National Endowment for the Arts, Bravo surveys reveal economic power of outdoor arts festivals like Iowa Shakespeare Experience’s annual free festival


          DES MOINES, Iowa – A late 2010 study on the community impact of festivals by the National Endowment for the Arts underscores preliminary survey information from a 2010 Bravo Greater Des Moines initiative to create a plan for its work of supporting the city’s growing arts scene. Outdoor festivals attract a range of audiences, are a gateway to greater involvement in the arts, and enhance their communities as “creative placemakers” that foster economic development, the NEA study found.

            The national study, “Live from Your Neighborhood: A National Study of Outdoor Festivals,” completed in October was the first ever of its kind to study th e growing phenomenon of arts festivals in looking at informal arts participation. Conducted by AMS Planning and Research for the Arts and Entertainment Industries, preliminary data from a 2010 intercept survey by the Bravo Greater Des Moines cultural alliance also found strong support among the local public for outdoor festivals and fairs.  

            The NEA survey analyzed data from 1,413 outdoor festivals in nearly every state and Washington, D.C., and reflects a cross-section of outdoor arts festivals in artistic disciplines such as music, visual arts and crafts, dance, folk and traditional arts, theatre, literature and film. Seven case studies profiled a variety of outdoor festivals in large and small communities.  Among the key findings of the NEA study:

  • Outdoor arts festivals are “creative placemakers” that are integrated into broad community goals. More than half of the festivals surveyed (59 percent) have occurred in their host communities for 10 years or more. Outdoor festivals are small-town affairs, with most festivals (77 percent) occurring in towns with fewer than 250,000 residents and 39 percent of these in towns with fewer than 10,000 people. The study also found that Festivals foster civic pride plus education, employment and volunteer opportunities to residents of the host communities. Most festivals have strong public-private partnerships, with 88 percent receiving support from corporate sponsors, foundations, or local, state or federal government. Additionally, the case studies note that successful outdoor arts festivals present special challenges that require working partnerships with local governments and public agencies.
  • Outdoor arts festivals have diverse art forms and audiences. Outdoor arts festival audiences are more representative of the U.S. population than audiences for other types of art activities. In general, Hispanic and African American audiences account for a higher percentage of audiences at outdoor arts festivals than at most “benchmark” arts activities, such as jazz or classical music concerts, operas, plays, ballet or museums.
  • Outdoor arts festivals are a gateway to the arts. Audiences also said that they discovered art they would not have sought out on their own suggesting that outdoor arts festivals are a bridge to new kinds of arts attendance. Many outdoor arts festivals share characteristics that make them appealing to audiences. Most festivals are free (59 percent). Festivals present high-quality, curated arts programming for audiences. Most outdoor arts festivals (64 percent) feature arts education opportunities. In the case studies, audiences said they liked the informal, family friendly setting where they can talk directly with participating artists.

            To read the full NEA report, go to:

            Key findings in the preliminary Bravo Greater Des Moines intercept survey conducted with Greater Des Moines residents:

  • When asked how they would recommend metro governments support arts, culture and heritage, “youth programs” (67 percent) and “outdoor fairs and festivals” (63 percent) were the top two recommended recipients. Another 42 percent recommended that theatre performances receive more public support.
  • When presented with a list of 18 choices of cultural events they’re most interested in, Metro residents ranked “stage plays”  No. 1. In fact, fully half of all respondents said they were most interested in theatre presentations.
  • When asked how many times they attended an outdoor fair or festival in Greater Des Moines over the past 12 months, 85 percent answered in the affirmative, compared with 20 percent who had attended a program or event at an art museum, and about a third of all respondents who said they had visited heritage sites as a leisure activity.

            Robin Heinemann, president of Iowa Shakespeare Experience, a nonprofit group that offers a free Shakespeare festival every summer, said that both the NEA study the Bravo Greater Des Moines survey validate the organization’s mission.

            “Today is a time when free services are most needed – but paradoxically most difficult for a non-profit to provide,” Heinemann said. “So we are deeply encouraged that our focus on youth programs and theatre puts us so squarely in line with the public’s priorities.

            “We know we fill a unique void – our city has a wonderful array of free professional concerts and galleries, but little if any regular access to free professional theatre. Our metro lags in this area behind our sister cities like Omaha and Kansas City, where there’s been free festival Shakespeare for decades.”

            Heinemann said Iowa Shakespeare Experience would be unable to address the void without strong support from Bravo Greater Des Moines, the city of Des Moines and the generosity of corporations doing business in the metro.

            “With these public and private partnerships, The Iowa Shakespeare Experience can now provide humanity’s most famous and insightful stories for purposes of enrichment, tourism and economic development,” Heinemann said. “Moreover, we deliberately use ‘color-blind’ casting that makes our shows ‘look like’ the diversity of Des Moines, and attendees frequently say we inspire them to seek out more Shakespeare. Since the Bard leads into virtually all the arts  – opera, symphony, ballet, paintings and more – we know we foster broader involvement by a broader audience across our entire community’s incredible arts scene. We’re proud to be a growing economic engine that simultaneously touches hearts and minds with world-class plays.”

            MD Isley, executive director of Bravo Greater Des Moines, said the studies show that festivals offer a strong introduction to cultural arts for many people. “So many are free, making them accessible to everyone, and oftentimes providing great entertainment and education,” he said. “These are family-and-friend culture, and they amplify arts and culture in an area. Iowa Shakespeare Experience, especially, is doing a good job with high-quality free festivals, and this kind of programming is continuing to grow in the Greater Des Moines area.”