The £120m arts festival known as the Festival of Brexit has been “very successful”, its director has claimed, despite falling far short of its target for visitors.
Organisers of Unboxed, the government-sponsored, post-Brexit programme of arts events, revealed on Tuesday that 2.8 million people had attended live events.
Overall audience numbers were 18 million, including those who watched online or on TV – but fell well below project’s “stretch target” of 66 million attendees.
The National Audit Office is investigating the festival after MPs on the digital, culture, media and sport select committee warned it was “irresponsible use of public money”.
Defending the project, Phil Batty, executive director of Unboxed, said it had “showcased the very best of science, the very best of tech and the very best of the arts”.
The festival boss said the 66 million target was never intended to comprise in-person visitors.
Mr Batty referred to it as “a creative ambition for the programme, it was an ambition because we wanted to be really inclusive for the whole of the UK, and I think we’ve delivered that”.
He told BBC Radio 4’s Today programme: “I believe it has been very successful, because we’ve seen that whether that’s live events in towns and villages there’s been an economic boost.”
Mr Batty added: “But also we’ve seen major free cultural projects provided to millions of people right across the UK, and that’s hugely important.”
Responding to the organisers’ final numbers, Tory MP Julian Knight, chair of the culture select committee maintained that the project had been a “colossal waste of money”.
The senior figure told the BBC: “These final figures only confirm the committee in its view that Unboxed has been a failure and rightly the National Audit Office is investigating.”
The initiative was intially branded as “Festival UK 2022” before ex-Brexit opportunities minister Jacob Rees-Mogg characterised it as a “festival of Brexit”.
Unboxed organisers have criticised the politicisation of the project, saying it was “unfortunate” that the Brexit tag had stuck.
The controversy was sparked again in September when a report in The House magazine cited figures for four major Unboxed live events totalling only 238,000 attendees.
But Mr Batty said all of the events had reached much wider audiences, deciding to share numbers before the NAO report – set to be published next week – because “there is still misinformation out there”.
He told Sky News: “The National Audit Office is looking at the overall programme that we delivered … It’s a major government programme, and therefore it’s rightfully being scrutinised on behalf of the taxpayer, but we know that they’ll find the results are really strong.”
Naomi Smith, chief executive of Best for Britain group, said the festival “is the perfect metaphor for how Brexit itself has turned out – hugely expensive and deeply unpopular with no one really getting what they wanted”.