THE OUTGOING director of the Edinburgh International Festival has warned it will need to secure extra levels of public funding over the next decade if it is remain one of the world’s top arts events.
Sir Jonathan Mills – who has had to cope with “standstill” funding for most of his eight-year tenure – declared that the festival needed to be “vigilant” about pressing the case for extra public support.
The Australian arts impresario also warned both the city and country would be making a “mistake” if they thought the festival could remain at the same level with the same funding for the next ten years.
But he cautioned against a major expansion in future years, saying the capital had to get away from the idea that “more is better” when it came to its cultural offering.
Sir Jonathan, who steps down next month, also defended his track record at the helm of the event and rebuffed criticism of the number of productions he has programmed with Scotland’s national performing arts companies such as Scottish Opera and Scottish Ballet.
He said he was handing over the 67-year-old festival in “good shape”, pointing out the event was no longer hampered by any historic debts.
When he took over, it had to raise around £1.5 million to balance its books.
Sir Jonathan, who has overseen a transition process which saw Irishman Fergus Linehan appointed as his replacement almost 18 months before his first festival, pointed out he had less than four months to put his first programme together in 2007.
He told The Scotsman: “I’m pretty sure that we’ve got the transition right. The festival is in good shape now. At the moment, before this festival is even upon us, it is debt-free.”
Sir Jonathan often found himself grabbing the headlines in the early part of his tenure, with warnings that the festival was at risk of suffering “the death of a thousand cuts” and threats to scale back the programme unless it received more backing from its major funders.
Sir Jonathan admitted there was an “urgent need” for better financial support for the event when he took over, including removing its debt and increasing core support to its current level of almost £5m, from Edinburgh City Council, the Scottish Government and Creative Scotland.
He added: “The festival’s funding jumped up at the very beginning of my period and it has been at a standstill since then. I understand that, as we’ve gone through the most extreme financial crisis in a generation, it was a response to very rapidly changing circumstances.
“As those circumstances improve, I’d like to think the festival can make a case for an improvement of that funding on the basis of the public, social and economic benefits of the event. I think there is an obligation on all sides to do that. “We’ve built a real strong relationship of trust, but there needs to be a consistent revisiting of that and a vigilance to it. The conversation needs to be a mature one about what is expected of this festival and what it needs to deliver that result for Scotland. The dialogue is not about what the money is, it’s about what the result is, what is the effect.”
Sir Jonathan said he believed he had struck the right balance in his programmes between showcasing overseas artists and companies, and giving a platform to Scotland’s own flagship performing arts organisations.
He added: “When the festival started in 1947, we had a lot of work to do simply to bridge understanding at the end of the Second World War between European cultures. Now I think those challenges are of a different order and the bridges that we need to be building are beyond Europe, to other parts of the world.
“We actually spend more money on Scottish artists each year than we receive from the Scottish Government and Creative Scotland. We are a net contributor. That is a pretty good statistic.
“It is always a balancing act but I believe that we’ve got that balance right.
“We are very proud of the projects that we’ve developed with these companies in Scotland.
“I prefer to devise big projects that have a life beyond Scotland. I’ve been focusing on larger-scale, longer-to-plan projects rather than lots of little things that vanish. That’s a much better use of the money.”
This year’s Edinburgh International Festival opens tomorrow.