The arts extravaganza once known as the Festival of Brexit is being investigated by the National Audit Office because MPs are alarmed by its “exorbitant” cost.
Unboxed, as it was renamed, should have entertained 66 million people this year, but by the end of August only 238,000 had attended events. The National Audit Office (NAO) has said £120 million was “frittered away”.
Projects supported by the festival included a virtual reality experience in which visitors pretend to be a transgender parent adopting a gender-fluid toddler, and an employment scheme called Tour de Moon that gave money to nightclub workers staging events in abandoned discotheques.
Other projects included turning an old oil rig in Weston-super-Mare into an art installation and a three-day music festival in Glasgow that taught people how to grow vegetables.
Its origins date to a speech by Theresa May to the Conservative Party conference in 2018. She promised to organise a carnival of “British creativity and innovation, culture and heritage” that would be inspired by the Great Exhibition of 1851 and the Festival of Britain in 1951.
After a campaign by Jacob Rees-Mogg for a public celebration to mark Britain’s departure from the EU, the event became popularly known as the “Festival of Brexit” .
To broaden its appeal, however, the man appointed to oversee the festival tried to depoliticise its agenda and it was renamed “Unboxed: Creativity in the UK”.
Martin Green, head of ceremonies for the London Olympics, said the festival would struggle to attract visitors if it were seen as overtly political and that it was “unfortunate” the festival had become associated with Brexit.
According to House magazine, he sought assurances from ministers, saying: “Can I ascertain it’s not a Brexit festival? You don’t want some kind of jingoistic jamboree?” As a result of the efforts to minimise its association with Britain’s vote to leave the EU, some of the artists, performers and musicians who ended up producing work for Unboxed had no idea that it was originally associated with Brexit.
Gareth Davies, head of the NAO, announced an inquiry into the festival after MPs on the digital, culture, media and sport committee demanded one. Davies said it would examine whether “political pressures kept the project alive” and if officials knew that the visitor estimates were unrealistic.
Julian Knight, who chairs the committee, said: “That such an exorbitant amount of public cash has been spent on a so-called celebration of creativity that has barely failed to register in the public consciousness raises serious red flags about how the project has been managed from conception through to delivery.”
The culture department said: “We do not agree with the select committee’s views.”