Edinburgh Festival Fringe appoints new chief executive

Shona McCarthy speaks at the 2013 Turner Prize in Ebrington in Londonderry
Shona McCarthy speaks at the 2013 Turner Prize in Ebrington in Londonderry
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ONE of Northern Ireland’s leading arts administrators has been charged with leading the Edinburgh Festival Fringe into its 70th year.

Shona McCarthy, who spearheaded the reign of Derry-Londonderry as UK City of Culture, was appointed chief executive of the world’s biggest arts festival today.

Ms McCarthy, who runs her own arts consultancy in Northern Ireland at present, said she was “thrilled” to be appointed to head up an event she said she had “long admired.”

She will replace Kath Mainland, who is leaving the post next month after almost seven years at the helm of the event, which now sells almost 2.3 million tickets, compared to 1.5 million a decade ago.

Ms McCarthy, who has spent 25 years working in the cultural sector in Northern Ireland, was in charge of a £20 million budget for the Derry-Londonderry culture programme.

Her previous roles include a spell as director of the British Council Northern Ireland and chief executive of Imagine Belfast, which was charged with drawing up a new cultural strategy for the city and led a bid to be crowned European City of Culture.

She is also a former chief executive of Cinemagic, Northern Ireland’s international film festival for children and young people.

Although she is said to have been a regular visit to the Fringe, she has had no previous involvement in any of Edinburgh’s festivals or major events.

Ms McCarthy said: “I have spent 25 years working in the cultural sector and have seen up close and personal the transformative power that art can have on people, on cities and on wellbeing. I passionately believe in personal and collective creativity as a force for good in a turbulent world.

“I have visited Edinburgh and the Fringe on many occasions and there is no better outlet for creative expression than the Edinburgh Festival Fringe, the greatest open-access arts festival in the world, and I can’t wait to work with and support all those who make up such a wonderful festival.

“Kath Mainland has done a terrific job and there is a brilliant team already in place. I look forward to joining them.”

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Although staging the first UK Culture of City venture in Derry-London was widely seen as successful, there were much-publicised spats between Ms McCarthy’s Culture Company, which was set up to deliver the official programme, and the city council.

Leaked emails revealed that Ms McCarthy had branded the chief executive of the council, Sharon O’Connor, as “the town hall clerk.”

Ms Mainland is leaving the Fringe to take over as executive director of the Melbourne Festival and is due to start in the post next month.

A former administrative director of the Edinburgh International Book Festival, she had been awarded a CBE for services to culture in Scotland in the Queen’s Birthday Honours in 2014.

Ms McCarthy has been appointed at a crucial time for the Fringe, which was first held in 1947, the same year as the Edinburgh International Festival. Both events are planning major 70th anniversary celebrations in 2017.

She will be expected to forge a close partnership with Dublin-born Fergus Linehan, the director of the EIF, who was in charge of his first event last summer.

The Edinburgh Festival Fringe Society, the event’s governing body began the recruitment process to find a successor for Ms Mainland almost immediately after her departure was announced in November.

Sir Timothy O’Shea, chairman of the Fringe society, said: “I am delighted Shona will be joining the team. She brings with her an exceptional resume of experience in the cultural sector and is an experienced and successful chief executive.

“The society’s role is to support and nurture the Fringe – the world’s largest and best arts festival – a festival which has seen continual growth for a number of years.

“In response to that, and under Kath Mainland’s leadership, the society has expanded its services for both participants and audiences.

“As the Fringe approaches its 70th anniversary year, I have no doubt Shona will provide the vision and leadership to continue and further develop the work the Society does, supporting the Fringe’s reputation as a world leading arts festival.”

Ms Mainland was appointed to lead the Fringe following the disastrous introduction of a new box office system which took the event to the brink of financial ruin.

She has overseen the rapid expansion of the world’s biggest arts festival, breaking the two million barrier for ticket sales in 2014. The number of shows and performances in the official Fringe programme has soared by around 60 per cent in the past seven years.

The infrastructure available for Fringe shows has also hugely expanded in that time, with the number of venues rising by 25 per cent, to 313 by last summer.

Scottish culture secretary Fiona Hyslop said: “The Edinburgh Festival Fringe is the biggest arts festival in the world. It is loved by thousands of people across our capital, Scotland and worldwide.

“Shona McCarthy brings a wealth of experience to the role of chief executive of the Fringe and is well-known and respected in the arts and culture sector. Ms McCarthy led the delivery of the UK City of Culture and I witnessed first-hand some of the cultural excellence and innovation of that city when I visited in 2013.

“Over the past 25 years, Shona has worked tirelessly to make the world of arts more accessible and I very much look forward to working with her.”