Edinburgh Festival Fringe Society CEO defends Baillie Gifford sponsorship

The chief executive of the Edinburgh Festival Fringe Society has robustly defended its sponsorship by Baillie Gifford, after the investment management firm cancelled all of its sponsorship deals with literary festivals across the UK following protests over its links to Israel and fossil fuel companies.

Shona McCarthy said arts festivals were operating in a “fevered environment” in which “everybody has to make their own decisions with the information that they have at hand”. She revealed that the board of the Fringe Society – the charity that underpins the Edinburgh festival fringe – had voted “overwhelmingly” in support of sticking with its partnership with Baillie Gifford after “really detailed discussion”.

Speaking ahead of the festival fringe programme launch on Wednesday morning, McCarthy highlighted the “brokenness” felt by arts organisers: “We’re expected to be all things to all people, be the most values-driven organisations on the planet, alert to everything that’s going on in our geopolitical environment and to keep our teams in jobs, keep solvent and deal with deficits and loans from Covid that we’re all still carrying.”

Last month, a succession of leading book festivals including Hay and Edinburgh announced they were cutting ties with Baillie Gifford after mounting pressure from the campaign group Fossil Free Books (FFB), which has called on the company to divest from the fossil fuel industry and also demanded it stop funding companies linked to Israel, arguing that “solidarity with Palestine and climate justice are inextricably linked”.

The Edinburgh international book festival director Jenny Niven said the decision been taken “with great regret” and due to “intolerable” pressure on her team.

Speaking to the Guardian last month, a spokesperson from Baillie Gifford said that just 2% of its clients’ money is invested in “companies with some business related to fossil fuels”, compared with the market average of 11%. The spokesperson also said that divesting in the way FFB asks is not actually possible, because of regulations all UK asset managers must follow.

McCarthy said the Fringe Society was “enormously grateful” for Baillie Gifford’s support of its year-round community engagement work, which began in 2022, adding that “our board will continue to converse about it”.

As she announced a programme of 3,317 shows with performers from 58 countries and tackling themes from AI to the climate crisis to neurodiversity, McCarthy expressed deep frustration at the mismatch between expectations of the cultural sector and funding to achieve them.

“Expectations continue to grow – particularly for a festival that has a mantra to give anyone a stage and everyone a seat – when we have absolutely no core funding support to do that.”

She added that it was becoming “increasingly hard” to compete for foundation funds or sponsorships “because everybody in the third sector is looking for that kind of support”.

While images of the fringe appear on countless Scottish government strategy documents, said McCarthy, “there is no resource behind that”.

“We’re described as a ‘signature event’ – what would that mean if we were golf, or cricket, or tennis, or football? My guess is it would mean serious investment and infrastructure behind that.”

Deputy chief executive Lyndsey Jackson asked government to consider a “transformational” underwriting of risk for the fringe: “What’s not understood is the level of risk taken on an individual and organisational level by quite small businesses who don’t know if it’s going to pay off every year”.

With accommodation costs a constant pressure on performers, McCarthy said that Queen Margaret University – located just outside Edinburgh – would become “a full festival village” with affordable accommodation and regular transport routes.

Keep it Fringe, an initiative originally funded by the Fleabag star Phoebe Waller-Bridge, the fringe’s honorary president, and this year supported by the UK government, has made 180 awards of £2,500 to help artists overcome the financial barriers to putting on their work.

The Guardian

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