Driven by ticket sales and audience engagement, has the point of artistic festivals been entirely forgotten?

The 2014 Sydney Fringe Festival kicks off in almost a week’s time, marking the much anticipated start of spring, and fittingly, seems itself to be blooming anew itself since the appointment of Venue 505’s Kerri Glasscock to the role of festival director. A media statement on the choice of Ms Glasscock for the role explained the intent to “refresh and refocus” as well as to “partner with some of the most innovative arts organisations in Sydney to further expand our reach and audiences”. As the Sydney Fringe Festival evolves with the evident objective of expansion to a broader countercultural coterie, some shedding of previous skins must inevitably occur, replete with its own set of advantages as well as disadvantages.

The Sydney Fringe Festival under Ms Glassock has undeniably refined its image, most noticeably in its online presence: the sleek new website makes the task of navigating the staggering number of events much easier, but may also detract from the festival’s ideological core of being ‘underground’. On the one hand, patrons are now able to meticulously plan their attendance and book tickets well in advance, but this efficiency in access and attendance may run adverse to the roots of the festival that had previously celebrated the fact that Sydney-siders could participate by simply stumbling upon local happenings on the ‘fringe’ of the city. Refinement is a key directive of the festival, yet interestingly, Ms Glasscock’s direction has seen the inclusion of much more undiscovered art, design and, unsurprisingly, jazz to the program, which in previous years had placed a larger focus on theatre and performance.

Further on the subject of ‘refining’ its image, the festival has foregone the ‘begging to be ignored’ bus posters of previous years for a more dogged social media campaign, and instead retained a sense of community by focusing on the distribution of program guides to local cafes and venues in the pockets of Sydney where the festival will spill out to. This shift in the vision and execution of the festival, which has placed a greater emphasis on exposure, will by no means harm the experience of chance participation, but as the focus on bringing larger audiences to the festival undoubtedly plays a larger role, one can’t help but ask whether the festival is still a ‘fringe’ event, and more interestingly, if it intends to stay that way.

To wit, the festival seems to have ‘moved away’ (if one could allow that pun) entirely from the idea of being a geographically fringe event with the notable absence of programming outside of the inner west and city of Sydney. This is perhaps one of the old skins shed in lieu of the festival’s newly refined direction, since the previous incarnations of the festival seemed to place an emphasis on introducing areas of Sydney that aren’t popularly recognised as artistic or just simply aren’t known very well, to the traditionally less surburban, and younger artistic crowds of the inner city.

Parramatta is a notable exception to this year’s program, which may seem an interesting exclusion given that the suburb has been slowly warranting the attention of cultural programmers, such as Sydney Festival and Art Month Sydney, with its burgeoning café scene and gallery spaces. Instead, the Sydney Fringe Festival has opted for a precinct model that many festivals are now opting for, with other programs such as Sydney Design 2014 introducing area guides to help audiences navigate the sprawling locations of specific events.

While the precinct model is an interesting way to integrate the city and a convenient means of structuring one’s approach to a cross-city, multi-disciplinary program, it is becoming slightly tedious to see the same suburbs pop up time and time again, as if art and culture were exclusive to a select number of areas, and entirely absent in others.

The Fringe Festival has five districts listed including Sydney staples such as Surry Hills, Woolloomooloo, Glebe, Newtown, Leichhardt and Redfern, all of which feature heavily in the programs of Art and About, Art Month Sydney, Sydney Design and Sydney Festival, among others. There is no doubt that there is a strong community of art and community engagement in these neighbourhoods, but one would consider that a festival operating under the label of ‘fringe’ would exist in order fill the gap left by its more mainstream counterparts, which actively cater to a distinctly young, cosmopolitan, inner city audience.

This audience is by all means a large and diverse group that are voracious in the search for engaging new ventures and programs, and eager supporters, but there still remains a large portion of the city’s population who are perhaps seemingly absent in the cultural life of the city, simply because the programming as of yet has catered to the a very specific audience, both geographically and in cultural interests.

The 2014 Sydney Fringe Festival represents merely one example of programming that, in order to grow and expand participation, tends instead to mirror an existing festival formula that has proven to be successful, rather than venture out to woo a new audience, and establish that audience over time.

The cultural events on Sydney’s calendar are certainly not sparse, and while the proliferation of festivals and events speak to a great audience appetite for art married with the creative drive to satisfy this demand, the question of financial sustainability is an often unseen reality for emerging programs seeking to establish themselves amidst a taut events calendar.

The Sydney Fringe Festival’s new outlook, as well as a reimagining of other programs in Sydney such as Sydney Design 2014, together begs the broader question of whether an economic imperative is beginning to restrict creative license in event planning, such that festival directors are hesitant to push the envelope on where and how they structure their events. It seems crucial in light of many exciting new ventures to bring attention to this slippery slope, where daring programming and unique creative visions may become clouded by the very real task of selling tickets and making money; the challenge here then is to balance the two, and perhaps resist the temptation to cater to a strong existing market, when the opportunity to develop a new, untapped audience over time, seems to be a more exciting contribution to our city’s creative culture.