Edinburgh Festival Fringe reaches 'crisis point' as new financial plea is issued

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Organisers of the Edinburgh Festival Fringe have declared the situation has reached a “crisis point” as they issued a new plea for more public funding to help bring its venues and performers back from “the brink”.

The Fringe Society has also admitted the event’s long-running financial model is “no longer viable for anyone” and the festival needs to be “reinvented” to ensure it has a sustainable future. The new warnings have emerged in a lengthy statement from its board explaining why it had lobbied the UK Government to help pay for a new city centre headquarters.

The society claims it is needed to replace three “medieval” Old Town buildings, which it insists are not “fit for purpose”. However, the society also hopes the Government’s “milestone” backing will unlock further “investment, support and acknowledgement”.

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The Fringe secured the lion’s share of an £8.6 million boost for “Scotland’s festival economy” in the recent Spring Budget. However, £7m of that is ringfenced for the proposed year-round “Fringe community hub".

Edinburgh's festivals celebrated their 75th anniversary last year. (Picture: Jeff J Mitchell/Getty Images)Edinburgh's festivals celebrated their 75th anniversary last year. (Picture: Jeff J Mitchell/Getty Images)
Edinburgh's festivals celebrated their 75th anniversary last year. (Picture: Jeff J Mitchell/Getty Images)

The board, headed up by former Tesco Bank chief executive and ex-Scottish Government adviser Benny Higgins, said the Treasury’s funding was a “landmark moment” in the Fringe’s history and the “first meaningful acknowledgement of its role for Scotland and the UK cultural ecology and international reputation”.

The board’s statement added: “The Fringe is not like any other festival or event. The Fringe is an international meeting place and an iconic cultural event for the UK, proudly hosted by Edinburgh.

“It is a phenomenon and a launchpad for thousands of careers. It would be impossible to invent the Fringe today.”

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The society’s statement claimed the event’s “organic" growth had meant it had “never been properly considered, recognised or supported as the significant global event and cultural brand that it represents for Scotland and the UK”.

Crowds throng the Royal Mile during the Edinburgh Festival Fringe. Picture: Jeff J MitchellCrowds throng the Royal Mile during the Edinburgh Festival Fringe. Picture: Jeff J Mitchell
Crowds throng the Royal Mile during the Edinburgh Festival Fringe. Picture: Jeff J Mitchell

The board added: “It’s not like any other arts festival because the Fringe is a performing arts market – it brings the world’s arts industry and arts media to Edinburgh once a year. Hundreds of the UK’s performing artists, companies, producers and industry workers de-camp to Edinburgh.

“As the Fringe has grown, so too have the services offered by the Fringe Society. To keep costs as low as possible for artists where funding is limited, the society subsidises these services by 40 per cent, raised from donations and sponsorships.

“Pre-Covid, we had been consistently making our case to the UK Government that the scale, and global reputation that this event creates for the UK, needs proper recognition and support. Post-Covid, the Fringe model has reached crisis point. The festival’s self-sustaining model is no longer viable for anyone, particularly artists and venues.

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“The recognition from the UK Government is an important milestone, but is only one part of the ambition for long-term investment, support and acknowledgement that the overall Fringe project needs to reinvent itself for a thriving and sustainable future.”

The Fringe Society first revealed ambitions to create a new headquarters building in 2018, when a long-term blueprint for the event was published. The idea was revived when a £7.5m fundraising campaign was launched in 2021.

The board’s statement adds: “The Fringe Society team has had a series of meetings with various UK Government departments since the announcement to understand the route and parameters of the offer. It is dependent on the Fringe Society creating a full business case and detailed scoping in the coming months, which will be shaped and developed through consultation with Fringe participants, the local community and Edinburgh stakeholders.

“We’ve been clear on an aspiration to have a central community-based hub, not just to house the small Fringe Society team, but to be something that genuinely benefits the whole Fringe eco-system.

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“The rationale for this is that we have no open or public-facing space for artists, community partners, the arts industry, the media, researchers who want to study the Fringe and audiences who want to know more and find shows.

"We’ve had this project on our funding ask for a long time, but always as a secondary track to our priority lobbying efforts for the recovery of the Fringe. The potential of capital investment through the levelling up agenda for Edinburgh created a route for this long-held financial ask.

“The Fringe Society continues to relentlessly lobby for support on a number of fronts, including every possible route to sourcing more affordable, appropriate and available accommodation for artists, inclusion of the six-week exemptions for primary short-term let licensing, an extension of theatre tax relief for temporary Fringe venues, further funds for the recently announced Keep it Fringe artists' fund, and additional support channels for all participants in the Fringe.

“This welcome recognition from the UK Government doesn’t mean the lobbying work will stop. We’re acutely aware of the enormous challenges facing the whole Fringe community and the wider arts sector. We’ll continue in our advocacy for more resources and support across all the vital areas of need.

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"It’s our hope that this recognition and investment will help us leverage essential support for the Fringe that isn’t restricted to capital, as we all know that the Fringe, which prides itself on inclusion, feels unaffordable for many, with some Fringe venues and artists on the brink.”

A Scottish Government spokeswoman said: “Edinburgh’s festivals continue to be one of Scotland’s world-leading cultural brands. We will continue to do all we can to support the festivals and the wider culture sector. We’ve been urging the UK Government to recognise the valuable role Scotland’s culture sector plays for the Scottish and UK economy so any additional funding is welcome.

“Given culture is devolved, ministers would be disappointed if the UK Government did not engage to ensure all public funding – Scottish and UK – was aligned to deliver maximum support for the sector, which is facing considerable financial challenges as a result of UK inflation, Brexit and the pandemic.”

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