I first came in to contact with Fusebox during the AMA Annual conference in Belfast in 2017 with Walk the Plank. Brad Carlin, Managing Director of Fusebox Festival in Austin, Texas gave a talk on the importance of taking risks and inspiring change in your organisation. Fusebox had decided 5 years previously to make the entire festival free to everyone – increasing new audiences by 60%. Brad had asked: ‘If you could do anything radical to change your organisation, with no constraints, what would it be?’ and I’d found his incitements to be bold particularly inspiring. Coming from a boundary-pushing outdoor arts organisation, Fusebox felt like the most exciting thing in the conference.
In the spirit of being bold, I sparked up a conversation with Brad and, as a consequence, a year later I was lucky enough to be able to visit the festival, shadowing him as an ‘embedded colleague’ – their very clever inclusive way of describing how an outsider is given ‘inside’ status during their visit. My aims were threefold: to discover new ideas and best practice to bring back to the UK; share reflections and ideas with Fusebox on audience development; and my own personal development in arts management.
The impact of free entry
Fusebox’s ethos is that art should be accessible to all and I was interested in finding out if the removal of the pricing barrier had affected the make up or behaviour of audiences. Walk the Plank shares a similar ethos, the events that we produce are free and outdoors, removing the physical barrier of a ‘venue’. Research has shown that outdoor arts tend to reach a more diverse audience, with more varied levels of cultural engagement.
I discovered that the biggest impact of free entry was that it made audiences engage more deeply with Fusebox. Festival-goers were attending multiple events, and truly getting a feel for its content and themes. A festival-goer told me ‘It’s the best arts festival in Austin. The only reason I can go to multiple events is because it’s free, I can’t afford to pay for multiple tickets.” It made me wonder what would happen if all the events were free at Manchester International Festival, where many events can cost around £20-33.
It was interesting comparing Fusebox’s ticketing ethos to UK events and festivals, where ticket prices often increase, affected by the current UK economic climate and public funding cuts. I have previously worked on projects that have gone in reverse and moved away from free ticketing, such as Sofar Sounds, which has ended its ‘pay as you like’ strategy and the brilliant Manchester Jazz Festival, which has increased ticket prices (though retaining some free events). It was revealing to see Fusebox doing the opposite.
Free ticketing is made possible through Fusebox Eve, a huge fundraising gala on the eve of the festival. This was the most notable difference between the UK and US arts scenes, I’d never witnessed this level of giving in the UK. Is it possible for UK festivals to increase their fundraising/sponsorship output to keep their events accessible to all? Is that even possible in the UK, given our culture and more reserved approach to asking for money?
Gentrification and audiences
There were also obvious issues with gentrification in East Austin, where Fusebox is based – something that feels close to home back in Manchester. The East was traditionally an area of low-cost housing and predominantly African-American. In recent years it’s become trendy and developers have cashed in on the rapidly rising property values, displacing families who can no longer afford to live there.
It’s a similar story in Manchester, where the population is growing faster than in any period since the end of major industry and is filling up with luxury apartments. It’s crushing cultural institutions and venues that made it more appealing in the first place and pricing out those on average incomes.
It was inspiring to see Fusebox make some steps to combat the issue with the thinkEAST programme. I’d not been aware of any arts organisations making steps to combat gentrification in Manchester or Salford, although it has been reported on widely ‘Manchester's housing greed is destroying its cultural heart’. Last year Walk the Plank opened a new outdoor arts centre Cobden Works, a 1.5m Arts Council funded capital project in Salford. The visit to Fusebox made me reflect on the ways we could combat gentrification in our area with local engagement.
My overall impression was that Fusebox is an extremely bold, generous and open-minded festival – with sociability at its core. I came back feeling energised for my work at Walk the Plank and full of new ideas and experiences.