Vancouver Fringe Fest says future unclear due to inflation costs

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The Vancouver Fringe Festival is celebrating its 40th anniversary not with a triumphant bow but with a plea for more cash.

The festival, a staple of Vancouver’s performing arts calendar since 1985, says inflationary pressures are hurting its bottom line, hiking the prices of labour, venues and equipment.

The organization has launched an appeal for the public to chip in $80,000 and keep the event afloat but executive director Duncan Watts-Grant said they’ve already cut back the 2024 edition by about a third.

“But we’re uncertain what happens after that,” Watts-Grant said. 

“We just don’t know. If we don’t get this kind of [financial] support, I’m not sure what the scale of the festival we would be able to produce would be, or that we’d be able to consistently produce a festival.

“I’m reasonably worried about what the future for the Fringe or for our sector looks like.”

The 2023 Vancouver Fringe Festival saw over 85 artists — many of them emerging artists or presenting unconventional works — in a variety of performance disciplines take its stages.

The festival is “uncurated,” like other fringe festivals: artists are chosen by a lottery “to reduce gatekeeping, improve equity, and create space for independent artists who don’t have performance opportunities elsewhere,” the organization explains.

And like other fringe festivals, the event returns all box office profits to the artists themselves — but those profits have shrunk due to inflation.

Amy Blackmore, president of the Canadian Association of Fringe Festivals and artistic and executive director of the Montreal Fringe, says it’s a situation playing out in the several dozen fringe events across Canada.

“There are a variety of reasons for it, but I will say the post-pandemic world that we’re living in, rising costs, our own commitments to paying our people better, the amount of funding that we’re receiving from the government isn’t enough,” Blackmore said.

“And so you’re going to start to see these rally calls to our communities reaching out to ask them to contribute to your local festivals, essentially.”

Watts-Grant said while audience numbers have returned to almost pre-pandemic levels, pandemic-era funding from governments have ended and costs have increased.

He said he’s been in discussions with various levels of government to secure more funding.

The City of Vancouver, in a statement, says it has helped with funding the event since 2011 and it has received supplemental grants over the years. A 2024 grant recommendation will be before council in April.

In a statement, the Ministry of Tourism, Arts, Culture and Sport says the past three years have been incredibly challenging for performers and organizers of fairs, festivals and other community events. 

It says the province has committed nearly half a billion dollars since 2021 to support a variety of programs in the tourism sector, including $60 million for fairs and festivals in B.C. communities. 

“In 2023 the Vancouver Fringe Festival received $104,600 in funding,” said the ministry, adding the festival has also received funding in the past from the B.C. Arts Council and community gaming grants.

“The province recognizes the important role the Vancouver Fringe Festival plays in the arts and culture sector, providing a vibrant and inclusive space for artists to showcase their work.”

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