Road to Freedom

The Cost of Art III: How the Fusebox Festival liberated itself from charging admission

Fusebox Managing Director Brad Carlin (l) and Artistic Director Ron Berry
Fusebox Managing Director Brad Carlin (l) and Artistic Director Ron Berry (Photo by Sandy Carson)

How much would you pay to see the world's best cutting-edge arts in performance – artists from New York and Los Angeles, London and Libya, Croatia and the Netherlands, wherever the best work is being done? How much to see 50 or 60 such pieces, here in Austin, at venues ranging from the Long Center to Downtown streets?

Weirdly, last April, the answer was: nothing. For its 10th anniversary, Austin's Fusebox Festival decided on a wild experiment: make every single one of its 60-odd (often very odd) pieces free.

Fusebox had played in the shallows of free art before it took the plunge. About a third of its previous programming had come under the rubric "Free Range Art." The organizers noted how popular those pieces were, how they allowed potential audience members to risk unfamiliar work, to explore the festival more deeply, and above all to get in on the conversation – the conversation between works, between artists and audience, and between audience members – that puts the "fuse" in Fusebox.

What's more, their budget revealed that only 12% of festival revenue came from ticket sales. So Fusebox Artistic/Executive Director Ron Berry and Managing Director Brad Carlin had intense talks with their staff, board, and other arts organizations. They ran the numbers and considered logistics, like how to make sure people would respect reservations they hadn't paid for. They considered how many more Austinites might take a chance on edge-pushing art if financial risk was eliminated.

Above all, they considered one of Berry's core beliefs: that "everyone should have access to the art we're presenting. Period."

So after all that thought, Fusebox – a festival built on bold, on radical, on out-of-your-comfort zone – took that bold, radical step: It made the entire festival free.

For the Chronicle's "Cost of Art" series, Arts Editor Robert Faires and I sat outside Spider House Cafe talking with Berry and Carlin to hear how it played out this spring. (Note: I blog for the festival while it's running and performed in it in the early years.)

We happened to catch the pair just after they'd learned that Fusebox had been awarded a $400,000 grant from ArtPlace America to help develop the thinkEAST Creative District, an arts-based mixed-use district to be built on 24 East Austin acres once home to a jet fuel storage tank farm. But our conversation focused on what "Free Range Art" meant for Fusebox.

The road to going all-free came after the Fusebox team looked closely at its audience and their buying habits. In recent years, they found, individuals who bought passes to the festival were engaging more deeply – that is, seeing multiple works in a given year – but individual ticket buyers were not. As a test of how price-sensitive its audiences were, Fusebox lowered its individual ticket prices significantly in 2012. "What we found," says Carlin, "was that it had no effect on how many events people went to. They just paid less for them. And so –"

"We just ended up losing money," says Berry, breaking in.

"We just ended up losing money," repeats Carlin, and both laugh. "Which is helpful to know! What we found is, the difference between $25 and $10 or $15 doesn't matter, in terms of engaging people. People either wanted to go or they didn't. If they wanted to go, there's no real difference in them paying that amount. It wasn't until we went free, where we found individual ticket buyers – especially among first-time attendees – yes, then they felt more invited and more comfortable attending more events."

Indeed, overall attendance for Fusebox shot up 18% this year, with first-time attendance up 60%. "That was huge," notes Carlin. "It was a great entry point."

Just as significant was the increase in engagement for Fusebox this year. "People went to twice as many things this year, on average, than they did in previous years," Carlin says. "That really speaks to the mechanism of free as a tool for people to discover and to take risk in the festival. That wasn't there before. People had to take some financial risk in addition to some sort of artistic risk or time risk."

But dispensing with tickets wasn't just about getting more bodies at Fusebox shows; it was an opportunity to get the community to talk about what it values in the arts and how that's paid for. "We felt like if we were going to have a free festival, we wanted to have this conversation," Berry says. "In the early days of this discussion, we were like, 'Well, maybe we should just make it pay-what-you-wish.' And we actually felt 'free' was more provocative – that it was more effective to make it free and then talk about that and all the implications, how, at least for us, ticket sales were really obscuring what was going on. They weren't telling the whole story – the whole story being that almost every artist I know is heavily subsidizing their own work. That is a tale as old as time. It is so ingrained that I feel like people, when they're creating their budgets, have stopped counting very real costs, human costs. I include myself in this, as a starving artist in Austin for years. There's this mantra of 'doing more for less' that we sort of hang our hat on, whether we say it or not. It does feel like it complicates things over the long term."

Fusebox's decision did spark some dialogue about whether not charging for one's art devalues the work. "Obviously, I don't feel that way at all," says Berry. "I love going to free stuff." He was struck by a discussion he had with a museum curator in Britain, who said that most museums there are free because the British people "made a value judgment about this work, that it's so important that everyone has to have access to it. So we like this notion of separating these things out, like here's this work that we really believe in, and we think everyone should have access to it: period. But let's also talk about the cost of making this work. It's not free. It's not the $15 we usually charge. So how do we as a community want to pay for this? For us, all of this is an ongoing conversation about being alive in the world today."

"We were really conscious about saying that it actually isn't free," adds Carlin. "We're just changing when and how we frame supporting it. Because in a way, this [ticket-buying] transaction felt disingenuous to us. We were asking you to pay for something that really wasn't paying for it. You're paying a pittance, a drop in the bucket, compared to what it actually costs to not only make but produce and present, and there was this bit of dishonesty there."

So what does it cost to produce Fusebox?

"Our annual operating budget is about $420,000," says Carlin, but that figure is a bit deceptive, since Fusebox will sometimes team with another organization or organizations for a project. That's often the case when the festival presents an artist from outside Austin. Case in point: SubHuman Theatre's Man Ex Machina was brought in from Bulgaria this year in partnership with Bulgaria's Art Office and the Center for International Theatre Development, with support from the America for Bulgaria Foundation and the Trust for Mutual Understanding. Then there are local projects where Fusebox shares costs with producing partners. Carlin cites the Mozart Requiem Undead that opened Fusebox 2014: The budget for that multicomposer completion of Mozart's Requiem, from creation to performance, he estimates at more than $100,000. "But all of that money didn't flow through us. Golden Hornet Project, Texas Performing Arts, Texas Choral Consort, the French Legation, [and Fusebox] were collaborating for years to make that project happen, pooling all these resources and sharing fundraising opportunities."

The upshot: "If we were to actually show the value of the shared and collaborative costs of the festival programming? Our budget would be well over a million dollars a year."

The biggest expense for the festival: artist fees. "Money that's paid directly to the artists," which Carlin pegs at "about $100,000 a year."

"The single biggest festival line item expense," echoes Berry, "which we like. We like that the biggest category of money is allocated to artists."

"Right," says Carlin. "Next biggest is travel and housing, [which] is about $50,000: to bring people over, put them up in hotels, pay them per diems, pay visa expenses for national and international artists."

Asked how the festival is funded, Berry replies, "We piece things together. The city is our single biggest funder. We get funding from the state, the federal government, the NEA [National Endowment for the Arts] – then we get a lot of project support from foundations aligning specific projects with [the foundations'] goals or values. And then private donors. Like I say, ticket sales have traditionally been a very small part of our budget, as have sponsorships."

With ticket sales constituting only about 12% of revenue, Berry says, "we were confident that we were going to be able to make up the financial difference of going free. And we did; we raised more money than if we'd sold out every show."

One way that Fusebox covered the income from ticket sales was a Kickstarter campaign that raised $22,644. But Carlin isn't sure the organization will go to that well again to support the "Free Range Art" initiative. "Now we feel it's almost like a public radio pledge drive," he says. "It's still a campaign, it's still a set amount of time, we're saying 'Look, we gotta raise the money to do Free Range Art again,' but it's more about, 'Let's sustain this thing, let's keep this going, let's make sure we can do this another year.'"

Which leads to the obvious question: Are they going to go all free again next year?

"For the next two at least," says Berry. "We felt like we needed to try it for two or three years to really get a sense of what it's doing, to really understand it. But we're very encouraged after the first year. My hunch is we'll keep doing it indefinitely."

Fusebox has never shown the yearly mushrooming in scale of an ACL or SXSW. Carlin acknowledges that, adding, "What I think isn't totally apparent, though, [is that] even though the festival size, the programming size, has been fairly consistent, our overall budget has doubled in the past five or six years. That was actually not to expand the programming or the festival; it was to invest in the infrastructure and support staff [for] the festival. Adding professional, full-time, year-round, dedicated staff, increasing what we pay to festival crews and technical crews to help execute the festival. There's been a lot of growth."

And in fact, Berry isn't interested in SXSW-style growth for Fusebox. "If anything, I feel like we might [laughs] ... we might condense a little bit – maybe instead of 60 projects [per festival], there's 40 projects or something like that. I don't know. I do think there are some other things, like the thinkEAST project, that to me is connected to Free Range Art. It's connected to this desire to be playing a more vital role in our immediate neighborhood, in our city. That's something the arts are really good at. That's something I feel we should be doing. So there's growth in that sort of space."

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Fusebox Festival, The Cost of Art, Austin arts, Ron Berry, Brad Carlin, SubHuman Theatre, Man Ex Machina, Center for International Theatre Development, Golden Hornet Project, Texas Performing Arts, Texas Choral Consort, French Legation, thinkEAST

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