New Edinburgh Fringe chief Shona McCarthy urges cuts rethink

Shona McCarthy said Edinburgh is currently a model of best practice on funding for the arts. Picture: Jane Barlow
Shona McCarthy said Edinburgh is currently a model of best practice on funding for the arts. Picture: Jane Barlow
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THE NEW figurehead of the Edinburgh Festival Fringe says she is opposed to a bed tax being used to make up for funding cuts for the city’s flagship events and arts venues.

Shona McCarthy wants a complete rethink over planned cuts and has called for extra investment to instead be made in the city’s festivals for their 70th anniversary in 2017.

The chief executive of the Festival Fringe Society has urged public funders to be “brave and ambitious” over their backing rather than impose annual cuts, which she warned could have a “devastating” long-term impact.

Ms McCarthy, who ran an arts consultancy in Northern Ireland before she was appointed in January, said it would be a mistake for Edinburgh to make cuts to its festivals “from a position of strength”, urging the city not to lose sight of what it had built up over the past 70 years.

She said “chipping away” at the current levels of investment would “go against the grain” of long-standing support for the festivals, which currently generate more than £260 million for the city’s economy.

Edinburgh City Council, which has asked the governments at Westminster and Holyrood for powers to introduce some form of tourism levy, has proposed cuts of 10 per cent to the festivals and arts organisations it supports over the next four years.

Creative Scotland has just had a 3.6 per cent cut from the Scottish Government, but has protected long-term funding for Edinburgh’s festivals.

Ms McCarthy’s warnings echo a recent plea from culture secretary Fiona Hyslop for the city to look at how to “maintain and grow its reputation” its festivals.

Ms McCarthy said: “If a tourist tax is going to replace a requirement or an understanding from your political leadership and your civil servants that they will always need to invest in the festivals I’d find it difficult to support.

“As someone coming in from the outside, I see Edinburgh as a model of incredible best practice. Meeting politicians, bureaucrats and stakeholders, you don’t have to persuade them of the importance of culture. That’s an amazing thing.

“You don’t want to lose a sense of what you have here. The fact is the festivals will always need, not publicly subsidy or grants, but investment for which this city gets a ginormous return.

“Whenever you’re being threatened with cuts or a drawback from a position of strength, which Edinburgh clearly has globally, is the time to be brave and ambitious. You’ll get an even greater return.

“I would urge serious thought and caution. Once you start, in a very significant way, to chip away at your big cultural output it is really hard to get it back again. It can be devastating. The idea of just going in and starting to cut goes against the grain of the massive return that you get from the arts in this city.”

Ms McCarthy stance on the tourist tax puts her at odds with not only the council, but leading venues like the Queen’s Hall, the Traverse Theatre, the National Museum of Scotland and the Festival Theatre, who threw their weight behind the idea earlier this year because of the prospect of suffering “significant” funding cuts after years of “standstill” support.

However bodies like the Scottish Tourism Alliance and the Edinburgh Tourism Action Group are fiercely opposed to the idea of Edinburgh becoming the first UK city to impose such a charge.

The Scottish Government has rebuffed previous efforts to introduce any form of visitor levy in Edinburgh. In March, tourism minister Fergus Ewing said the prospect of a tourist tax was one of several “fiscal midges” facing the industry, along with VAT rates and air passenger duty, which are already among the highest in Europe.

Ms McCarthy said: “You can see how it has worked in other cities, but I’ve not yet heard how the money raised would be spent in Edinburgh.

“You can’t possibly weigh in and say you’d be supportive of it until you actually had some sense or articulation of how the money would be ringfenced.

“If you are going to look at a tourism levy in Edinburgh there needs to be an imaginative look at how you would use the resources raised from that to reinvest into the cultural infrastructure in the city.

“If it is to be a mechanism for replacing core funding and a public requirement to support the arts then I don’t think it’s a solution.”

Ms McCarthy, who spearheaded the reign of Derry-Londonderry as the inaugural UK City of Culture, has replaced Kath Mainland as chief executive of the Fringe, which now sells almost 2.3 million tickets compared to 1.5 million a decade ago.

Ms McCarthy, who has spent 25 years working in the cultural sector in Northern Ireland, said the Fringe job was the only one she would have considered uprooting herself for.

She said she was relishing the challenge of the Fringe asking “tough questions” of itself in the run-up to its 70th anniversary - including whether it was truly an “open access” event for audiences and performers, and over its relationship to the city and the rest of the country.

Ms McCarthy said: “I wasn’t looking for a new job when this came up. My consultancy work had taken my all over the world, to places like Jordan, Hong Kong and Indonesia, and I was doing two big pieces of work at home - a cultural strategy for the Causeway Coast and Glens and an international arts strategy for Belfast.

“I then got three different emails from people all saying: ‘Have you seen this?’

“You think you’ve got your life all set out in front of you for the next five or 10 years. If it had been anything else other than the Fringe I wouldn’t have been interested.

“It really appealed to me because of the whole open access principle, which is kind of fundamental to the Fringe.

We want to use the 70th anniversary to unapologetically interrogate that founding principle upon which the Fringe was built. How open is it? Who is it accessible to?

“Everything goes back to that open access principle. There are tough questions about whether the Fringe still has the artist or the performer as the starting point and how open access the Fringe it is in terms of the opportunity, the costs and accommodation.

“Are the artist, the performer and the creative still at the heart of what the Fringe is about? I don’t have the answer to that yet, but it is a really important question.

“At a time when the world is in a kind of strange place, we have this incredible open access festival in Edinburgh, the starting point of which was a post-war unifying force.

“Is this a moment for the Fringe to look at which countries are participating and which countries are not? If they are not, is it because there are particular barriers? Are there maybe performers and participants out there that have something really interesting to say?

“If I’m going to bring anything to Edinburgh it’s going to be about going back to the first principles of why this thing was set up in the first place.”

Ms McCarthy has taken the helm at the Fringe less than a year after a major study into the long-term future of Edinburgh’s festivals recommended they do a lot more to ensure they involved people around the city.

The Thundering Hooves report stated: “Edinburgh’s populace feels great pride in the festivals but this does not necessarily equate to engagement.

“Many of those expressing pride participate in any number of ways; but many, particularly those in the most deprived areas, do not. The gaps between pride, engagement and participation need to be closed.”

Ms McCarthy said: “My starting point was running festivals, but I went from that to running city-wide initiatives. I suppose I bring both those perspectives.

“I am a passionate believer that the arts have the power to connect people, lift them out of their boxes, ask hard questions and create different conversations.

“I’ve been really interested in seeing how major cultural initiatives can positively transform the life of a citizen in a city.

“In Derry, one of the guiding concepts of the city of culture project was ‘edge to centre.’ We wanted to start that whole process from the perspective of the people on the edge of the city, rather than start with the cultural institutions and work outwards. I watched as an entire city participated in something. It was amazing and powerful.”