Francesca Hegyi: Scotland is really good at festivals so why don't we fund them properly?

Scotland is really good at Festivals - it is recognised worldwide as being the best.
Nicola Benedetti at the Edinburgh International Festival programme launch (pic: Mihaela Bodlovic)Nicola Benedetti at the Edinburgh International Festival programme launch (pic: Mihaela Bodlovic)
Nicola Benedetti at the Edinburgh International Festival programme launch (pic: Mihaela Bodlovic)

Last week as I walked to our HQ, The Hub on the Royal Mile, it was through at least four or five different types of rain. Day by day however I could sense optimism and excitement growing amongst residents and visitors alike, and many of them are now enjoying what August in Edinburgh has to offer.

At the Edinburgh International Festival, we have been through cancellation in 2020, gone outdoors in 2021 and had an incredible 75th anniversary celebration in 2022 marked by returning to the city’s theatres and concert halls.

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We continue to be acknowledged internationally as a leading festival and our model has been copied around the world. Collectively Edinburgh’s Festivals are a powerhouse for Scotland with an economic impact last year of £367m, supporting over 7,000 jobs in Edinburgh and 8,500 jobs across the country.

Francesca HegyiFrancesca Hegyi
Francesca Hegyi

This year we have over 2500 artists performing from 50 countries, we will welcome performers and senior delegations from Brazil, France, Germany, Norway, Korea, USA as well as many others. As you read this, we are in the middle of an opening weekend event unlike any we’ve ever done before, with over 500 amateur and professional musicians of all ages from across Scotland performing in Princes Street Gardens.

While we hope residents, friends, family and visitors experience and enjoy an unparalleled celebration of music, theatre, opera and dance, the reality is that we are now stretched to breaking point.

Since 2009 public sector funding has been cut in real terms by 41 per cent, yet each year we are asked to do more with less. We are urged to make private income more central to our business plans and reduce dependency on the public purse. This is something I know all festivals are keen to do, however corporate sponsorship is notoriously difficult to secure and so public investment is even more critical in ensuring the reach of the festivals can be felt across the whole of the city and beyond.

Our incredibly generous donors and supporters have stepped up, - but we need the committed support of Scottish Government, the City of Edinburgh and Creative Scotland to also be proud of what they founded and have enabled to flourish over the last 76 years, and support our, and therefore Scotland’s future.

It’s difficult to understand the strategy of cutting back support to the festivals when their contribution is so profound. Put simply, for every £1 of public money invested in Festivals in Edinburgh £33 is generated in return.

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When you consider this collective effort achieved an annual audience of 3.2m in 2022, on par with the Men’s FIFA World Cup, it demonstrates why any country would jump at the chance to have what we do on our doorstep.

We are held up as a beacon of excellence, with numerous cities around the world sending delegations to find out how we stage such an iconic event, and it’s sad to share with them that public investment hasn’t kept pace with our UK or international peers. World class festivals in Aix, Avignon, Bayreuth and Manchester for example receive multiples of the levels of our public investment, meaning our international competitiveness is being eroded year after year. This pressure is compounded by the challenges we all face from inflation and the desire to treat those who work in our festivals fairly. To attract the best talent and pay artists and staff what they are worth, we are under pressure to maximise our income from ticket sales, while meeting expectations around affordability for a broad public.

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This weekend will also see the first ever UCI Cycling World Championships - we should all celebrate the fact that Scotland has attracted this internationally important event - but we can also wonder why one-off events like this are backed with levels of public investment that festivals can only dream of when arts organisations up and down the country have been told for over a decade that the cupboard is bare.

Beyond our performances we contribute to our country in many ways - jobs, the economy, soft power and our international reputation (at a time when the UK desperately needs to repair relations), we are also committed to working with the local community to ensure culture can be accessed and enjoyed by all.

We are really good at festivals in Scotland and our industry knows we can be the best in the world for many years to come. But we have seen creative organisations going to the wall and more will follow unless there is a fundamental reset in how government, at all levels, supports the arts to ensure Scotland’s world-leading festivals don’t just become a memory.

On that walk up to the Hub I admired the branding along the Royal Mile highlighting how proud Edinburgh was to host the cycling this weekend. I can only hope to see the same evidence of pride – through actions and not just branding - once that event has packed up, and the festivals keep on putting Scotland on the world stage.

Francesca Hegyi is Executive Director of Edinburgh International Festival



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