New EIF director says festival must stay relevant

Mahler's Symphony No 6 by Rotterdam Philharmonic Orchestra at last year's Edinburgh International Festival. ''Picture: Hans van der Woerd
Mahler's Symphony No 6 by Rotterdam Philharmonic Orchestra at last year's Edinburgh International Festival. ''Picture: Hans van der Woerd
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THE new director of the Edinburgh International Festival has warned that the event cannot afford to rest on its laurels.

Fergus Linehan, who took charge of Scotland’s flagship arts event at the beginning of October, told councillors in the capital that it was regarded as the “gold standard” by cities around the world.

But he said the city had to be careful not to allow the event to become “old fashioned” and said he was more concerned about its future than its past.

He said the event’s future was “absolutely dependant on the festival remaining relevant and of its time” and compared the EIF to technology giant Apple by saying it had to adapt to modern-day tastes and habits.

Mr Linehan said the festival had to be prepared to “widen or change” what it offered in its programming and admitted its “real challenge” was identifying where the audiences of the future will come from.

Mr Linehan, who was appointed successor to Sir Jonathan Mills in April of last year, has a strong track record heading up major events in both Australia and his native Ireland. He began working part-time on the EIF in May 2013 to try to ensure a smooth handover.

He has already announced a major change for festival-goers by bringing the EIF’s dates back into line with the Fringe for the first time in almost two decades.

He will be announcing the festival’s major concerts line-up at the beginning of February, almost two months before his full programme is unveiled, although plans to release thousands of tickets early were scrapped following an outcry from regular ticket buyers who complained that they wanted to book knowing the full schedule of events.

Mr Linehan said there were three key areas which were guiding his thinking for for 2015 and beyond - “the maintenance of levels of quality, removing barriers to entry and safeguarding the festival’s future.”

He told the council: “As someone who has been coming to the Edinburgh Festival for 20 years, I was always very aware of the high regard in which it was held.

“But it’s only since I came into this job that I realise just how high that is. From Beijing to Cape Town, governments, artists and institutions look to the Edinburgh Festival as the gold standard for events everywhere.

“Above all, the Edinburgh International Festival means something very specific when you travel around and represent it, which is world-beating quality.

Investing in these levels of quality, I fully appreciate, is a very tough decision, for a city which at the best of times has resources which are limited by its population base.

“But I think it’s an investment that has served Edinburgh very well. Quality has proved a remarkable foundation for the multiplicity of festivals that has grown up around the Edinburgh International Festival. Quality, I think, encapsulates something of Edinburgh’s unique personality.

“I’ve been incredibly heartened by the understanding that exists between the festivals - that we are one eco-system and our various roles enhance each other, rather than act as competition with each other.

“With quality, you need to be careful that it doesn’t imply old-fashioned. When you think of some of the world’s great brands, you only have to look at companies like Apple, who represent quality, precision and 21st century style.

“While we undoubtedly have a rich history, the Edinburgh International Festival is primarily concerned with the city’s present and its future.

“We have an increasing role to represent the city and use the festival’s profile to represent the city and promote it not just as a tourist destination, but also as a modern forward-looking city.”

Mr Linehan revealed that the EIF was looking to greatly expand its educational activities and also involve more people who participate in arts events all year around.

“Once we have achieved levels of excellence, our next job is to ensure that we place work in front of the widest possible audience and - crucially - remove any barriers to entry.

“Some of those barriers are very practical, like the ticket price or the location of a venue. But they can just as easily be the sense that a certain performance is not for someone like me or not for someone of my age or not for someone of my background. “This is a challenge... but it is an area that we absolutely have to be vigilant on and one that I really want to focus on during my tenure. Those are developments which take time and cannot be achieved overnight.

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“The area I also really want to see us develop in future years is our visibility and in some cases our approachability by having a greater presence in public places. We’re currently working on raising funds, with some success, for a free outdoor event which will open the festival season and we’re also devising a programme which will connect schools into the music of the fireworks concert.

“It’s very important that even if people decide not to participate in the ticketed end of our programme that they have a way of at least being aware of what the festival is and what its values are.”

Mr Linehan revealed that planning was already underway to mark the 70th anniversary of the festival’s foundation - when it was set up as a platform for “the flowering of the human spirit” after the Second World War.

He said: “When I’m asked what it is what I want to achieve here, I answer that I’d like to hand over the festival in a better condition than I found it.

“We’re approaching the festival’s 70th anniversary in 2017. While we want to acknowledge our rich history, we really want to focus on the future, and that future is absolutely dependant on the festival remaining relevant and of its time.

“The festival of 1947 reflected those times and we need to ensure that the festival of 2015 and beyond reflects the cultural appetites and ambitions of the citizens of 2015. This means we need to be responsive to changes and in some cases widen or change our offering.

“We need to respond to changing technologies and the way in which people interact with culture. While this creates some difficulties, it also opens up incredible opportunities.

“We are having some early thoughts about the 70th anniversary of the festival. I would say that the focus is very much on the next 70 years. While we will certainly pay tribute to what has been achieved, I think the real challenge for the festival is going to be where will the audiences of the future come from and what sort of grounding are our children and young people getting in the principles which underscore what the festival is trying to achieve.”

The EIF has been on largely standstill funding from Creative Scotland and Edinburgh City Council in recent years, while the Scottish Government funds one major production each year through its Expo Fund. However its subsidy of around £5 million a year means it is by far the best-supported publicly-funded event in the country.

Mr Linehan added: “To sustain an event as extensive as this one requires an extraordinary alliance of the city, the national government, foreign governments, donors, sponsors and audiences. That alliance was founded 67 years ago when the city council took the step that no other city in the UK would, which was to celebrate the flowering of the human spirit.

“Whenever the festival hits a bump in the road, we remember and are indeed challenged by the courage and vision of those founding members. No matter how hard we feel we have it at any particular time, what they faced was obviously infinitely harder.

“I appreciate that there are going to be challenges in the years ahead and I know we have an awful lot of work to do, but nonetheless I have to say I can only be encouraged and excited by the potential I see around me.

“I think the future is very bright for the festival and I’d go as far as to say I think that its best days are yet to come.

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