The Chair of the Edinburgh Festival Fringe Society, Elizabeth Smith, has announced she is standing down after seventeen years in the role, concluding – probably rightly – that now is the time for some “fresh thinking” at the head of the organisation’s board, she having overseen radical changes at the Society, especially in the last five years.
The Fringe Society represents and provides services to the wide-ranging and rather diverse ‘fringe community’, the collective of independent performers, producers and venue managers who make the world’s largest cultural festival happen each August. It publishes the central programme and website, operates the central box office, offers advice to performers where it’s needed, and speaks to the city at large. As the Fringe has expanded rapidly over the last two decades, so the Society has grown and evolved, Smith leaving a very different organisation than the one she first became involved with in 1995.
The most tricky time for Smith as Chair of the Society’s board came in 2008 of course, when various failings within the organisation – many arguably the result of internal cultural problems that had begun years earlier – caused the official Fringe box office to collapse, causing chaos for venues, promoters, performers, reviewers and ticket-buyers alike. While staff members coped with the practical side of the crisis, the Society’s stakeholders looked to Smith and her board for strong leadership, and some of those most affected were very disappointed with the response, which exasperated wounds in the wider fringe community that have taken a long time to heal.
That said, Smith did then oversee a radical overhaul of the Society, including the creation of a new management structure and constitution, which has, in the main, made the organisation much stronger, even if certain decisions, whether made by board or management, do annoy certain constituents from time to time (as they inevitably will with such a diverse constituency).
But arguably many of the issues of old, that blew up in 2008, are in the main resolved, meaning new challenges are now ahead – not least the feeling that the number of Fringe shows is exceeding audience demand, and that the Fringe Community might need some rallying after a quieter-than-usual year. Whether these are matters for board or management, or even the Society at all, is debatable, but either way, now probably is the right time for a new figurehead at the top.
Smith confirmed she was stepping down at the Fringe Society’s AGM earlier today, subsequently telling reporters: “I have decided that it is time for some fresh thinking and for someone new to lead the board into the future. For me, serving the Fringe Society has been more fascinating and enthralling than I ever could have imagined when I joined the Board. If I have learnt anything over that time it is that the enduring strength of the Edinburgh Festival Fringe is in people coming together and collaborating to create something truly unique and far, far greater than the sum of its parts”.
Meanwhile Society CEO Kath Mainland told ThreeWeeks: “Elizabeth has been a fantastic Chair of the Fringe Society. During her time as Chair, the Fringe has cemented its position as the most successful arts event of its kind in the world. The internationalism of the Edinburgh Festival Fringe seems to speak to Elizabeth’s own outward-looking nature and as Chair she has helped to ensure that the Fringe has grown without ever losing its vitality and bite. Elizabeth is a sane, shrewd and influential voice in politics, arts and public life in general”.
And the Society’s Vice-Chair Pip Utton added: “During Elizabeth’s time on the board, the Fringe Society has undergone one of the most important transformations in its history, with the Constitutional Review resulting in an entirely new constitution to ensure that the Society is best serving the participants, venues, audiences and other stakeholders who come to Edinburgh for this unique festival. I would like to thank her for her oversight and leadership during this process, and pay tribute for the way she has worked so hard for the good of the Fringe”.