We must find out where the government's £120m Unboxed festival went so wrong
Unboxed festival installation See Monster in Weston Super Mare (Credit: Paul Quezada-Neiman/Alamy)
Unboxed, the 2022 UK-wide festival of creativity, is nearly finished! You would be forgiven for not knowing that. Or that it had started in the first place.
Despite a “stretch target” of 66 million, the population of the UK, Unboxed had reached 238,000 people by 31 August – slightly less than the population of Derby. It did this at the cost of £120m of taxpayer money. For reference, the Platinum Jubilee, which reached four times that number, cost £28m.
If we take the Department for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport figures revealed by The House at face value, Unboxed at that point cost about £500 a visitor. Elsewhere, £500 could get you flights to Vienna alongside front seat tickets to the Wiener Staatsoper opera house. How, then, did Unboxed unravel?
By trying to do too much, Unboxed achieved too little
The Digital, Culture, Media and Sport Committee, which I chair, released a report covering this in March. We found a fundamental flaw with Unboxed: it had no clear point. Public events require public buy-in. Successful examples, the Platinum Jubilee or the First World War Centenary, had a clear purpose the country could get behind. Viewers knew the installations, art, ceremonies and events tied into something they cared about, which they could connect to.
To be fair to its organisers, Unboxed faced early identity challenges. Initially and informally dubbed “the Festival of Brexit”, Unboxed needed to convince the public it didn’t just represent one side of the political split. Worrying early signs were that organisers had no solutions. The event’s name and full creative programme were not announced until October 2021, some three years after the idea was formed but just six months before the festival began. Pressed by the Committee in 2021, Carrie Cooke, DCMS’s deputy director for Unboxed, told us the festival could not yet be named because the government “did not know what it was”.
After three years of wrangling, the organisers seemed to come to a decision. To shed the image of exclusivity, the festival would encapsulate literally everything. Unboxed’s “clear objectives”, in the words of its organisers, were “to bring people together and showcase the UK’s creativity and innovation to the world”. It was, they said, “an exploration of how creativity has the power to change the world, from shaping new possibilities for how we work, live and play to creating unforgettable free experiences that spark imaginations, ignite joy and enrich lives”. I can’t think of a single event, piece of art, or exhibition that wouldn’t fit that remit. Can you remember many UK events that weren’t, at least in part, designed to “bring people together” or “showcase the UK’s creativity and innovation to the world”?
People went to the Platinum Jubilee because they wanted to celebrate the Queen. They went to the First World War Centenary to remember and honour the war dead. Why would they go to an event built around the vague concept of UK creativity when they could watch any UK-made movie or TV show, read any book, or listen to any song? By trying to do too much, Unboxed achieved too little. Many of the installations were wonderful – a light show on the history of the universe, art with your eyes closed, a 10km model of the solar system. The problem was the events had no coherent purpose threading them together. As a result, the shows were baubles without a founding purpose, and the public clearly found it hard to care.
During a cost of living crisis, £120m cannot be thrown away without questions being asked. That’s why the DCMS Committee wrote to the National Audit Office to ask for an urgent investigation into what Unboxed got so wrong. In their tellingly quick response, the NAO promised to report back in the next couple of months. The British cultural industry is a national gem, essential for our self-image and soft power abroad. I hope this investigation makes sure such potential won’t be wasted again.
Julian Knight is Conservative MP for Solihull and chair of the Digital, Culture, Media and Sport Committee
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