Edinburgh Festival Fringe companies plead for public funding bail-out

Some of the biggest companies staging shows at the Edinburgh Festival Fringe have warned they may not survive to return to the event in 2021 without the help of public funding - amid claims that the cost of cancelling this year’s event had already topped more than £35 million.

The Pleasance Courtyard is one of the most popular venues at the Edinburgh Festival Fringe. Picture: Neil Hanna

Assembly, Underbelly, Gilded Balloon, Summerhall and Pleasance are among the signatories to a letter to a Holyrood inquiry into the impact of the coronavirus pandemic, which warns that long-running Fringe companies face “considerable costs to survive” with no income and little or no financial reserves.

An alliance of venue producers has told MSPs that most of them have been unable to access any financial support during the Covid-19 crisis.

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Among the main reasons cited are that many of them are based outside Scotland and not seen as Scottish even, though most of their work is in Scotland.

The Fringe attracted an overall attendance of more than three million for the first time last year. Picture: David Monteith-Hodge

The Holyrood inquiry has been told many companies are “micro-entities operating without fixed premises, with some said to be run from the homes of their directors.

The Fringe Society, which recently warned it has been left on a financial knife edge and may even face insolvency without being able to fill a £1 million black hole in its finances, said more than 300 venues it usually works with had mostly “fallen through the cracks” of UK and Scottish Government financial support and were estimated their losses at around £21 million.

Further losses of more than £15 million have been estimated by other supplies who are said to rely on the Fringe for around 25 per cent of their annual income. Potential lost ticket sales this year alone could top £30 million.

The Fringe Society has warned MSPs: “Quite a number of individuals and organisations who attend the Fringe will not recover from this pandemic.”

Other signatories to the letter from the Association of Independent Venue Producers include the Bedlam Theatre, the Acoustic Music Centre, Greenside, Just the Tonic, Sweet and Zoo.

The letter states: “The Fringe is an open-access festival and no central body runs or allocates venues.

“A few venues run year-round, but the vast majority are temporary. Some shows take place in existing businesses such as bars and cafes, or in existing arts organisations such as year-round theatres and galleries, but many are created and curated by independent venue producers who take the financial risk of setting up and operating temporary venues.

“The Fringe Society doesn’t select companies, artists or productions and doesn’t operate venues. Venue producers and performing companies are independent of the Fringe Society and don’t receive financial support from it.

“The Fringe ecology relies on the creative and entrepreneurial vision of its venue producers to curate programmes of work, to facilitate and enable companies and artists, and to provide the spaces and support for artists and companies to stage shows.

“Without these individuals and their vision, the environment which has brought benefits to Edinburgh, Scotland, and the UK would not exist.

“Edinburgh’s venue producers take on the costs and risk of finding and hiring premises, setting these up as temporary venues, designing and installing temporary performance and exhibition spaces, programming companies and artists to perform and exhibit into these venues, and operating the venues during the Fringe. Many Fringe venues are small-scale, and many venue-producing organisations operate on a not-for-profit basis.

“When the Fringe returns in 2021, it will need venue producers to be there, to curate their programmes and accommodate the visiting performing companies and artists. However, without financial support for venue producers now, key organisations will go out of business. Support needs to be found for venue producers – and for the businesses, organisations, and freelancers across the UK who support the arts and festival sector, and are dependent on their custom.”

The Fringe Society’s own submission to Holyrood’s culture committee said it had already furloughed 70 per cent of its own staff, made four workers redundant and imposed a 20 per cent pay cut on its remaining workforce.

It states: “With the Fringe not taking place, shows don’t perform, venues don’t operate, smaller local businesses don’t get that work and accommodation providers don’t benefit - the overall impact and picture is immense, and extends beyond 2020, especially if these organisations and businesses are unable to survive.

“Therefore, a catastrophic year, brought on by Covid-19, could lead to the loss of Edinburgh’s infrastructure as the world’s leading festival city, and the pivotal role the Fringe plays for Scotland’s creative industries.”

However Mike Small, co-founder of The Citizen Network, which was set up to “defend” Edinburgh against over-tourism, gentrification, privatisation of public space and “festivalisation,” said: “It’s astonishing that a festival that has been going on for so long has no resilience whatsoever. It’s almost as if the Fringe has created no legacy for the city whatsoever.

“Here are private companies - which notoriously refuse to publish their profits - begging for a bailout.

“If the cancellation of the 2020 Fringe has any silver lining it is the opportunity to re-think who the festival is for and who benefits.

“Bailing out these companies without transparency or accountability would be a serious mistake.”

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