Edinburgh Festival Fringe organisers call for ‘root and branch review’ of arts funding after insolvency threat

Organisers of the Edinburgh Festival Fringe have called for a “root and branch review” of arts funding in Scotland after having to be rescued from insolvency months into the Covid crisis.

Fringe shows returned to George Square Gardens in August. Picture: Lisa Ferguson
Fringe shows returned to George Square Gardens in August. Picture: Lisa Ferguson

The Fringe Society is seeking "financial parity" with other arts organisations and events in Scotland after being plunged into a "perilous situation" by the pandemic.

An official report for the Scottish Parliament has admitted that the economics of the event, which attracted an audience of more than three million for the first time in 2019, were “creaking at the seams” before the pandemic.It claims the society and many of the venues, producers and artists involved in the event – which is normally said to support more than 3400 jobs each year – fell through the cracks” of public funding support during the extended Covid shutdown.

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This year’s Fringe was only able to go ahead after the Scottish Government and the city council agreed provide £1 million to help nine venues stage shows with reduced capacities and socially-distanced audiences.

Sophie Douglas, Emmanuella Damptey and Caitlin Anderson played aliens from the planet Hanyana in the musical WeCameToDance at this year's Fringe. Picture: Ian Georgeson
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The Fringe Society says it is believes it is the only cultural charity in the country to be given a loan to help it survive the pandemic rather than direct financial support, like arts centres, theatres, cinemas and other festivals and events have received.

It has called for Scotland's cultural recovery to be pursued by policy-makers “hand in hand” with a funding review to ensure that financial support across the arts scene does not “drift back to historic ways (albeit easier) of public funding distribution."

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Holyrood’s culture committee launched a call for views on the future of arts funding in Scotland in August, which is hoped to influence decision-making on the Scottish Government’s budget in December.

A submission from Anne Diack, the Fringe Society’s head of external relations, states: "The Fringe is unique as an open access platform to showcase work across all genres of performing arts and both professional and emerging talent.

"It is rooted in Scotland’s intangible cultural heritage and is a global expo market for the performing arts.

"The Fringe is the single most effective talent progression platform and cultural export market in the UK. It was left in a perilous situation by the pandemic.

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"As we head into our 75th anniversary, we are seeking financial parity with other festivals and national cultural assets in Scotland.

"As the most accessible, affordable and diverse festival, coupled with a proven and hugely significant cultural, social and economic impact to both Edinburgh and Scotland, we believe investment in the Fringe and the Fringe Society should be a key pillar in the priorities for the Scottish Government in 2022.”

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The society, which is spearheaded by chief executive Shona McCarthy and chair Benny Higgins, has issued a new plea for financial help weeks after launching a multi-million pound fundraising appeal to “Save the Fringe.”

Its report for MSPs adds: “Covid brought into stark focus what was perceived and valued as ‘culture’ by public funding bodies, through the choices made to award and disseminate emergency funding.

“Both the Fringe Society and a great many of our vitally important artists, producers and venues fell through the cracks due to not meeting the application criteria both in Scotland and the UK Government funding bodies. A wide range of our cultural partners were required to take out loans to ensure their survival.

“The Fringe Society is the only cultural charity, that we are aware of, that was provided a loan rather than a grant from Scottish Government, managed through Creative Scotland.“Whilst this was hugely appreciated at the time – which was prior to the announcement of any cultural funding support from the UK Gov and prevented us from becoming insolvent - there remains an expectation that we will be able trade our way back to financial health, whilst at the same time prioritising sustainability, affordability, equity, access and inclusion.”

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The Scottish Government provided more than £5.4 million in additional funding to help Edinburgh’s festivals return over the summer.

Although the nine Fringe companies received direct financial support to return before restrictions were lifted, there just 528 in-person shows in the official programme, compared to more than 3800 in 2019.Ms Diack added: "The economics of the Fringe were creaking at the seams pre-Covid.

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"It presents a huge challenge to recovery if it is reliant on income generation alone. We all aspire to come back differently, with focus and imagination, to be the best version of itself.

“Given the number of stakeholders and reach of the Fringe Society, we have openly lobbied to be recognised as a vital strategic partner to support and influence conversations on a range of policy initiatives, including funding."As we move into the recovery of culture this should happen hand in hand with a review of funding and momentum to change, so we don’t drift back to historical ways (albeit easier) of public funding distribution.

"We welcome a root and branch review future funding of culture and ways that make it more accessible, flexible and transparent.”

In a separate report for Holyrood, Festivals Edinburgh director Julia Amour said: “Emergency funding in 2020 aimed to limit redundancies and insolvencies.

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"Looking to recovery and renewal in 2022, a priority should be for public funding approaches to learn from the adaptations and innovations of 2021 to support resilience and change rather than overstretch as the culture sector seeks to rebuild sustainably.

"For example, several major Fringe producers in Edinburgh were able to create new, less intensive settings to support artists in producing live work and restarting livelihoods thanks to Scottish Government covid adaptation funding, and this offers potential models for the future.”



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