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

FREE USE IMAGE Chief Executive, Edinburgh Festival Fringe Society, Shona McCarthy. 9 May 2016. Picture by JANE BARLOW © Jane Barlow 2016 {all rights reserved} janebarlowphotography@gmail.com 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.

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“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.

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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.

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“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.

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