Linehan: Edinburgh festival risks inferiority

Edinburgh International Festival director Fergus Linehan. Picture: Lisa Ferguson

Edinburgh International Festival director Fergus Linehan. Picture: Lisa Ferguson

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THE MAN in charge of Scotland’s flagship cultural event is warning it faces a “death by a thousand cuts” if it is left on standstill funding.

Fergus Linehan, who took charge of the Edinburgh International Festival in September, has described its future prospect as “alarming” because it has effectively had an annual cut for the last eight years.

He said the city and the whole country was facing a choice as to whether it wanted to have “a festival that operates at the highest level or not.”

Mr Linehan, a former director of the Sydney Festival and the Dublin Theatre Festival, said there was a real danger that the festival would not be able to deliver an event in future years “at the level of quality and reputation that Edinburgh has built itself on.”

And he warned that there was a risk of the entire Edinburgh Festival slipping “down a division” unless the long-term funding situation over his event was addressed.

Mr Linehan revealed that talks were underway with the festival’s main public backers - Edinburgh City Council, the Scottish Government and Creative Scotland - to address his concerns over the next few years, adding that he was optimistic that “common sense will prevail.”

Mr Linehan was speaking to The Scotsman as he unveiled his debut programme of classical music concerts and recitals. Highlights of the Usher Hall season - which Mr Linehan describes as being “as good as anything else in the world” - include appearances by the San Francisco Symphony, the Oslo Philharmonic Orchestra and the Budapest Festival Orchestra. German violin sensation Anne-Sophie Mutter, flamboyant Chinese pianist Lang Lang and Russian conductor Vasily Petrenko will all make their EIF debuts this August.

Violinist Nicola Benedetti, composer James MacMillan, percussionist Colin Currie, the RSNO, the Scottish Chamber Orchestra and Scottish Opera make up a strong Scottish element in the programme.

However Mr Linehan’s concerns focus on the core public funding of the festival, which has remained at £4.7 million for the last seven years.

Mr Linehan told The Scotsman: “The big question is ‘what is the trajectory here?’ In any given year, you can duck and dive and scrape. The larger question is whether there is a death by a thousand cuts in the long run.

“It’s not that we are shouting and roaring about what happens in 2015 and 2016. But the question is what was the festival’s level of funding in 2008 and what will the festival’s level of funding be in 2017?

“When you look at those figures it starts to get alarming, because standstill (funding) is a cut. Roughly speaking, we’re on the same funding as we were in 2008. The question is what does that mean and, more strategically, what are we doing?

“There is a large question for Edinburgh generally, which is: ‘do we want to have a festival that operates at the highest level or not?’ Because that is a choice.

“There are other festivals in the UK, like Bath and Brighton, and many throughout the world that operate at a different level.

“But Edinburgh has always made the claim to the world that you can come here and see someone upstairs in a pub doing their one-person show for the first time or see the greatest artists in the world being given the capacity to perform at the highest level. That is the spectrum.

“We have to be careful about that boast if the long-term trajectory is to slip ourselves down a division. The worst thing you can do is to say you are one thing and not be it. There’s no doubt that we still are and we do deliver, the whole festival season is still extraordinarily compelling. It doesn’t stagger from the crises that it used to. It is run well and delivers what it says it will deliver.”

Mr Linehan’s concerns echo those of Australian impresario Jonathan Mills who bemoaned the festival’s funding prospects shortly after taking over and discovering that a £1.5 million debt had been built up over the previous three years.

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The bulk of the EIF’s annual subsidy comes from the city council and Creative Scotland, with the Scottish Government providing direct funding for one major production each year. The national arts agency recently turned down a bid from Mr Linehan’s team for an additional £1.73 million over the next three years, while the festival may be hit with reduced funding cut by the council under a wide-ranging programme of budget cuts.

He said: “Those levels of funding are the foundation on which everything else is built. If you’re talking about ticket sales, donors and sponsors, all of those are built upon the foundation of that public support. If you begin to undermine that you then begin to undermine the other forms of income as well. We have to be very, very careful with it.

“The festival has and will continue to deal with a difficult year or a difficult couple of years. But I think it is really important that there is a fundamental belief that Edinburgh wants to deliver at the highest level, that that is our promise to the world and that we deliver on our promise.

“In 2006 going into 2007 there were real some financial difficulties with the festival. There was a coming together and an understanding that this (event) needed to be supported at a certain level if we were to deliver what we were promising and that in return there wouldn’t be any gnashing of teeth and recorded deficits.

“It was a case of getting it onto a level at which it could just be professionally delivered each year. The festival’s funding has remained at that level, but it hasn’t really, as it’s been slipping away because inflation has been eating away at it.

“We have to be very, very careful that we don’t, over time, slip into things that no-one really wants or intends. The danger is that we can’t deliver at the level of quality and reputation that Edinburgh has built itself on.

“I’m not saying that will happen. I optimistically think that common sense will prevail because we have something amazing here.

“What we’re really talking about here is the long-time foundation support between the city, the government and Creative Scotland.

“The concerns I’m outlining are concerns that are shared by all our stakeholders. No-one wants this scenario to happen. We’re in the middle of a discussion to figure out how we’re going to address this in the next five years.

“Governments come over here every single year and ask how to replicate this in their city. I don’t know if you can because it’s grown up in such a particular way. As a young man coming here to bring a company to perform on the Fringe, it was the whole thing that made it worth my while. That’s what makes the Edinburgh Festival extraordinary.”

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