Arts festival economic boon

This summer, New Haven’s cultural scene peaked during the annual International Festival of Arts and Ideas — and so did the Elm City’s economy.

Last Monday, the festival’s board of directors announced that this year’s celebration funneled an unprecedented $34 million into New Haven — the highest amount in the festival’s 18-year history. The event, which took place in the city’s theaters and various public spaces last June, saw over 800 performers and nearly 140,000 attendees. Mary Lou Aleskie, the festival’s executive director, attributed the economic impact primarily to the increase in the number of ticket sales this year.

“We were able to expand our ticketed offerings so that we had an explosion in terms of ticket buyers,” Aleskie said. “That growth came because we were able to secure artists to come for longer runs, so people came and stayed for longer periods of time.”

Although roughly 85 percent of the festival’s events are free, the rest require visitors to purchase tickets. Aleskie explained that the number of ticket buyers rose from 9,000 last year to 16,000 this year, adding that visitors who choose to attend ticketed events tend to spend more money than those who only attend free events at the festival. She noted that the festival has also seen increased attendance by members of lower-income households, which has further contributed to its ability to support the local economy.

“Art doesn’t fulfill its potential if it’s only available to one sector of our community,” Aleskie said.

Mark Gius, an economics professor at Quinnipiac University who has been calculating the festival’s economic impact using the same methods for the past 18 years, explained that the economic impact statistic measures the amount of money spent during the festival that would not have been spent had the event not taken place. Other factors that contributed to this year’s festival’s success include the favorable weather and lower gas prices that made travel more convenient for out-of-state visitors, Gius said. He noted that out-of-state visitors tend to spend more during the festival than local residents.

Aleskie attributed some of the event’s wide-ranging appeal to its educational role in the New Haven community. From January to June each year, the festival sponsors an after-school program that teaches local high school students a variety of organizational and leadership skills, she explained. The students then participate in the festival itself, taking on roles such as curators and project leaders.

Aleskie noted that the average amount of time attendees spent at this year’s festival was 3.7 days — a substantial increase from the first event 18 years ago, when visitors stayed for an average of one event. Gius said that the amount of money spent by the average attendee has substantially increased throughout the festival’s history, adding that per capita spending during the event has increased from roughly $50 in its first year to $120 this June.

The festival’s budget came largely from individual donations, corporate sponsorships and ticket sales, Aleskie said. Karen Crane, the vice president of corporate communications for First Niagara Bank — one of the companies sponsoring the event — said the festival is the largest arts-related event that the company sponsors in New Haven. Crane added that the company views its sponsorship as an investment in “the economic vitality of [the New Haven] community.”

The International Festival of Arts and Ideas will announce its event schedule for its 2014 installment next April.

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