CEO Kath M Mainland first joined EFF as an admin assistant in 1992, she writes for IAM on what makes The Fringe work. The secret to success as a woman in the arts? ‘Work hard, be honest about what you can do, but if you see an opportunity or a gap, then just go ahead and take it.’
I’ve been at the helm of the Fringe Society for six years. In lots of ways it’s a very different job and organisation now than it was back in 2009, but my history with the Fringe and the Fringe Society goes back even further.
My first proper job out of university was at the Fringe Society, where I worked from 1992-96 as an administrative assistant. It’s where I discovered my love of the Fringe and where I learnt the ethos of what’s important about this magnificent festival and extraordinary organisation. At that time I never dreamed I’d be back 13 years later as chief executive.
I’m originally from Orkney and I moved to Glasgow to study. Orkney is a great place to grow up as it is buzzing with amazing music, history, and a vibrant arts scene. Being exposed to this creativity from an early age in Orkney, and then living in Glasgow – a really thriving cultural city – made me realise how much I wanted to work in the arts. I had a job looking after Shetland ponies at a pantomime in Glasgow when an opportunity came up at the Fringe Society. I thought ‘that looks pretty cool’ (which it was) and when I got the job I moved to Edinburgh. From then on, I made my career in this city taking various roles across several of its 12 wonderful festivals.
Back in the early 90s the Fringe Society was a very different place. We only had two old computers that we used to key in the whole of the Fringe programme. The Fringe was much smaller in those days of course, but it was still the largest arts festival in the world. What was really drummed into me during that time, and what I still hold onto now, is that it’s the Fringe participants that make the Fringe happen each year and it’s our job to look after them, give them the best chance of making a success of their trip here, and help them go on to develop their future careers.
I’m really proud of what I’ve achieved and what we’ve achieved as a team. The Fringe Society went through a tricky time in 2008 and so when I took over there was some rebuilding to be done. It was a daunting prospect because we were very stretched for resources. EFF is such a huge festival, and as chief executive I was placed in the public eye, but I just had to get on with it and be confident that I was the right person in the right role at the right time.
I’ve always believed that you recruit people, not skills. If you get the right personalities and the right mix and you support your people, then the rest is pretty straightforward.
My first challenge was to build an almost entirely new team. Creating a team is challenging, but also really exciting. I’ve always believed that you recruit people, not skills. If you get the right personalities and the right mix and you support your people, then the rest is pretty straightforward. We did a lot of work ensuring that we really understood the purpose of the Society and were creating a structure that supported its mission and objectives. Those early lessons about putting the participants at the heart of everything we do stood me in great stead.
As a result we’ve done a lot of work to ensure we’re visible and valuable to EFF participants. We’ve created a participants’ centre, Fringe Central, which is a ‘home’ for participants during August, with coffee, WiFi, sofas, our arts industry and media offices and a whole programme of professional and career development events: all free for Fringe participants.
We mustn’t forget the audience, of course. Our role is also to bring audiences to Edinburgh, so we’ve invested heavily in technology in the last six years for our box office, website, databases and in the development of apps. We want nothing to stand in the way of the audiences finding and enjoying the shows. And we’ve put significant resources into marketing the Fringe in the UK and overseas, I’m proud of our excellent results.
The key to running this organisation is to always remember that we’re not running the Fringe. We are here to support the thousands of participants who at times are risking everything to take part. We need to create and maintain an environment where this remains a valuable place for them to present their work. The open access principle (meaning anyone can stage a show) is very important to us. We’re sure to remember that August at EFF is an intense month for every participant and so it’s our responsibility to treat everyone fairly, equally and with respect.
Since I first discovered the Fringe in 1992 I’ve loved it: it’s a mad, ebullient, crazy, busy, eclectic and inspiring place to work. EFF is an incredibly important festival and I’m genuinely privileged to be contributing to its success and I never cease to be inspired by the people who make EFF happen.
Whilst many amazing women work in the arts (and a great number in the top jobs) on the boards and at the very senior levels, such as artistic directors, it’s still surprisingly male dominated. Those women I encountered early on in my life made me understand that I shouldn’t accept anything less than the best and push to achieve everything I want – I try to encourage women in the same way now.
Luckily, I had a lot of great female role models when I was young woman starting out in the arts. What’s more, my strong mother always instilled in me that I could achieve anything a man could. I’ve always assumed that anything is possible. Whilst many amazing women work in the arts (and a great number in the top jobs) on the boards and at the very senior levels, such as artistic directors, it’s still surprisingly male-dominated. Those women I encountered early on in my life made me understand that I shouldn’t accept anything less than the best and push to achieve everything I want – I try to encourage women in the same way now. I believe a good leader stands behind his or her team when things are going well and in front of them when things are being thrown to the wind.
I like to think I’m pretty straightforward to deal with, I try to keep an open door and I listen in meetings as much as I talk. Everyone’s opinion is valid and valuable, and I work to create an environment where people are comfortable with bringing opinions forward. It’s my job to make the big decisions and so I ensure I’m armed with all the knowledge, facts, and experience of what’s good for the mission of the organisation and the Fringe.
I don’t think I’m particularly ambitious, although others may disagree.
I believe in working hard, being committed, and I do like to be proud of doing a good job. It’s enjoyable to work with like-minded people who take pride in what they do. I think the arts is a great place to develop as a person. It’s a place where you can take on new challenges and my advice to young people starting out is to work hard, be honest about what you can do, but if you see an opportunity or a gap, then just go ahead and take it. At the end of the day, no matter what you’re doing, being able to go home at night knowing you’ve made a difference is a great feeling.