This story was updated at 10.30am after the council’s finance committee passed funding for the festival

Ongoing funding to provide certainty for the Auckland Arts Festival has been approved by the Council’s finance committee.

Ratepayers currently chip in $3.337 million through the Auckland Regional Amenities Funding Board, but the council has been reviewing its continued support in the light of strained budgets. Staff recommended funding continue, saying the advantages have been realised, and the disadvantages of funding it haven’t been as bad as anticipated. 

Today councillors had no problem approving the funding, saying the festival organisers had done a good job trying to spread activities around the entire region rather than just holding city-centric events. There had also been big efforts made to ensure Maori and Pacifica participation. 

A business case drawn up in 2014 found the numbers didn’t stack up to fund an annual festival, rather than the biennial event it began as. Funding has been on a trial period since then, to see if audiences could be sustained on an annual basis, and if further evidence would emerge that it was beneficial. 

The Auckland Festival Trust has been putting on the event since 2003 and last year it hit its highest numbers – 196,000 people went to events, in spite of poor weather. It has also seen events in Titirangi, Glen Innes and Northcote, to Manukau, Otara, Warkworth and Waiheke Island. 

This year saw the event gain its second-highest box office revenue at $2.83m, although sponsorship dropped slightly to just over a million. A council report says the advantages of moving to an annual event have largely played out, with it attracting international events and a strong programme. The Trust has also been able to retain staff and become a more stable organisation. 

The report also says some of the council’s concerns, such as the festival not aligning with the Auckland Plan, have been mitigated. That includes diversification with its programme, audiences, and geographic reach. It doesn’t appear to have detracted from other events outside the festival programme. 

However there are concerns still about the event’s long-term financial stability. The festival still makes a loss, and sponsorship is hard to come by. It does have sufficient financial reserves to remain solvent for the foreseeable future. Today Mayor Phil Goff questioned the ability of organisers to get sponsorship, saying if they couldn’t secure it in times of economic growth, it didn’t bode well for times when money is tight. Organisers responded that last year Auckland University came on board as a new partner, and much of the new support came from individual giving. 

The funding voted on today is subject to confirmation through the Auckland Regional Amenities Funding Board – a system that Councillor Christine Fletcher said is part of the problem in attracting sponsorship, with the perception that the festival would be paid for regardless. Fletcher said there was a false sense of comfort that there was going to be money coming in. 

An evaluation after the 2013 event found that 81 percent of audience-goers agreed the festival made them proud of Auckland – and another (2011) study showed that 77 percent of Aucklanders were proud of the arts in their city.  “Although difficult to measure the effects, this sense of pride is important and may have indirect economic benefits,” a report to the council said. Other advantages to hosting an arts festival was that it provided some balance to many of Auckland’s other major events which were sport focused. Councillor Richard Hills said today that while the council puts a lot of money into sport, a lot of the time the arts didn’t get the funding it deserves. 

The 2016 festival saw the French act Carabosse – fire garden – draw crowds of 26,000 to the Auckland Domain. Photo: Alexia Russell

Planning for next year’s festival is 90 percent complete. Two major acts have been announced – the English National Ballet’s new Giselle, and a theatrical adaptation of George Orwell’s dystopian masterpiece 1984. The full programme will be announced in late October. 

Organisers say each festival a third of the audiences for the event are new, with world class international shows that would otherwise not be seen in Auckland attracting wide audiences. Artists from more than 22 countries took part in the last two, and close to six thousand school students attended heavily subsidised shows. 

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