Brian Ferguson: Edinburgh Festival as an international brand

Last year's launch of Thundering Hooves. Picture: Malcolm McCurrach
Last year's launch of Thundering Hooves. Picture: Malcolm McCurrach
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Our clocks may have only just changed, but the countdown begins this week to the centrepiece event of Scotland’s cultural calendar.

As ever in the run-up to the Edinburgh International Festival launch, taking place at the Festival Theatre on Wednesday, I am sworn to secrecy over its contents. But the unveiling of this year’s programme will carry extra significance, as its release heralds the start of a long celebration to mark 70 years of summer festivals in the city.

While the official anniversary year is not until 2017, the 70th editions of the EIF, the Fringe and the Edinburgh International Film Festival will all be held this summer, kick-starting three years of activity, analysis, discussion and debate.

A major push to raise the global standing of these events will undoubtedly be under way by this August, when the Scottish Parliament will also play host to an international cultural summit. Much of the impetus will come from Thundering Hooves 2.0, the second major report setting out recommendations to bolster Edinburgh’s status as an “undisputed world leader as a festival city”.

The idea is to capitalise on the festivals – which already attract more than half a million overnight visitors from outwith Scotland each year – acting as a “truly international brand” for the country.

This was achieved, to some extent, with special programmes developed to coincide with the Olympics and Commonwealth Games, held respectively in 2012 and 2014. But it is clear there is a desire to up Edinburgh’s game overseas in the face of increasing competition, ensure the festivals have more of a role in the international marketing of Scotland and Britain, and deploy them as an “attack brand” for the city.

A key Thundering Hooves recommendation is that the 70th anniversary is used by the festival to “renew their international ambition and purpose.”

The 70th anniversary will undoubtedly reflect on the evolution of the city’s events since 1947, when the EIF was famously instigated to “provide a platform for the flowering of the human spirit” in the aftermath of the Second World War. A significant focus is expected on the modern-day role of the festivals in giving voice to artists and companies from every corner of the world at a time of global uncertainty.

Interestingly, the early agenda for the cultural summit reflects tensions much closer to home. After months of debate over the impact of new developments on Edinburgh’s world heritage site, it is intriguing to see that the early agenda will look at how “our most precious monuments , sites and other environments of outstanding natural beauty are threatened as never before.”

With debate raging over the prospect of a bed tax being introduced in Edinburgh to shore up funding cuts for festivals and events, the summit will look at “appropriate funding models to adopt in an environment of rapidly-shrinking resources.”

It will also tackle arguably the biggest challenge facing the festivals over its 70th anniversary festivities - how to get more of those who live and work in the city involved in them, even if they are in the most deprived communities and regard them as something that is simply not for them. Securing the kind of buy-in that Glasgow managed for the Commonwealth Games is an obvious target to aim for.