Evaluating Festivals

Understanding the social and economic impact of a festival and its key areas of success and development is important to the planning of future festivals. First published in JAM, the Arts Marketing Association‘s quarterly magazine, Helen Palmer, Joint Director of Marketing at the British Ceramics Biennial and Director of Earthen Lamp Vishalakshi Roy describe their collaborative approach to research and evaluation of the festival. 

This year will see the fifth iteration of the British Ceramics Biennial (BCB) in Stoke-on-Trent – a city often billed as the world capital of ceramics and the heart of the Potteries. Contrary to popular belief ceramics are still produced in the city, with approximately 10,000 people working in the local ceramic industry.

The festival was originally established in response to a call-out by the city for creative ways to contribute towards its regeneration plans. BCB celebrates the best of contemporary ceramics by emerging and established artists working with clay through exhibitions, artist commissions, artist residencies and hands-on activities. This year, as the city bids to win the designation of UK City of Culture 2021, we are expanding the reach of the festival working with over 100 artists across multiple traditional and non-traditional spaces and locations throughout the city. In addition to the biannual festival, BCB now creates and delivers a year-round programme of engagement with schoolchildren, teachers and community groups.

To Whom Do I Owe Regret, Sam Bakewell, 2015.  Image: Joel Fildes.

To Whom Do I Owe Regret, Sam Bakewell, 2015. Image: Joel Fildes.

The team at BCB is committed to using the festival to explore how clay can play a central role in the changing identity of the city – and how it can be interacted with the improve well-being, place-making and pride. With such ambitious objectives at heart, the team took a conscious decision to build in a simple yet effective evaluation mechanism right from the inception of the festival. Since 2009 the festival team has consistently worked with the same team of researchers to understand the social and economic impact of the festival and its key areas of success and development. Earthen Lamp, a specialist consultancy with a core strength in devising tailored evaluation frameworks for festivals and events, is the research partner for BCB and has worked with the team in devising and interpreting information to help the festival grow over the last eight years.

The festival overall thrives on a partnership approach: cubic, education, arts and culture, community, museums and business. To general demonstrable evidence that such an approach works, the bespoke research framework has included consultation with residents visitors, participants, artists, makers, local businesses and funders. Having a consistent research partner agency and known faces has ensured both a level of objectivity to the process, and at the same time a sense of trust that these diverse voices will be heard. The voices of various stakeholders and their feedback through the evaluation process have been critical to inform the future planning of each festival. In addition, the extensive year-round programme of community and education work is also evaluated using the same ethos. This mix of formative and summative evaluation helps to shape the delivery of the programme year-on-year.

Work Caroline Tattersall, 2015.  Image: Joel Fildes.

Work Caroline Tattersall, 2015. Image: Joel Fildes.

One of the misconceptions that BCB has to deal with is that some local stakeholders and local residents assume that the festival is just for visitors. What the evaluation shows is that the festival is attracting significant numbers of local residents from across the six towns that make up the city, and nearby areas. It has always been important to BCB that local residents feel that the festival is for them as much as it is for visitors, and not just those with a historic or current connection to the ceramics industry. The evaluation shows that local residents’ attendance is growing and in 2015 it achieved a fifty-fifty, local/non-local attendance.

A key benefit of having a consistent approach has been the ability to demonstrate the growing economic impact of the festival. This is incredibly valuable in making the case with funders, especially with the local authority at a time of increased pressure on limited resources. It’s been surprising and rewarding for the team and local stakeholders to witness the positive change in perception of the city by both locals and visitors, as a direct result of their festival experience. This along with the social impacts generated by the programme of education and community projects continues to support fundraising, board development and the ongoing collaborative approach to partner relationships.

A crucial part of any festival’s successful delivery is its volunteers and BCB is no exception. While the city has limited volunteering schemes and opportunities, BCB attracts students, former ceramics industry workers and local residents to volunteer. They provide a vital service in ensuring both a quality visitor welcome, invigilation, visitor information and navigation and providing the team with valuable on-the-ground feedback, both informally and formally through the evaluation programme. The BCB team has been overwhelmed by the positive feedback received from volunteers about their experiences, particularly in relating to improving their personal health and wellbeing including self-confidence, learning new skills and contributing towards their pride in the city.

What would the team miss out on if it did not take this consistent approach to its evaluation activities? BCB would certainly not be able to show progression in more ways that simply quantitive measures; it would not be able to attract the funders, partners or visitors as effectively, and overall it would not have had the rate of growth it has enjoyed over the last eight years.

We take great pride in inviting you to the festival this year – launching on 23 September. Look out for the programme announcement in May, and while you are here, please do not forget to leave us some feedback.