'Brexit festival' chief insists cultural jamboree was not a flop but value for money

Paisley Abbey lit up for an installation called 'About Us', created by 59 Productions, as part of the UNBOXED: Creativity in the UK event, in Paisley, Scotland, Feb. 28, 2022.
Paisley Abbey lit up for an installation called 'About Us', created by 59 Productions, as part of the UNBOXED: Creativity in the UK event, in Paisley, Scotland, Feb. 28, 2022. Copyright ANDY BUCHANAN / AFP
By Alasdair Sandford with AFP
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The €138m eight-month festival attracted only three million visitors in-person and 15 million online, way short of the 66 million organisers had hoped for.


The head of an eight-month-long event celebrating creativity in the UK -- dubbed the "Festival of Brexit" much to the annoyance of its organisers -- has insisted it was a success even though far fewer people took part than had been hoped for.

Organisers of "Unboxed: Creativity in the UK", which had a budget of £120 million (€138 million) from the British government, say it attracted more than 18 million people between March and November -- that's barely a quarter of the figure of 66 million which had been touted at the outset.

Only three million people attended events in person; the remaining 15 million engaged with what director Phil Batty described as "innovative cutting-edge digital and broadcast experiences".

"These cultural experiences have showcased the very best of science, the very best of tech, and the very best of the arts through live and through digital, it was always designed to do that," he told the BBC on Tuesday.

Batty said the hoped-for figure of 66 million was "never a visitor target" but "a creative ambition for the programme" which aimed to be "really inclusive for the whole UK". 

"I think we delivered that," he said.

"The three million people who came live in 107 towns, cities, villages, rural and coastal communities, that's a major investment in areas across the UK that are often underserved by cultural investment," the project's director added.

In September the chair of a parliamentary committee called for an official investigation into the "paltry numbers attracted to the festival".

“The design and delivery of Unboxed has been an unadulterated shambles from the very start," Julian Knight said, questioning "how such a vast amount of taxpayers’ cash has been allowed to be squandered on something that we warned months ago risked turning in to a fiasco".

The committee's report published last March, the month the festival got underway, described the event as "an irresponsible use of public money".

It questioned whether the festival would deliver a return on investment, said the government itself had failed to spell out what it was for, and concluded that this could lead to bids for future footballing events being "fatally undermined".

The project was first announced by then prime minister Theresa May in 2018, two years after the EU referendum, to "showcase what makes our country great today", and to mark a "moment of national renewal with a once-in-a-generation celebration".

"A celebration of UK ingenuity, energy, innovation, optimism and all-round creative genius, it will be unlike anything else that has been seen before," her successor Boris Johnson said in October 2021 as he launched the project.

More than six years after the referendum on withdrawal from the European Union, Brexit remains a volatile topic in the UK. According to a YouGov poll published last week, support is at an all-time low, with 56% of Britons now believing Brexit was a mistake, including one in five of "Leave" voters.

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