Edinburgh Festival Fringe: Chief Shona McCarthy insists ‘recovering’ event does not have to get bigger as she urges fairer funding deal
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It is the sprawling cultural event that will see more than 3,000 shows performed in 248 venues across Scotland’s capital city in the space of three and a half weeks.
But organisers of the Edinburgh Festival Fringe have warned the showcase has still not recovered from the impact of the pandemic as they called for the event to get a fair share of public funding for the first time.
The Fringe Society, which has revealed it is carrying a £750,000 from the pandemic on top of a £1 million Scottish Government loan it still has to pay back, is seeking a “proportionate” share of Creative Scotland funding in future.
Estimated to be worth “well over” £200m to the economy, the event will be roughly the same scale as last year – despite fears over the impact of the cost-of-living crisis and a shortage of affordable accommodation for performers.
Fringe Society chief executive Shona McCarthy insisted the festival was not targeting a return to its previous record-breaking scale in 2019, when it boasted 3,841 shows – 21 per cent more than this year.
She insisted it was far more important for shows to attract good audiences – as she urged festival goers to “shop around” for accommodation around Edinburgh and even consider staying outside the city.
Ms McCarthy recently warned the event was facing an "existential threat" due to the impact of rising costs on companies, performers and venues, while it faced growing demands to be the world’s most “accessible and inclusive” festival.
Although the Fringe Society has received more than £700,000 annually in Scottish Government funding in recent years, it has been ring-fenced for initiatives like a Made in Scotland showcase.
It wants a long-term commitment from Creative Scotland in line with other events like the Edinburgh International Festival, Celtic Connections and the Wigtown Book Festival.
Ms McCarthy said: “We’re not core-funded by the public sector. The money that we get from the Scottish Government is for specific projects. It’s a jigsaw of little pieces of funding at the moment.
“The reality is we’re carrying a deficit from the last three years, over and above the £1m loan we have to pay back from 2026.
“We believe we should be one of Creative Scotland’s regularly-funded organisations. That needs to be proportionate with what the festival delivers and the services the Fringe Society provides.
“We’re so limited in the leverage we have. Everybody still wants the Fringe to be the most accessible and inclusive festival. Our whole mantra is to give anyone a stage and everyone a seat. We’ve frozen registration fees for the last 16 years and also want to keep ticket prices affordable. Our average ticket price is still under £12.
“Ideally, we’d love to be a completely independent event that doesn’t require any public funding. But the nature of the current environment means we need ongoing support if the city and the nation is to retain this massive cultural asset.”
This year’s 362-page programme is bigger than a decade ago, when 2,871 shows were staged across 273 venues, and around twice the size of the 2003 event.
Ms McCarthy said: “For all of the external challenges, I’m really heartened that more than 3,000 shows have made the commitment to come here. But we’ve never judged the success of the Fringe on the number of shows in the programme.
“The driving force for me is to make sure artists and companies taking the risk to come here get as many people to see their work as possible.
“We’re still in post-Covid recovery. We’ve been saying that it would take a full five years to recover. Is it our target to get back to 2019? Is that how we’re going to measure success? For me, it’s an absolute no, because the world has changed.
"The cost of living is different, the accommodation is different and the situation with the climate is different. Why should we keep harking back to 2019?
“The number of artists and shows who will be at the festival this year shows just how important Edinburgh is as a melting pot for creatives. Arguably more than ever, it’s where people get that next stage of career development.”
Ms McCarthy said there had been a “serious” drop-off in the number of people putting up performers at a capped rate, but more university accommodation had been made available this year.
However, the society is still lobbying for an exemption to ensure people can easily let out their home or spare room to Fringe performers once a new city licensing regime for short-term letting is introduced in October.
She said: “We’re all Edinburgh residents. We’ve always been very supportive of the need for short-term lets legislation of some kind.
“But if the council goes with the full implementation of every detail of the legislation, you would have to pay around £650 up front, have every piece of electrical equipment tested and get public liability insurance to put someone up in a spare room during the Fringe. We’re hearing anecdotally that people won’t do that if they’re only looking to support artists in the festival.”
Ms McCarthy stressed the importance of the Fringe’s core principles of freedom of expression and inclusion, saying they were “as vital now as they’ve ever been”.
The controversial cancellation of events featuring comic Jerry Sadowitz and Edinburgh MP Joanna Cherry by the Pleasance and The Stand Comedy Club was said to have been prompted by concerns raised by venue staff.
However, Ms McCarthy added: “Individual venues will make their own judgments and take their own positions. I’m really proud of this festival and what it stands for. It will always be a place for freedom of expression and inclusion.
"I think the Fringe is as inclusive, open and welcoming as it has ever been. You only need to look at this year’s programme to see that.”