together with the 2007 survey results, this seems to provide compelling evidence that, for a large proportion of producers at the NAF, making a profit is not the most important thing.

So what were some of the other important benefits NAF producers expected? The reasons suggested by Van Graan are very much supported by our research: The 2007 producers answered that the NAF was an important platform to launch new works, testing them to see how the audience responds. It also played a role in self-evaluation (comparisons with other companies), networking, and to receive professional criticism from other artists. The NAF, they told us, could provide important exposure, raising an artists’ profile, and was, in short, the “arts hub” of South Africa.

The same sorts of comments emerged in the 2013 results:

  • 84% of producers agreed/strongly agreed that “Putting on a show at the Festival is important for improving my profile and reputation”;
  • 88% of producers agreed/strongly agreed that “The NAF gives me inspiration for my work”;
  • 78% of producers agreed/strongly agreed that “The NAF enables me to take creative risks”.
  • 71% of producers rated their overall Festival experience as 6 or more out of 10.

When we asked producers in the 2013 study directly what their motivations for coming to the NAF were, and whether making a profit was important, interesting views emerged. Some producers were really primarily concerned with testing themselves and developing their own repertoire and that of their company, that is, with artistic innovation and quality. When asked about earnings and profits, respondents in this group often replied that they were “not out to make crowd pleasers”. Others did aim to maximise profits, or needed to at least cover their costs, and based their decisions on what to produce on what they thought NAF audiences would like most.

This is not to say that the struggles of performing artists are not important and that arts funding in South Africa, as in many other countries, does not deserve attention. However, it might mean that some of Van Graan’s recommendations need to be carefully considered. Firstly, he argues that “some may participate in the Festival because they are unaware of the particular challenges posed by the Festival and thus be unaware of the possible financial losses”. While this might be the case, there is a very high percentage of Fringe producers who return year after year. In the 2007 study, the average number of previous Festivals at which Fringe producers had put on a show was 5.4.

Van Graan also suggests that the number of Fringe shows should be reduced, and that entry to the Festival should be “more competitive to ensure an all-round greater level of quality”. There is plenty of research to show that the judgement of artistic quality is notoriously subjective and difficult. Allowing Fringe shows to be chosen for audiences by others may increase the quality, but will also inevitably influence what is on offer. If the arts are meant to challenge conventional thinking and question societal norms (think of the role the NAF played in apartheid South Africa), isn’t it risky to select some shows and not others, however good the intentions? Also, Festival audiences, on the whole, are not unhappy with their Festival experiences: Face-to-face interviews with 600 “festinos” in 2013 found that 8 out of 10 visitors rated Main shows as a 4 or 5 out of 5 in terms of value for money; 7 out of 10 visitors rated Fringe shows as a 4 or 5 in terms of value for money.

In conclusion, we would welcome much more public debate about arts production and funding in South Africa, but respectfully suggest that it should be based on more research, and that policy suggestions should be very carefully evaluated before they are carried out.


Jen Snowball is a professor of Economics at Rhodes University. With Prof Geoff Antrobus, she has been researching the National Arts Festival in her capacity as a cultural economist for more than a decade.

Tim Abel has an honours degree in Economics from Rhodes University. His research areas included production at the National Arts Festival in 2013.