The nationwide arts programme Unboxed was dubbed the “festival of Brexit” from the outset, which was always going to make it a difficult sell.
With ongoing media criticism over its costs, impact and audience numbers, the programme often felt more unloved than unboxed, almost from when it was first announced in 2018 by the Conservative government following the Brexit referendum two years earlier.
But an independent report published this week evaluating the social, cultural and economic benefits of the festival paints a more complex picture of its achievements.
Unboxed: Creativity in the UK took place from March to November 2022, and consisted of 10 projects, including 107 live events held across England, Northern Ireland, Scotland and Wales. The live events were presented alongside digital activities and content commissioned for broadcast platforms.
The four governments of the UK provided a total of £120m for Unboxed, which was delivered by Festival 2022, a team based in Birmingham. The programme was co-commissioned and delivered in partnership with Belfast City Council, EventScotland and Creative Wales.
The evaluation report found that the Unboxed festival was on budget. The final cost outturn for was £116.8m, which was within the overall funding of £120m allocated by the four UK governments.
Allocating this expenditure, net of irrecoverable VAT and adjusting to 2022 prices gives a total economic cost of Unboxed, in real terms, of £103.1m.
The report also found that the Unboxed programme brought societal benefits of £175.5m. With the event costing a total of £103.1m, this resulted in a positive net present social value of £72.3m.
Unboxed had a number of key aims related to areas such as social cohesion; wellbeing; partnership working; engagement with science, technology, engineering, arts and maths subjects; and international profile.
The evaluation report stated that Unboxed achieved its ambition to bring people together through shared experiences that drive social cohesion, with 90% of participants surveyed agreeing that it “allowed them to interact with people they would not normally interact with”.
About nine out of 10 local attendees and participants surveyed agreed that Unboxed provided everyone with the chance to have a shared experience. Approximately eight out of 10 attendees surveyed who lived near where the live events took place said it made them feel both “connected to” and “proud” to live in their local area.
In terms of the total audience for Unboxed, this is probably the area that received most criticism in the media. But unpicking what were real targets and what were vague aspirations is tricky.
Early in the planning, an audience of 66 million was mentioned, but according to Unboxed, this was only the potential audience and simply related to the size of the UK population. A report into Unboxed carried out by the National Audit Office (NAO) and released in November 2022 supports this.
The report said: “Reaching 66 million people, as has been widely reported, was never a formal target for the festival. From autumn 2019, the stated vision for the festival was for it to reach millions of people. Although described as a ‘stretch target’ by [the Department for Culture, Media and Sport] in evidence to the Digital, Culture, Media, and Sport Committee in November 2021, DCMS and Festival 2022 told the NAO that the 66 million was not a formal target but was intended to be a creative device to encourage ambitious and innovative thinking from those interested in delivering one of the 10 events.”
The evaluation report released this week found that the Unboxed programme attracted a total audience of 20.5 million. This was made up of engagement with live events (2.7 million); digital (7 million); broadcast (8.8 million) and through Unboxed’s learning and participation offer (1.9 million).
Surveys of participants for the live events suggests attendance in the four nations was representative of the ethnic diversity within each population and that Unboxed engaged people from different socio-economic backgrounds, with attendees from more deprived areas within the four nations slightly more strongly represented among all attendees at live events than those from less deprived areas. However, engagement was relatively low compared to UK population averages among attendees who identify as male and those with disabilities.
Some of the criticism over the attendance figures centres on the inclusion of the 8.8 million who engaged through broadcast channels, particularly as this included those who watched an edition of the popular BBC programme Countryfile, which included a 15-minute segment of content created by Unboxed. The team at Unboxed argue that Countryfile was a great way to reach a large audience.
Phil Batty, the executive director for Unboxed, said the festival achieved many of its aims, despite challenges such as the pandemic and the festival’s association with Brexit.
“Unboxed delivered on its objectives by bringing people together across the UK and increasing public interest in science, technology, engineering, maths, and the arts,” Batty said. “I was pleased to see recognised across the evaluation the role that the programme had in contributing to post-pandemic recovery, through supporting jobs and paid opportunities, boosting happiness and wellbeing, and supporting the return of live events in 2022.”
Batty was also pleased with the way Unboxed delivered events across the UK and how it worked with partners in each nation.
“I think what we've learned through that process is how to really celebrate the strength of each nation, but also deliver something that can have a universality across the UK,” Batty said. “Collaboration was at the heart of how this whole programme was delivered. One of the legacies is the number of partnerships that people have built, and that still exist and are still moving forward.”
Batty also believes the most people were not concerned about the negative media and simply enjoyed the events for what they were.
“We held a ridiculous number of events over the course of the year and no one ever turned around to me to have a conversation about what was in the media.”
Whatever the success or failures of Unboxed, governments look likely to think long and hard about funding similar UK-wide arts events in the future.