• Share on Facebook
  • Share on Facebook
  • Share on Linkedin
  • Share by email
  • Share on Facebook
  • Share on Facebook
  • Share on Linkedin
  • Share by email

A scathing report from MPs says the festival is "an irresponsible use of public money" set to prove its sceptics right. How fair is the criticism?

About Us, one of 10 UNBOXED commissions, debuted this month

UNBOXED, the UK wide festival of creativity, is "an irresponsible use of public money" based on vague goals "ripe for misinterpretation", and lacks the strategic thinking to ensure its longer term success.

This excoriating assessment by MPs on the DCMS Select Committee following a 11-month-long inquiry was rejected by the event's Chief Creative Officer Martin Green, who expressed confidence it will "demonstrate lasting value to people throughout the UK".

More than 50,000 people visited the first UNBOXED commission in Paisley, Scotland earlier this month. DCMS, disagreeing with the committee's findings, said it will leave a "strong legacy that will benefit communities for years to come".


But the event suffers still from an association with its unofficial title as the 'Festival of Brexit' and opinion within the arts sector on Wednesday (March 16) was split as to whether the inclusive, international ethos of people working on the project redeemed its origins or whether it was doomed from the outset.

MPs appeared to side with the latter camp: "We see no sense of how 2022’s events will take us on a journey of renewal as a country, despite the many differing views about the image of Britishness that the events should promote."

Addressing UNBOXED as well as the Commonwealth Games and UK City of Culture, they called on DCMS to publish a major events strategy akin to Scotland's within the next two years.

Committee Chair Julian Knight said of UNBOXED: "We have no confidence that it can meet its ambitious targets for engagement or reliver a return on the substantial investment from the public coffers.

"Unless the Government urgently addresses this lack of strategy and vision, it will continue to risk squandering the benefits such occasions can bring."

The department said Government has proven it can deliver economic benefits from large-scale cultural events like the 14-18 NOW First World War centenary project and Spirit 2012 for the London Olympic Games: "2022 will be no different."

'Stretch' targets

While DCMS has a marketing plan for UNBOXED, MPs said there was a "worrying lack of detail" about how its aims will be achieved.

This was evident in how long it took to decide a "nebulous" name for the festival, Knight claimed: "That it took three years... does not bode well for its chances of delivering a true lasting legacy."

The title refers in part to an 'unboxing' of creativity across disciplines - commissioned teams include scientists and engineers. But MPs said public awareness and understanding of the project's vision was slim, suggesting engagement targets are too ambitious.

An original aspiration to reach 66 million people - the population of the UK - is now considered a "stretch target", according to Carrie Cooke, DCMS' Deputy Director for UNBOXED and UK City of Culture.

Expert submitters to the inquiry, including University of Hull Professor and Centre for Cultural Value researcher Dr Franco Bianchini, agreed major events can suffer from "overpromising", but were optimistic about the huge opportunities they offer to promote in other areas of education and the economy.

MPs, however, were less forgiving, criticising DCMS for investing £120m in UNBOXED with only "muddled" and "questionable" planning, especially around touring the commissions internationally.

"The desire for it to seemingly cater to everyone, everywhere is a recipe for failure," the report added.

'No golden thread'

DCMS' abililty to leverage the opportunities major events present is constrained by its lack of influence, MPs concluded.

The inquiry heard that a long term strategy is needed. Appointing a special representative to coordinate major cultural events was recommended to the Government as far back as 2019, but this hasn't happened.

"While individual occasions may well deliver memorable moments, we see no golden thread linking the events or tying them to a vision for the future of this country," the report said.

DCMS intends to measure the social and economic impact of UNBOXED and other events this year.

The report and those commenting on it questioned whether money would have been better spent on encouraging smaller, community-led ventures.

Music Venue Trust CEO Mark Davyd said he had written to Theresa May, Boris Johnson, Oliver Dowden and Nadine Dorries to tell them the festival is a "mistake".

"£120m could have made a real difference to grassroots culture in every [corner] of the country. Real culture that real people love, value and want."

Arts Professional welcomes readers' opinions. Please ensure your comments observe our policy.


UNBOXED 2022 is said to offer inroads into innovation resulting from or created by BREXIT. So, is it a no-nonsense directive to engage people with Brexit related issues? We have to find out, don't we? There is no problem as people have minds of their own. They will respond as they see fit after a series of structured 'workshops' are offered to elicit their responses and then to record them accurately in order to present reports that the people 'own' so that will defend the outcomes. They should not report that the 'consultants' own biases have been challenged So if Brexit is presented as a trigger or a launch pad, we cannot allow pre-judged responses to come in the way of a generic and neutral 'fact-finding' process which will be conducive to change. We should be prepared to be seriously challenged, if indeed that must be allowed to happen. Mechanisms should be build into the processes. My colleagues and I have developed very creative approaches to help build and implement the mechanisms to help define the transformations that the audiences want. We cannot stifle a form of 'bottom-up change'. We cannot and must not want to prejudge them. Bring it along; we are eager and ready to work as catalysts to define and proceed with the direction which people will want to debate. Whatever our personal views may prevail about Brexit, we cannot allow any perceived barriers to taint and frustrate the outcomes. People should treated with trust and respect to deliver open outcomes. My agency has the skills and expertise to develop and launch 'people-led' programmes for change. We want to develop and implement the agenda for change, but working as transformational experts to help our audiences to OWN the outcomes.