The business of arts

John Crumlish, MD, Galway Arts Festival

The gent with the tent — John Crumlish. Pic: Mike Shaughnessy

The gent with the tent — John Crumlish. Pic: Mike Shaughnessy

If there was ever a time when business was business and the arts were — well, just messing around, enjoying oneself, it’s not now, and it’s certainly not in Galway.

John Crumlish, managing director of the Galway Arts Festival since 2002, is passionate about the arts, but he also loves the cut and thrust of business deals. And, if it appears that he has landed himself the perfect job, he wouldn’t disagree.

“I didn’t come through the normal channels, if there is such a thing, but having no definite career pattern, I’m both delighted and amazed that I have fallen into such good fortune,” smiles John.

“I left Donegal to study psychology at UCG in 1980, and followed that with a master’s in psychology from the University of Ulster. I did some teaching in the North, and worked in America for a while, but I was always drawn back to Galway and the arts.”

The fledgling Galway Arts Festival kicked off in 1978 as a very small affair — roughly a day and a half’s worth of the present festival size — and was established and run by a band of die-hard arts ‘passionistas’, such as Ted Turton and Ollie Jennings, who still work with the arts today.

John fondly remembers the intimacy of attending arts festival productions in the early 1980s, such as that of Footsbarn Theatre in the Fisheries Field, and points out that those high standards were there from the start.

“Venues may have been a bit odd at times: anything from warehouses to garages, but the core of the arts festival has not changed — a cocktail of high quality international and indigenous acts.”

Macnas, which is synonymous with the Galway Arts Festival, branched out in its own right as a separate business during the early years, and John went on personally to establish Mac Teo in 1993.

“The Galway Arts Festival nurtured a number of the other festivals, such as Baboró and the Galway Film Fleadh, which became too big to be included under the arts festival umbrella.”

“The Galway Arts Festival nurtured a number of the other festivals, such as Baboró and the Galway Film Fleadh, which became too big to be included under the arts festival umbrella.”

The arts festival’s main public funding comes from the Arts Council, of which John is a board member serving out a five year term. Further funding comes from Fáilte Ireland, Culture Ireland, Foras na Gaeilge, Ireland West, the Department of Arts, Sport, and Tourism, and Galway city and county councils.

“Our sources of funding have changed over the years. Up until this year the divide was roughly one-third public funding, one-third sponsorship, and one-third box office, but this is changing.

“Buying the Festival Big Top has increased our capacity by 50 per cent.”

“This year, we’ve introduced the Festival Big Top, a new purpose built tent which we own outright, and this has increased the festival size by 50 per cent in one year. The cost of setting up this tent is over €200,000, before any of the additional infrastructure such as electrics or stage or toilets is put in, so it’s a huge additional investment for us. The Big Top has a capacity for 1,000 seats and 3,500 standing, and houses a very large stage, so we can put on larger acts and take in much more revenue at box office now.”

Increased sales help to lighten the dependency on sponsorship, but John is at pains to highlight the strong business support that the arts festival has enjoyed over the past three decades, both locally and nationally.

The arts is clearly good for business, and this is reflected by the Allianz Business2Arts Award that National Irish Bank won in 2004 for its sponsorship of the festival.

Companies sponsor for a variety of reasons: everything from philanthropy and corporate responsibility to branding and hospitality, but there is no doubt that there is huge goodwill towards the Galway Arts Festival.

“As a not-for-profit organisation we like to think that we offer value for money. I sit down with companies to talk figures, and both ourselves and our sponsors carry out independent evaluations to put a figure on our net worth to them.”

To this end, the Galway Arts Festival engages independent market research to calculate its economic worth. It is expected that this year’s event will be attended by some 150,000 people who will inject some €25 million into the local economy through accommodation, food and drink, transport, and retail.

Over and above this direct injection, John states that events such as the Galway Arts Festival brand Galway positively, helping to establish it as one of the country’s most desirable places in which to live and work.

“Some serious American research has been done in this area. Dr Richard Florida’s book, The Rise of the Creative Class documents clearly how industry follows key events, as these act as magnets for key workers.”

The Galway Arts Festival enjoys high prestige among Irish festivals and spawns, John claims, a commensurate rise in cultural tourism.

The festival’s attendees fall into the A/B socio-economic bracket, who are high spenders, and therefore good for Galway.

“We get lots of repeat business from this income bracket. What we have to guarantee is that they have a unique experience each year that will attract them back. That’s why we must offer a good spread of arts acts covering theatre, dance, music, visual arts, comedy, and literature. Our research shows that audiences generally go to five events in the festival, and move between different art forms with ease. ”

Contrary to popular belief, most acts do not generate a profit, and the Galway Arts Festival acknowledges that some acts are loss leaders, but are justifiable in gaining great kudos for Galway.

“We’ve been trying for a few years now to develop a dance audience, such as the 2006 production of the Hubbard Street Dance from Chicago. While they were very expensive to bring in — almost €30,000 for their flights alone — they generated huge critical acclaim. When they left Galway they went on to perform at the Hollywood Bowl.

“This year’s Philip Glass Ensemble would be in a similar vein. The ticket price for this in no way reflects the true cost, and it’s taking place in a small venue, which limits sales, but it was one of the first productions to sell out, as people are hugely appreciative of getting the chance to listen to such a class act in Galway.

“We’re well on target to selling €1 million worth of tickets.”

“Everything we do is based on budgets and projections, and I work closely with Gerry Cleary, our financial controller, and artistic director Paul Fahy. We’ve 265 events in 35 venues this year, making our costs around €2.35 million, €400k of which is on marketing alone. We need to sell in the region of €1,000,000 worth of tickets to break even, and thankfully our figures are well on target.”

Fifty per cent of ticket sales are generated from the west of Ireland, 25 per cent from the rest of Ireland, and 25 per cent from abroad, mainly the UK and America. As a very international festival, the website,, acts as a powerful marketing tool, garnering one-third of ticket sales. To help promote online sales, the website can now be browsed in seven languages.

Similar to the fashion industry, a lead-in time of one year is normal for the Galway Arts Festival. So while we’re enjoying the 31st festival, John and his team are already well into the preparations for 2009.

“Visual arts, dance, and theatre require a longer lead-in than music, and our own productions, such as Mark Doherty’s Trad, take two to three years to come to fruition; but it went on to win the Edinburgh Fringe First and the Writers’ Guild of Great Britain Award for Best Theatre Writing.”

Artistic director Paul Fahy works in tandem with John, matching artistic merit to budget.

“Paul travels to a number of the world’s major arts festivals, such as the Edinburgh International Festival and Fringe, to view acts and report back on which he believes will work well in Galway.

“We’re particularly excited this year to be exhibiting Joni Mitchell’s artwork in the festival box office. Mitchell is an musical icon who is media shy, so for her to agree to exhibit in Galway is a real coup.”

The arts community around the world is small enough, points out John, and everyone wants to know what everyone else is doing, and how business is.

“One of my Irish contemporaries was able to assure me for example that he had watched Circa, which we’re showing in our Festival Big Top, in Bogotá, Colombia, and that it was a guaranteed winner. We have festival organisers coming to us this year from Canada and Australia to assess what we’re doing.”

Many factors contribute to Galway Arts Festival’s uniqueness, but one of these, John explains, is the village atmosphere.

“Artists tell us that Galway audiences give them instant feedback and will stop them in the street to give them an impromptu critique. This intimacy blew Steppenwolf Theatre Company away and helped create the long-term relationship we now enjoy with actor John Mahoney.”

Many of us turn to the arts for relaxation and to switch off. So, is his job a busman’s holiday?

“I go to just as many arts events throughout the year as anyone else. Working in the arts certainly doesn’t turn me away from it when I’m off duty, but I love sport and reading. I used to play soccer and GAA, and now love to go to all sorts of matches from soccer to rugby. I have a weakness for thrillers and particularly like Ian Rankin’s Rebus novels.”

John clearly loves his work and can’t for the moment imagine working in any other industry. “It’s the breadth of possibilities that gives me a buzz. Acts that I have always wanted to see, I can now help make a reality, and that can’t be bad.”


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