Cultural Democracy at the Heart of the Edinburgh Festival Fringe: In Conversation with Shona McCarthy, Chief Executive of the Edinburgh Fringe Festival Society


Chief Executive, Edinburgh Festival Fringe Society, Shona McCarthy.

9 May 2016. Picture by JANE BARLOW

© Jane Barlow 2016 {all rights reserved}
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FREE USE IMAGE Chief Executive, Edinburgh Festival Fringe Society, Shona McCarthy. 9 May 2016. Picture by JANE BARLOW © Jane Barlow 2016 {all rights reserved} m: 07870 152324

Shona McCarthy, Chief Executive, Edinburgh Festival Fringe Society. 9 May 2016. Picture by JANE BARLOW © Jane Barlow 2016 {all rights reserved}

Shona McCarthy has been Chief Executive of the Edinburgh Fringe Festival Society, the umbrella organization of the Edinburgh Festival Fringe, since 2016 and is a member of the International Advisory Committee for the MMIAM program. A passionate leader of the largest arts festival in the world, McCarthy recently discussed the challenges of running a festival of this size with such a unique business model and shared why the study of international arts management is so important in developing a highly adaptable work force.

The Edinburgh Festival Fringe is the largest arts festival in the world.  What makes this festival so unique?

The Fringe, how it began and what it represents, speaks to cultural democracy. It is open access, which means we don’t select or curate the work, and anyone with a voice or a story to tell can participate in the Fringe. This extraordinary innovation started 71 years ago with just 8 companies, 6 from Scotland and 2 from England. They had not been selected for the inaugural Edinburgh International Festival program, but decided to turn up and perform anyway, so the starting point of the Fringe was an act of defiance.


“Counting Sheep” at the 2016 Edinburgh Festival Fringe. (Photo: David Monteith-Hodge)

Over the last 71 years, the Fringe has maintained its founding principle of open access, establishing itself as the greatest platform for creative freedom of expression in the world. This was YouTube before social media existed.

This year there will be over 3,500 shows, with over 30,000 performers, in over 300 venues, representing 55 countries in the Fringe. But the Fringe isn’t about numbers or size, it’s about ideas, experiences, and creativity. Since it began in Edinburgh in 1947, it has gone from strength to strength, inspiring a global network of more than 200 Fringes around the world.

It is also a place where the audiences themselves become the curators, creating their own program from the thousands of shows on offer. So there is a cultural democracy that underpins what we do.

The Fringe is also unlike any other, in that it is largely self-financed by those who take the risk to make and show work here. It is made up of hundreds of parts, all of which are important. It is a wonderful balance of ticketed venues, street performances, free shows, pay what you want shows, new discoveries and world class artists. It is the sum of these parts that makes it distinctive, inclusive and extraordinary.


The 2014 Edinburgh Festival Fringe at Highstreet. (Photo: James Ratchford)

The economic and artistic scope of this festival is remarkable.  What are some of the challenges you face in managing such a major festival?

The Fringe Society does not manage the Fringe, we are the glue that holds it all together and provides the centralised services of participant support, audience navigation, and overall marketing and promotion that enables the Fringe to be coherent and a quality experience for participants and audiences alike.

Challenges include managing the expectations of everyone involved and continually communicating the opportunities and risks of bringing work to the Fringe, so that participants approach the festival in an informed and prepared way; balancing the interests of local artists and stakeholders with the global platform that the Fringe has become; ensuring that the Fringe continues to provide opportunities for new connections to be made between creatives from across the world, so that work presented here can tour nationally and internationally; and working to keep the Fringe affordable for the artists that are essential to its existence.

Why do you think the specific study of international arts management is important for the profession and for the cultural sector?

I think it is important because there are increasing opportunities for excellence and professionalism in arts management around the world. Arts management is no longer a local endeavour, but an international landscape where knowledgeable, experienced, globally mobile professionals can readily adjust their skills and experience to different countries and contexts. It is essential that this is rooted in an understanding of different models, different cultural contexts, and ideally practical experience. It is enriching for the cultural sector to have a global workforce which can transcend geographies and bring new insights, models and experiences across the global arts network.

What specific qualities do you look for when you are hiring an arts manager that are unique to the industry?

I look for passion and belief in the arts as a force for good in the world; enabling leadership that can nurture and develop teams; solutions-focused innovators who bring new thinking through listening, reflection and analysis; and strategic thinkers who can turn strategy into plans that are successfuly delivered.

Flexibility, enthusiasm, honesty and openness are important qualities, as are good communication and relationship-building skills, and professionalism coupled with warmth and humanity.

What innovative ideas have you observed in the cultural sector which are leading the new wave in cultural management?

I am enjoying seeing more public realm work and work that meets the audience where they are, more engagement of audience members as creative participants rather than passive consumers, and a shift in the notion of one single curatorial voice towards a more devolved or democratised approach to curation to cater for wider tastes and interests.


“Trainspotting” at the 2016 Edinburgh Festival Fringe. (Photo: David Monteith-Hodge)

What are some of your future plans for the Edinburgh Festival Fringe?

Following our 70th anniversary celebrations in 2017, we felt it was important to take stock, gather feedback, challenge assumptions, and lay the groundwork for our 75th anniversary in 2022. The culmination of all this work is the Fringe Blueprint, an action plan which we believe represents an ambitious but achievable vision of what the Fringe could look like in the next five years.

The Blueprint identifies new approaches to ensure anyone can participate in the Fringe, regardless of their background. From driving down the cost of attendance to engaging young people in the arts, enhancing our street performance space on the Royal Mile to reaching out to under-represented groups in Edinburgh and further afield, we want the Fringe to be the greatest festival on earth at which to perform and produce, run a venue, develop a career, see shows and discover talent.

New Variations of Dual Leadership: Insights From Finnish Theatre (Abridged)


by Mari Järvinen, Heli Ansio, and Pia Houni

The Study

In this article we describe dual leadership as it exists in Finnish professional theatre in the years since 2000. In 2012 there were 46 drama theatres and 10 dance companies subject to Finland’s Theatres and Orchestras Act, plus the National Opera and the National Theatre. State funding of regularly operating professional theatres and orchestras is based on the Act, which determines public subsidies for performing arts organizations. In addition, theatres receive municipal funding. State-subsidized professional theatre ranges from large and medium-sized municipal theatres to small but well-established independent theatre companies. In addition to the regularly operating professional theatres, there are numerous other independent theatrical groups that remain outside the legislation. Most directors of institutional theatres have contracts of from two to five years, while some contracts are permanent. Most of the artistic staff of professional theatres have permanent contracts, but the situation is rapidly changing and the proportion of freelance artistic staff is growing (Teatteritilastot/Finnish Theatre Statistics, 2012).

Institutional theatre in Finland, as in most countries, has been dominated by the idea of a single artistic leader. However, this notion has been under question ever since the first Finnish professional theatre was established in 1972, and especially since the independent theatre movement took hold in Finland in the 1970s. Independent theatrical groups questioned the conventional institutions and their management practices. Another new wave of independent theatres appeared in the 1990s, many of them favouring democratic decision-making, a low level of administration and, often, collaborative leadership models (Wilmer and Koski, 2006). In recent years a new type of dual leadership has emerged, especially in medium-sized and small theatres and independent theatrical groups. However, there has been neither systematic research nor popular writing on collaborative leadership in Finnish theatres.

The new variations of dual leadership appeared in Finnish theatre concurrent with increasing professionalization of theatrical management and increasing privatization of municipal theatres. The emergence of these new types of dual leadership may be related to trends and developments in artistic practice. Most of the leaders we interviewed were in their thirties or forties. Some of them can be viewed as members of the new independent theatre generation of the 1990s who received their artistic education in the first decade of the new millennium. These generations are accustomed to process-centred methods and the ideals associated with artistic collaboration. Traditionally, artistic directors and managing directors/CEOs have been recruited separately. In the case of newer leader duos, however, very often the duo is formed before they apply for the position, as a pair, or the duo has founded a theatre together.

Data Collection

Six leader duos were interviewed (which we refer to by number; see Table 1), representing theatres of various sizes and types. All of the duos had been formed by the choice of both individuals and most had gained their position as leader either by founding their own theatre or by applying to a theatre as a duo. Ten interviewees were employees of theatres with a dual leadership model in place. They represented different staff groups: actors, other artistic staff (e.g. costumiers), technical staff and administrative personnel. All had either permanent contracts or temporary contracts for more than one production; none had a production contract.


Dual Leadership in This Study

Figure 1 illustrates the general structure of traditional models of theatre management in Finland and the emergent structures of dual leadership. Table 1 describes the composition, history and division of tasks of each leader duo as well as our assessment of which type of dual leadership each constellation most closely resembles in the categorization of de Voogt and Hommes (2007) and Döös et al. (2008). We provide a descriptive statement to shed further light on each setting. These are not direct quotes but descriptions by the authors.


Next, three case narratives are presented to illustrate how new dual leadership is manifested in our data.

CEO and Artistic Director: Blurring of the Lines (Duo 3)

The formal setting at duo 3’s theatre reflects the traditional division between artistic and managerial responsibilities. In practice, however, the two leaders work differently. They strive to blur the division of tasks and share responsibilities as much as possible. They also share an office and say they want to run the organization together, so they share leadership in practice. The organization previously had one theatre director, so defining roles and responsibilities has taken some effort.

Two Artistic Directors leading in Shifts (Duo 6)

This leader duo, a playwright and an actor, were encouraged to apply together for the leadership position in this medium-sized city theatre. They take turns being the formal leader. The leader who is not in charge at the time can concentrate on artistic work. They speak of “24/7 peer support.” These leaders use their complementary skill sets and personalities in their work. Shifting formal responsibilities from one to the other is challenging, as it requires extensive communication and can cause confusion among stakeholders such as board members.

Two Artistic Directors Leading Together (Duo 1)

These two actors founded an independent theatrical company after working together on various projects. Their ways of cooperation and task division have grown organically. This company is now the largest independent theatre in the area and the duo’s position and work have changed. A very informal leadership has shifted towards the setting of stricter boundaries and a clearer division of duties in order to cope with the challenges of a growing organization. Both leaders are responsible for artistic decision-making, they are in charge of one stage each, and one is responsible for finance and the other for technology, public relations and marketing. Their leadership has become more strategic and less reactive.

Findings: “It is less windy at the top when you are together”

Previous research indicates that dual leaders see this leadership structure as a way of coping with the heavy workload of a leader (Wilhelmson et al., 2006). The leaders in our study cited the benefits of having a colleague with whom to reflect on ideas and discuss difficult situations. The leader duos had two skill sets and two networks available, allowing for greater opportunities and possibilities, as also described by Antrobus (2011). A possible drawback was the time needed to communicate effectively about issues, but this was balanced by the quality of the decisions made, the support received and the insights derived from different perspectives (Wilhelmson et al., 2006). Our interviewees described dual leadership as a way to create more time for concentrating on tasks and a way to “be in two places at one time,” again paralleling the view of Antrobus (2011). Several leaders emphasized the advantage of having a constant critic available, which improved their leadership and the quality of the art they produced. Mutual support and dialogue were cited as among the greatest advantages of the dual leadership structure. As suggested by the literature, the new dual leadership results in leadership that is more than the sum of its parts (Antrobus, 2011).

Denis, Langley and Sergi (2012) call for more attention to the issue of organizing dual leadership, within the duo itself as well as in relation to the organization. The issue of boundaries, meaning the inclusion or exclusion of others in the leadership group, is an interesting one in the theatrical context. According to our sample, boundaries can be both beneficial and problematic.


Although dual leadership has been used as a means to overcome problem situations in arts organizations (de Voogt, 2005), it appears that some problems can be perpetuated by choosing a leadership model that is new and unfamiliar to the organization. At the very least, a new leadership structure will raise questions and require careful preparation.

As suggested in the literature (e.g., Gronn and Hamilton, 2004; Miles and Watkins, 2007), trust is an essential component of successful dual leadership. The duo is an intimate constellation where “extreme honesty” must prevail, as stated by one of the leaders (duo 6) in our study. Another significant aspect of trust is that between the duo and the organization.

In exploring the dual leadership structure of the theatres in our study, we saw that the why is clearly interrelated with the how in the stories about the formation of the leader duos, as each duo has created a form of dual leadership that fitted with their personalities, goals and views on leadership. In the future, it would be beneficial for the understanding of the dynamics of new forms of dual leadership to explore the phenomenon through a wider range of methods and, for example, the careers of young theatre professionals who aspire to lead a theatre. There is anecdotal evidence of potential leaders saying they would not run a theatre alone due to the large number of diverse tasks and responsibilities involved. As the well-being of managers and leaders is often discussed in terms of long hours, fatigue or even burn-out, we see dual leadership as a model that could bring relief to such settings.

In future research it would also be important to account for similar constructs outside the arts sector, such as religious parishes, the medical field and expert organizations where leadership roles are complex and multi-faceted, and explore these settings in a similar manner. For example, private medical practice has often been based on a dual model of medical and economic leadership but as more doctors are earning MBA degrees and becoming involved in the business aspects of the practice, the leadership constellations are changing. The opportunities for constant dialogue, feedback and reflection that a more collaborative dual leadership provides could be very valuable in many organizations.


Antrobus, C., 2011. Two Heads Are Better Than One: What Art Galleries and museums Can Learn From the Joint Leadership Model in Theatre. Research paper. London: Clore Leadership Programme. Accessed 26 March 2015 at

Denis, J.-L., A. Langley and V. Sergi. 2012. “Leadership in the Plural.” Academy of Management Annals, Vol. 6, no 1, p. 211-283.

de Voogt, A., 2005. “Dual Leadership as a Problem Solving Tool in Arts Organizations.” Management and Organizations, Vol. 9, no 1, p. 17-22.

de Voogt, A. And K. Hommes. 2007. “The Signature of Leadership: Artistic Freedom in Shared Leadership Practice.” John Ben Sheppard Journal of Practical Leadership, Vol. 1, no 2, p. 1-5.

Döös, M., M. Hanson, T. Backström and L. Wilhelmson. 2008. Leadership Co-operation: The Existence of Sharing Managers in Swedish Work Life. Paper presented at University Forum for Human Resource Development. Accessed 1 July 2014 at

Gronn, P., and A. Hamilton. 2004. “ ‘A Bit More Life in the Leadership’: Co-principalship as Distributed Leadership Practice.” Leadership and Policy in Schools, Vol. 3, no 1, p. 3-35.

Miles, S.A., and M.D. Watkins. 2007. “The Leadership Team: Complementary Strengths or Conflicting Agendas?” Harvard Business Review, Vol. 85, no 4, p. 90-97.

Teatteritilastot/Finnish Theatre Statistics, 2012. Helsinki: Teatterin tiedotuskeskus.

Wilhelmson, L., M. Döös, T. Backström, K. Bellaagh and M. Hanson. 2006. En studie av parledarskap – sammanfattning. Om faser, arbetssätt och uppfattningar från 14 delade chefer, deras medarbetare och överordnade i Stockholms stad. Stockholm: Arbetslivsinstitutet.

Wilmer, S.E., and P. Koski. 2006. The Dynamic World of Finnish Theatre: An Introduction to Its History, Structures and Aesthetics. Helsinki: Like.

See the full article in the International Journal of Arts Management, Volume 17, Number 13 Spring 2015

Combining technology and the arts: In conversation with Robert O’Brien, General Manager of Hammerstep’s Indigo Grey project


robert-obrien-head-shotRobert O’Brien graduated from the third cohort of the MMIAM program in 2016. He has been involved in arts management since high school and already had valuable professional experience before applying for the MMIAM program, serving on arts boards, performing as an actor and singer, and working as a general manager of several arts organizations. In a recent interview with the Connecticut native, we discussed his experience in the MMIAM program and where his career in arts management has taken him since.

Why did you decide to pursue graduate studies in international arts management?

My goal was to gain a more theoretical business background with a focus on challenges in the arts industry. Two aspects of the program which stuck out for me were the international scope (to learn how arts are produced in other jurisdictions) and the one-year duration. I wanted to get back to work and gain practical experience as quickly as possible without taking the summer off.

Where are you currently working and what are your primary responsibilities?

I am currently working as the General Manager with a start-up organization called Hammerstep, based in New York. We have a project called Indigo Grey, which combines technology, dance, and non-traditional staging to create an immersive and interactive experience for audiences. Because it is a start-up, we have a small team of dedicated staff who each do a large number and broader range of tasks.

Which MMIAM courses were the most valuable to you for your career and why?

One course that stands out for me as having been immediately useful was process and information management. We applied topics covered in that course in our consulting class at Bocconi University in Milan. More broadly, I find process management to be extremely important to the efficiency of any organization and one which arts managers need to know in order to reform ailing organizations.

What did you gain personally and professionally from living and studying in four different countries with students from around the world?

It reinforced my ability to adapt to any situation and be flexible as new circumstances arise. It allowed me to see many places I have never been before and to enjoy the unique cultural assets different cities and countries have to offer. It is assumed, often incorrectly, that people outside your immediate cultural area consume culture the same way you do. I feel like I have an improved understanding of cultural consumption outside my area. It also gave me a very geographically dispersed network, which is very effective in testing ideas in different dynamics.

Which MMIAM campus was the most memorable for you and why?


Robert O’Brien in Rome, Italy

This is a really difficult question because the four campuses are completely different and that is not an exaggeration. I attended McGill in Montreal for my undergrad. One of the best advantages of the school is its location in one of the most unique cities in North American, in a country that, while related, is different from my own [being from the United States]. But during my MMIAM studies, I would have to say Milan was my favorite campus. The lynchpin for this choice is not so much Bocconi University, but rather that, like McGill and Montreal, the campus for Bocconi in my eyes [represented] the entire country of Italy and I had the wonderful opportunity to travel all over the country and really take in what a diverse place that area of the world is, especially historically.

How did your studies in international arts management change your perspective of arts management practices in your home country?

I would not say it changed my perspective, but rather highlighted the difference. The United States takes a devolved view of arts funding with government support being on the low end. Amongst many of my colleagues in arts management in the United States, lack of government support looks like a clear disadvantage, and it certainly has its disadvantages. However, a devolved approach actually has many less obvious advantages. I would say I appreciate more the possibilities that come with having to seek funding outside of the government, including both earned and contributed income as well as equity investments.

What are the current trends in the cultural sector in your home country and what new opportunities are emerging for arts managers as a result?

I would say the biggest trend is the integration of technology into the product offerings of arts organizations. Words like “innovation” and “technology” are very sexy in organizations and arts councils today. However, I feel many misunderstand their implications. I personally have seen the integration of arts and technology be very effective and also very ineffective in arts organizations. There is still a lot of experimentation in the arts industry (especially in not-for-profit arts organizations whose funding is lower). When organizations discover what works, others will copy them, and the integration of arts and technology will become more the norm, but I feel we are not at that point yet.


An Indigo Grey performance. (Courtesy of Hammerstep.)

On the other hand, many groups in the private sector have been integrating technology into arts and cultural ventures for a long time and very successfully. One major difference between the two is the availability of funding for these ventures. Technology can be expensive. An organization like Disney has vast sums of money to invest in technology. In many ways their product also succeeds and fails on its ability to innovate with technology. It can’t be ignored because of the companies with whom they are competing (for Universal, think of using magic wands in the Harry Potter world [The Wizarding World of Harry Potter theme park in Orlando, Florida]). A clever arts manager today could bridge the gap between the private and not for profit sector, tech companies and arts organizations to redefine how organizations offer their products.