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T H E A U S T I N C H R O N I C L E
JULY 25, 2014
a u s t
i n c h r o n
i c
l e
. c om
THE ARTS
fine arts
Road to Freedom
The Cost of Art III: How the Fusebox Festival liberated
itself from charging admission
B y K a t h e r i n e C a t m u l l
How much would you pay to see the
world’s best cutting-edge arts in perfor-
mance – artists from New York and Los
Angeles, London and Libya, Croatia and the
Netherlands, wherever the best work is
being done? How much to see 50 or 60 such
pieces, here in Austin, at venues ranging
from the Long Center to Downtown streets?
Weirdly, last April, the answer was: noth-
ing. For its 10th anniversary, Austin’s
Fusebox Festival decided on a wild experi-
ment: make every single one of its 60-odd
(often very odd) pieces free.
Fusebox had played in the shallows of
free art before it took the plunge. About a
third of its previous programming had
come under the rubric “Free Range Art.”
The organizers noted how popular those
pieces were, how they allowed potential
audience members to risk unfamiliar work,
to explore the festival more deeply, and
above all to get in on the conversation – the
conversation between works, between art-
ists and audience, and between audience
members – that puts the “fuse” in Fusebox.
What’s more, their budget revealed that
only 12% of festival revenue came from ticket
sales. So Fusebox Artistic/Executive Director
Ron Berry and Managing Director Brad
Carlin had intense talks with their staff,
board, and other arts organizations. They ran
the numbers and considered logistics, like
how to make sure people would respect res-
ervations they hadn’t paid for. They consid-
ered how many more Austinites might take
a chance on edge-pushing art if financial
risk was eliminated.
Above all, they considered one of Berry’s
core beliefs: that “everyone should have
access to the art we’re presenting. Period.”
So after all that thought, Fusebox – a fes-
tival built on bold, on radical, on out-of-
your-comfort zone – took that bold, radical
step: It made the entire festival free.
For the
Chronicle
’s “Cost of Art” series,
Arts Editor Robert Faires and I sat outside
Spider House Cafe talking with Berry and
Carlin to hear how it played out this spring.
(Note: I blog for the festival while it’s run-
ning and performed in it in the early years.)
We happened to catch the pair just after
they’d learned that Fusebox had been
awarded a $400,000 grant from ArtPlace
America to help develop the thinkEAST
Creative District, an arts-based mixed-use
district to be built on 24 East Austin acres
once home to a jet fuel storage tank farm.
But our conversation focused on what “Free
Range Art” meant for Fusebox.
The road to going all-free came after the
Fusebox team looked closely at its audience
and their buying habits. In recent years,
they found, individuals who bought passes
to the festival were engaging more deeply –
that is, seeing multiple works in a given year
– but individual ticket buyers were not. As a
test of how price-sensitive its audiences
were, Fusebox lowered its individual ticket
prices significantly in 2012. “What we found,”
says Carlin, “was that it had no
effect on how many events peo-
ple went to. They just paid less
for them. And so –”
“We just ended up losing
money,” says Berry, breaking in.
“We just ended up losing
money,” repeats Carlin, and
both laugh. “Which is helpful
to know! What we found is, the
difference between $25 and
$10 or $15 doesn’t matter, in
terms of engaging people.
People either wanted to go or
they didn’t. If they wanted to
go, there’s no real difference in
them paying that amount. It
wasn’t until we went free,
where we found individual
ticket buyers – especially
among first-time attendees –
yes, then they felt more invited
and more comfortable attend-
ing more events.”
Indeed, overall attendance
for Fusebox shot up 18% this
year, with first-time atten-
dance up 60%. “That was
huge,” notes Carlin. “It was a
great entry point.”
Just as significant was the
increase in engagement for
Fusebox this year. “People
went to twice as many things
this year, on average, than
they did in previous years,”
Carlin says. “That really
speaks to the mechanism of
free as a tool for people to dis-
cover and to take risk in the
festival. That wasn’t there
before. People had to take
some financial risk in addition
to some sort of artistic risk or
time risk.”
But dispensing with tickets
wasn’t just about getting more
bodies at Fusebox shows; it
was an opportunity to get the
community to talk about what
it values in the arts and how that’s paid for.
“We felt like if we were going to have a free
festival, we wanted to have this conversa-
tion,” Berry says. “In the early days of this
discussion, we were like, ‘Well, maybe we
should just make it pay-what-you-wish.’
And we actually felt ‘free’ was more pro-
vocative – that it was more effective to
make it free and then talk about that and
all the implications, how, at least for us,
ticket sales were really obscuring what was
going on. They weren’t telling the whole
story – the whole story being that almost
every artist I know is heavily subsidizing
their own work. That is a tale as old as time.
It is so ingrained that I feel like people,
when they’re creating their budgets, have
stopped counting very real costs, human
costs. I include myself in this, as a starving
artist in Austin for years. There’s this man-
tra of ‘doing more for less’ that we sort of
hang our hat on, whether we say it or not. It
does feel like it complicates things over the
long term.”
Fusebox’s decision did spark some dia-
logue about whether not charging for one’s
art devalues the work. “Obviously, I don’t
feel that way at all,” says Berry. “I love going
to free stuff.” He was struck by a discussion
he had with a museum curator in Britain,
who said that most museums there are free
because the British people “made a value
judgment about this work, that it’s so impor-
tant that everyone has to have access to it. So
we like this notion of separating these things
out, like here’s this work that we really
believe in, and we think everyone should
have access to it: period. But let’s also talk
about the cost of making this work. It’s not
free. It’s not the $15 we usually charge. So
how do we as a community want to pay for
this? For us, all of this is an ongoing conver-
sation about being alive in the world today.”
“We were really conscious about saying
that it actually isn’t free,” adds Carlin.
“We’re just changing when and how we
frame supporting it. Because in a way, this
[ticket-buying] transaction felt disingenu-
ous to us. We were asking you to
pay for something that really
wasn’t paying for it. You’re pay-
ing a pittance, a drop in the
bucket, compared to what it actu-
ally costs to not only make but
produce and present, and there
was this bit of dishonesty there.”
So what
does
it cost to produce
Fusebox?
“Our annual operating budget is
about $420,000,” says Carlin, but
that figure is a bit deceptive, since
Fusebox will sometimes teamwith
another organization or organiza-
tions for a project. That’s often the
case when the festival presents an
artist from outside Austin. Case in
point: SubHuman Theatre’s
Man
Ex Machina
was brought in from
Bulgaria this year in partnership
with Bulgaria’s Art Office and the
Center for International Theatre
Development, with support from
the America for Bulgaria
Foundation and the Trust for
Mutual Understanding. Then
there are local projects where
Fusebox shares costs with produc-
ing partners. Carlin cites the
Mozart Requiem Undead
that
opened Fusebox 2014: The budget
for that multicomposer completion
of Mozart’s
Requiem
, from creation
to performance, he estimates at
more than $100,000. “But all of that
money didn’t flow through us.
Golden Hornet Project, Texas
Performing Arts, Texas Choral
Consort, the French Legation,
[and Fusebox] were collaborating
for years to make that project
happen, pooling all these resourc-
es and sharing fundraising oppor-
tunities.”
The upshot: “If we were to
actually show the value of the
shared and collaborative costs of
the festival programming? Our
budget would be well over a mil-
lion dollars a year.”
The biggest expense for the festival: art-
ist fees. “Money that’s paid directly to the
artists,” which Carlin pegs at “about
$100,000 a year.”
“The single biggest festival line item
expense,” echoes Berry, “which we like. We
like that the biggest category of money is
allocated to artists.”
“Right,” says Carlin. “Next biggest is
travel and housing, [which] is about $50,000:
“Here’s this work that we really believe in, and we
think everyone should have access to it: period.
But let’s also talk about the cost ofmaking thiswork.
It’s not free. It’s not the $15 we usually charge.
So howdowe as a communitywant to pay for this?”
– Fusebox Artistic Director Ron Berry
S A N D Y C A R S O N
fusebox managing Director Brad Carlin
(l) and artistic Director ron Berry