Fringe Festival makes us spoilt for arts choices

First published Saturday 30 May 2015 in The Argus

Which Festival is “The” Festival? Or does it not really matter any more?

I am a nerd. There is nothing I enjoy more than crunching figures and looking at statistics. Every morning I pore over Brighton Fringe box office data and forecasts. And, as the month draws to a close, the initial results make compelling reading, even for those who do not share my passion.

This year, Brighton Fringe should see an increase of 25% in attendances since 2014. Indeed, the opening weekend alone saw growth of over 50% on the previous year. Further research shows that Fringe audiences are up by 90% since 2011, which is absolutely staggering. What pleases me even more is that over the same period, the number of shows and performances has only grown by 15%, meaning average audiences are up by 75% per performance. Ticket prices too remain low: this year, our average is still around £8.80, a full 19p lower than it was five years ago. There were also 182 free events and 560 that were under £10. There have been 286 events by local artists and groups – over one third of the programme and also 57 international acts from 22 countries. There is a lot more crunching yet to do but this is a great start.
So, England’s largest arts festival is in good shape? Certainly it seems that over the past five years we have been much bolder in our assertions and clearer with our ambitions. Brighton Fringe is an open access arts festival so anyone can take part and as such caters for a uniquely diverse cross-section of both artists and audiences. We are also much more visible than ever before, with the pop-up box offices on New Road and North Street, the new Warren by St Peter’s Church and, of course, the hugely popular Brighton Spiegeltent, which returns for a third year in the Fringe. There were record attendances at our Fringe City and Family Picnic events on New Road, Pavilion Gardens and Jubilee Square. We also had more outdoor branding in the city centre and a ticket collection point at Doddle in Brighton Station. Finally, we are running our own awards ceremony for the first time too, bringing together a wonderful group of local and national organisations to offer a range of gongs to suit our great festival.

Tuesday’s Argus proudly announced on its front cover that “The” Festival had ended on Sunday with great flourish on Brighton beach. Approaching its 50th year, Brighton Festival is an annual event of which the city should be rightly proud. However, Brighton Fringe is much larger, more visible and continues on until the end of the month and one that is arguably taking over the “The Festival” moniker among the wider public. Indeed, with the Artists Open Houses, Great Escape and House festivals, there are a further three added to the mix. Edinburgh has had this issue for many years already. When people refer to the Edinburgh Festival, they could be referring to any one of up to seven different festivals all happening in the month of August.

For the city, it’s a great position to be in. We are spoilt for choice in terms of what to see and Brighton in the month of May is truly the place to be for anyone with an interest in the arts. To be perfectly honest, from a public perspective, they shouldn’t be too bothered which festival they are attending, more that they are able to experience great art, whatever the form.

In the meantime, Brighton Fringe continues to break records but the success masks an inherent fragility in the whole Fringe arrangement that could topple at any time. We receive minimal funding, so are reliant on ever-transient commercial partnerships, which come in or drop out with little notice, making forward planning very difficult. Any of the venues or producers could also themselves face a difficult year and choose not to return from one year to the next, which has an immediate impact on the festival as a whole. You won’t know what you’ve got until it’s gone.

So, what’s to be done to ensure a secure future for Brighton Fringe? I would say a combination of further engagement from the public, subject to us continuing to give them what they want, and a greater priority being given by public funding bodies to the Fringe, acknowledging its role in championing the arts within our society. My job is far from done, but I will continue working on it.

Julian Caddy is managing director of Brighton Fringe