[Credit: Red Bastard]
As Brighton Fringe approaches, there is a huge fanfare of voices inviting audiences to attend their events. And attend they do, in their hundreds of thousands. It is a great success story for a multitude of reasons and seems to grow every year. It is now the largest multi-arts festival in England by some margin and, beyond Brighton, the fringe network continues to grow, with many dozens of other fringes up and down the country.
Beneath the success, though, there has seemed to be a glass ceiling above this developing, regional (that is to say, beyond Edinburgh), fringe environment: where is the arts 'business' happening? It may talk big, but is it being taken seriously as a realistic industry showcase? Groups invest heavily to take part, but for what payoff? After all, as Eric Davis's Red Bastard says in his critique of a fringe, "in this 'arts' festival, the only people not getting paid are the 'artists'."
It began with my curiosity, since arriving in my Brighton post, after many years working in Edinburgh and largely taking the business networking element for granted: why Brighton Fringe should be largely passed over as a festival worthy of the attentions of Brighton Festival on its own doorstep, which in the main looks elsewhere to develop new work or artists from the funded sector and has no strategic link with Brighton Fringe.
It also prompted me to look elsewhere too, where I see a fledgling cottage industry of largely unfunded fringes nationwide, some coming and going, always struggling to make ends meet and how relatively few arts industry would attend across the board. If they are being passed by in this way, we need to look more carefully at the point of a fringe festival. Is it not an essential platform for new creation, where artists can experiment and forge careers? If it is not effective in this principal area, then we should find out why and work out ways to improve. There is no point in a fringe if it is not serving those that choose to participate within it. We also need to grow up, be more business-like and give funded and professional arts industry more confidence in what it can do for them.
This was the starting point of creating WINDOW (Brighton Fringe's arts industry showcase event between 2nd-7th May which features 20 Brighton Fringe events, selected by a jury and ready to tour). It is the germ of a process that I hope to see develop further at Brighton Fringe and indeed elsewhere. We should be making much more of our position and the opportunities that we can create for our participants, past, present and future. This year alone we have more than doubled the amount of arts industry professionals registering, not just for WINDOW, but for the festival as a whole and that is a huge development in one year.
Beyond that, we continue closening ties with other festivals. The World Fringe Alliance is a good case in point. This loose network of 9 festivals (comprising Adelaide, Perth, National Arts Festival of South Africa, Prague, Amsterdam, Brighton, Edinburgh, New York and Hollywood) brings with it many opportunities to increase shared understanding and creative exchange. The similarly-named World Fringe Network is also a useful networking organisation which unites the many hundreds of fringes springing up worldwide.
It is all a process of course but the seeds are being sown in Brighton, as they are across the UK, with the help of more knowledge, confidence and better communication. And, in time, those funded organisations will be beating down our doors to have a piece of it. The future is in our hands and, with the inevitable demise of arts funding, for better and worse, the future is Fringe.