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Could the money put towards the £120m Unboxed festival have been better spent? asks News Editor Neil Puffett.

The See Monster exhibit
Ben Birchall
See Monster, one of UNBOXED's commissioned projects

An irresponsible use of public money, as described by the DCMS Select Committee, or an unprecedented cross-sector collaboration of creativity in the UK?

The debate over the rights and wrongs of spending £120m on an eight-month programme of events rumbles on following the publication of the National Audit Office's investigation into how taxpayer's money was used.

But the events of the past month, with Arts Council England's (ACE) funding decisions for 2023-26 causing pain for numerous valued arts and culture organisations across the country, casts it in a new light.

The NAO report rightly points out that audience numbers, whether that be in person or online, have broadly been in line with expectation and that the net value to the economy has likely been positive.

However, the raw facts and figures don't go any way to quantifying the intrinsic value of art and culture or broaching the central question. Was it worth it? 

The problem with grand political gestures - in this case from the then Tory Prime Minister Theresa May in 2018 and later dubbed "Festival of Brexit" by Jacob Rees-Mogg - is that the costs never seem to be covered by central government. More often than not the delivering department, in this case DCMS, picks up the tab.

Did the money set aside for it have a knock-on impact on DCMS budgets and ultimately result in less money for ACE? According to the government's own figures, in 2020/21 ACE recieved £1.05bn. In 2021/22 this was down to £868m - a reduction of £182m. 

Surely the question that any probe must ask is what impact the money allocated for UNBOXED had on wider budgets and what value it delivered.

It would be a bitter irony if a festival originally conceived to celebrate the UK’s departure from the EU had led to a depletion of arts funding in the UK.

With so many organisations now facing the prospect of restructuring or winding down, could that money have been better spent?

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Gosh – had completely missed the fact that Unboxed2022 was paid for by Peter robbing Paul and not come from the family budget as had been implied all along being a government funded National Festival of Creativity and Innovation. The sourest salt rubbed in the wounds of an industry largely on its knees and generally hostile to what could have given us all so much. A project many in the industry, largely left leaning, refused to embrace, playing to Rees Moggs deliberately divisive provocations by being determined to see it as the ‘Festival of Brexit’ while right leaners taunted it as they might most art and culture projects, daubing it as a ‘WokeFest’ because a few pockets in the projects celebrated diversity. To stay with the family spending analogy, it now seems that another member of the family took a bite too as the headline £120m budget wasn’t all it appeared to be in that the NAO report reveals that a £20m VAT element wasn’t recoverable so the treasury had that back thank you very much. That leaves just one unexplained or so far allocated and spent budget item - Provision for subsequent changes and further costs £6.1m which one can only assume will be gobbled up clearing up what’s left after the circus left the beach at Weston Super Mare. I really expected a media storm with the publication of the NAO report which says little we didn't already know, other than that the 66 million audience target has conveniently been parked as a device to stimulate big thinking by the creative teams! I have to share Julian Wright’s disappointment as they’ve got away with it. For now. Four years ago, Jeremy Wright, the then culture minister told me of the project’s intention to show the power of art and creativity to connect, the country with the world and communities with each other. We worked to this 66 million audience brief in the ITT when we pulled a team together and submitted a pitch to be part of this festival with a grassroots community concept in mind with some major partners including Ironbridge Gorge Museums Trust - where better to launch a creativity revolution than at the birthplace of the first Industrial Revolution? While Unboxed delivered ten wonderful projects they were largely a well kept secret and weren't particularly innovative, particulalry in terms of audience and community engagement with only a few of them live streamed in any way and then only as if linear TV shows. Barely even a hashtag to follow. We had partnered with the UK’s, if not one of the world’s largest live streaming organisations with experience across music, e-sports and political events and massive global reach/experience/tools. SeeMonster was the ultimate white elephant on the beach at Weston Super Mare and we were grateful to Unboxed for youth and community grants to take trips from across the UK, the resounding majority of people we took and met being horrified to discover that it was to be scrapped after just 8 weeks. As Martin Green said to me "It was Big, Bold and Ambitious" as if to justify its late delivery of many months, but scrapping it against public opinion after just 8 weeks was disgraceful. I met him for the first time by chance in a slate quarry in Blaenau Ffestiniog at Galwad, one of the ten projects, where he told me that "SeeMonster's temporary nature was its art" which I considered to be complete tosh at one extreme and utter disregard for the public funds he was entrusted with at the other. He told me his contract had finished that day, coincidentally the day that the NAO report was instigated by the DCMS APPG, and he was off to the next item on his “bucket list” – Eurovision – another big show. Like many we see scrapping SeeMonster particularly as an utter disgrace and waste of taxpayers money when it should have been an investment and kept to ignite a beacon for the Creativity Revolution that Our Children, Our Communities and Our Country STILL so desperately need, especially post covid. We launched the #SaveSeeMonster campaign and petition and presented to and projected it on parliament last Friday - with local radio and BBC News coverage. Most people will now be concerned about pouring good money after bad I am sure, but I ferret them to Churchill who, during the war, was asked by the treasury to consider cutting the arts budget to pay for more tanks and planes. He turned to them and said “what’s it all for then?” We are due to submit an updated version to DCMS this week. Do sign the petition here: www.steamco.org.uk/saveseemonster If only to give me the warm fuzzy feeling that someone cares - LOL!