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Edmonton Fringe Fest seeking donations as finances falter

Organizers of the Edmonton Fringe are considering scaling back outdoor programming, which is offered for free to attendees. (Adrienne Lamb/CBC - image credit)
Organizers of the Edmonton Fringe are considering scaling back outdoor programming, which is offered for free to attendees. (Adrienne Lamb/CBC - image credit)

The Edmonton International Fringe Theatre Festival is asking for donations as it considers scaling back due to financial constraints.

Executive director Megan Dart announced the launch of the Sustain Fringe fundraising effort at a news conference Monday.

The Edmonton Fringe is one in a growing list of arts festivals across Canada struggling to keep up with rising expenses.

Municipal and provincial funding has not increased since before the pandemic, and there has been a reduction in funding available from a federal grant program, Dart said.

The festival is now turning to Edmontonians for help "so we may continue to serve artists, uplift community and drive local economy," she said.

"If every Fringe fan gave just $5 a month, every month, Fringe theatre would become immediately sustainable."

The festival is also looking to businesses for more sponsorships.

The local festival, which has run for more than four decades, is not alone in its financial difficulties.

Last summer, the executive director of the Toronto Fringe Festival said organizers were struggling with an operating deficit and the festival's future was uncertain. The Toronto Hot Docs Festival recently floated the possibility this year could be its last.

Last week, the Vancouver Fringe Festival launched a similar donation drive with a goal of $80,000.

"The arts industry is facing a crisis," Dart said. "Based on industry insights, what was previously believed to be a three- to five-year recovery window in the arts is now being estimated at a 10-year post-pandemic rebuild."

Dart was unable to provide an exact dollar amount for the "sizeable" shortfall, saying the situation remains fluid.

The festival is considering scaling back its outdoor site — possibly reducing festival operations by about one-third, similarly to Fringe events in Vancouver and Toronto.

"The truth is, things have changed and they have changed across the board," Dart said. "And so, while we are certainly considering opportunities to diversify revenue and come back smarter and stronger, we'd need support to get there."

Scaling back programming would have its own revenue implications, and impact planning for future festivals, Dart said. The blow of cancelling the 2020 festival — an estimated $3 million revenue loss — is still being felt.

Dart said increasing the service fee for each purchase is being considered. What's not on the table is taking a cut from ticket sales — a key tenet of the Fringe model is that 100 per cent of the ticket price goes to artists.

The Edmonton Fringe covers the cost of venue rental and two venue technicians for around 100 performances selected through a lottery system.

The fundraising campaign is planned to continue through the spring and summer months.

Plan to meet: province

City spokesperson Karen McDonnell said the Edmonton Fringe had not reached out ot the city or the Edmonton Arts Council for additional funding but had informed the council of the intent to launch the campaign.

The council uses peer review committees to determine grants, providing the festival with $385K in 2019, $400K in 2020 and 2021, and then $428K in each year for 2022-24. The festival is also eligible for additional subsidies from the City of Edmonton.

"Funding for the Edmonton Arts Council is approved by city council during the four-year operating budget cycle," McDonnell said in an email. "During the 2023–2026 operating budget, the Edmonton Arts Council funding was not increased."

Garrett Koehler, press secretary for the Ministry of Arts, Culture and Status of Women, said in a statement the provincial government was not aware of the financial issues facing the Edmonton Fringe.

"Obviously we would like to hear more about their needs and we plan to set up a meeting in the coming weeks."

He said the province has provided the festival with over $2.5 million since 2019 through the Alberta Foundation for the Arts and Community grant programs.

Koehler said the 2024 provincial budget, if passed, would provide an additional $27 million over the next three years — via the arts foundation — that would go to artists and cultural organizations like the Edmonton Fringe.

Federal funding

This month the federal government eliminated an $8 million top-up to the Canada Arts Presentation Fund, which started giving cash to performance organizations after it was unveiled in the 2019 federal budget.

Though the government said back then that the fund top-up was a time-limited measure, Ottawa renewed the funding in 2020 and again in 2021.

For the Edmonton Fringe, its funding from that stream was reduced by about 20 per cent, Dart said.

"The entertainment sector was impacted deeply by COVID-19 and our government has been steadfast in its support during this extended recovery period," Ariane Joazard-Bélizaire, a spokesperson for the office of the Minister of Canadian Heritage, said in a statement Monday.

"We remain committed to supporting the performing arts. We are monitoring the situation closely and will work with them to ensure they can access other support programs they may be eligible for."

This year's Edmonton Fringe Fest runs Aug. 15-25 in and around Old Strathcona