When did the arts get so popular?

The original spirit of the Adelaide Fringe continues to this day writes the festival’s Director and Chief Executive, Greg Clarke.


For years a friend of mine tried to get her 22-year-old ‘tradie’ son to go see theatre and enjoy it, to embrace it like she has done her whole life. He’d rather surf, play footy, watch TV, go out drinking with his mates or do anything but go and pay a lot of money to see something he struggles to understand and doesn’t really enjoy. But over the last couple of years something strange has happened, come February and March he’s out nearly every night having the time of his life, seeing weird ‘arty stuff’ in tents in the Parklands or in pop-up performance spaces in old unused buildings. When the Adelaide Fringe hits town he can’t get enough of seeing art. When did the Fringe suddenly get so cool or has it always been that way? 

The answer to that is very simple, it’s always been cool. It started in 1960 by a group of very with-it young artists as an alternative to the new Adelaide Festival of the Arts, which offered very few opportunities for local artists. They decided to make it an open access festival in that anyone could participate. How democratic yet socialist is that? ‘Bugger’ the mainstream - we make art and we want it to be seen. 

By 1964 there were 52 art exhibitions and performances that made up the Fringe. There was a name change in 1975 to Fringe Focus and by 1982 the program listed 86 performing arts groups in more than 50 venues with 56 visual arts exhibitions. The 2013 Adelaide Fringe will feature 930 events including 114 cabaret shows, 32 circus and physical theatre shows, 107 theatre productions, 254 comedy events, 25 dance shows, seven film events, 197 music concerts and 105 art exhibitions.

The Fringe has certainly come a long way since those early days and it is now an event that has dramatic social, cultural and economic benefits to not only Adelaide and South Australia but also nationally. In 2012 the economic impact of the Adelaide Fringe was a huge $48.2 million, so to say the Fringe is important to the state is a huge understatement.

But the truly great thing is that the original open access spirit of that very first Fringe continues to this day. Nothing has changed; anyone can be in the Fringe. It encourages everyone to have a go. It lets artists be entrepreneurs, not only by creating their own work but by producing it as well. Very few rely on government grants, instead they risk their own money to put on a show that they have created for us to come and enjoy. Then there’s another great bunch of entrepreneurs who create unique Fringe venues, wonderful, almost magical spaces, which then get filled with lots of these extraordinary artists.

But it is these thousands of artists from all over the world that come here to entertain us, excite us, move us and enable us to see things we have never seen or heard before that are at the very heart of the Fringe. It is through their imagination, passion, ideas and talent that the Fringe continues to go from strength to strength. They expose us to fascinating new experiences and stimulating ideas. 

As the Director, I constantly get asked what I’ve chosen for the next Fringe. With over 900 events there is no way I could program that many shows. The Fringe team does a lot of encouraging and facilitating, but at the end of the day it’s the artists who decide to come here and show their work. Much of their work is only an hour long and the majority of shows are still around $20. It’s accessible, affordable and everyone is getting in on the action.

I recently spoke at the Peace Foundation dinner to over 300 people and asked how many people in the room had participated in the Fringe. This was not just going to the Fringe to see a show but how many had exhibited, performed or worked at the Fringe. This could have gone horribly wrong but over half the audience put up their hand. At another event I asked the audience how many people had been to a Fringe show and the entire audience put up their hand. 

As the Fringe has been going for over 50 years there are now three generations of South Australians who have been going to, or performing in, the Fringe and they just keep on coming. This is a festival that is engrained into Adelaide’s way of life and South Australia’s. At the 2012 Fringe over 300,000 tickets were sold. That’s a lot of tickets for any festival to sell, in fact that’s a lot of tickets for anyone to sell over12 months. Add on another million attendances at free Fringe events and that’s a ‘hell of a lot’ of South Australians getting a good dose of the arts.

The definition of a festival is an event, usually staged by a local community, which centres on the celebration of some unique aspect of that community. In the Fringe Festival’s case that aspect is creativity and the making of art by the people. And like any good festival it also involves feasting, drinking, celebrating, pleasure, sex, laughing together, indulging, partying, learning, a sense of belonging, sharing stories and maybe even finding a mate. No wonder my friend’s ‘tradie’ son can’t get enough of art over that special four weeks at the end of summer when our very own Fringe Festival, that we all helped create, takes over our city.  

Greg Clarke is the Director and Chief Executive of the Adelaide Fringe



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