Minnesota Fringe Festival: it’s not curated for a reason

Editor’s note: this past weekend the Star Tribune published a piece suggesting its time for the Minnesota Fringe Festival to start curating its work… or at least some of it. The festival, now entering its 20th year, has long prided itself on being open to everyone, regardless of pedigree. I contacted Fringe Director Robin Gillette for her take on the idea; here’s her response:

RobinGillette1.jpgI’m just back from a trip to the original fringe – Edinburgh Festival Fringe, offering over 2,700 different shows in hundreds of venues across the city. My colleague Jeff Larson and I went out to see the festival and to take part in the inaugural World Fringe Congress- a gathering of 50 fringes from across the world to exchange experiences and build bridges.

We learned so much about the different operating models of fringes across the world. Some fringe festivals are curated while others are unjuried; some are open-access, meaning that absolutely everyone who wants to present a show can do so, while others, like Minnesota Fringe, have a cap on the number of participants. There’s also great variety in the styles of work that’s presented, the experience and professional aspirations of the participants, and the producing and/or educational support offered by the festival. For me, the takeaway is that every festival is a unique reflection of its culture, local arts scene, audience base, funding sources, geography (which determines venue proximity) and more, and there’s no one right “Fringe” way to do it.

Curation is one of the most interesting areas of discussion, and especially relevant in light of the recent Star Tribune article. Festivals choose to curate to serve a number of different goals – to ensure a high-quality program of established artists; to highlight new work or emerging artists that wouldn’t otherwise come to the attention of local audiences; to adhere to a particular theme or highlight a specific genre; to ensure a diversity of shows, i.e. a balance of local and national acts, or a certain number of kids shows; or, as is the case with FringeNYC in New York, to keep performance slots for Fringe-level artists rather than giving them over to become inexpensive commercial try-outs for professional producers. Even though the Edinburgh Fringe itself is open-access, some of the largest Fringe venues there are heavily curated.

Others, like Minnesota Fringe, have chosen not to curate because it reduces a barrier to performance opportunities for all. Our lottery system means that the longtime Fringe favorite has the same odds of getting in as a person who’s never done a show before but has always wanted to try; furthermore, once those two companies come into the festival, they both have access to the same level of support – each company gets the same allocation of performance times, they play in the same venues and get equal space in our program and on our website. We’re the only place in the region that offers equal access to fully-staged productions like this, and we’re mighty proud of that. Being uncurated is a huge part of what this Fringe is, and I don’t see that changing anytime soon. But I don’t want to cast aspersions on festivals that choose another method of operation.

One notable difference between most U.S. fringes and their international counterparts is that most non-U.S. fringe festivals are presented alongside a more formal curated festival. The original fringe in Edinburgh started in this way in 1947 – a group of performers excluded from the Edinburgh Festival decided to set up their own festival on the “fringe” of the main event. Now, festivals run in tandem like this throughout the world, which naturally creates a counterpoint between the established artists on the mainstage and the emerging, more experimental shows on the fringe.

Minnesota Fringe is planning a public meeting later this fall to report back on what we learned at the World Fringe Congress. Stay tuned for all sorts of fascinating information, including discussions on how what we learned might get incorporated into our own operations.