Lack of funds will force us to play it safe, says Edinburgh International Festival

Sir Ian McKellen is one of the stars appearing at the EIF this year. Picture: Oliver Rosser/Feast Creative
Sir Ian McKellen is one of the stars appearing at the EIF this year. Picture: Oliver Rosser/Feast Creative
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The Edinburgh International Festival has warned it is under growing pressure to programme “safe” work and shows with established artists due to squeezes on its public funding over 10 years.

Organisers have admitted it is having to take fewer “risks” and become increasingly reliant on commercial sponsors, donors and acts more certain to sell tickets in order to balance its books.

Evidence submitted to a Holyrood review of arts funding in Scotland has emerged months after organisers revealed a programme with high-profile names such as Stephen Fry, Sir Ian McKellen, Jarvis Cocker, Teenage Fanclub, David Hare, Jackie Kay and Kate Tempest.

The EIF has revealed it is having to “divert” dwindling public resources away from supporting artists and programming to focus on fundraising efforts. It has also complained about a “lack of a joined-up approach” between different public funders.

The evidence was lodged before a wide-ranging shake-up of grants by the city council, which will see the EIF’s support cut by nine per cent by 2021, to £1.9m a year, prompting director Fergus Linehan to suggest it had a strategy to “wind down funding and manage the decline of the festival” in the wake of a decade of cuts. It has been on stand-still funding of £2.3m a year from Creative Scotland over the same period.

The EIF submission states: “Since 2009 the festival’s core government grants from the council and Creative Scotland have declined from 50 per cent of income to 38 per cent. Turnover increased by over 17 per cent in that period, showing our ability to raise income through ticket sales, donations and commercial sponsorships. Government funding has a critical role to play in the funding mix, as this can be used to take risks which allow existing and emerging artists to develop and innovate. Sponsors and donors tend to support work that is ‘safe’, and it is much easier to sell tickets for artists who are already established. The increasing reliance on ticket sales and donor support has put pressure on the team to support established artists and ‘safe’ work.

“The costs of pursuing and servicing funding from donors and sponsors, as well as bidding for and evaluating specific funds from government, means that in practice more core government funding is being diverted away from funding artists and the programme.”

A council spokeswoman said its new proposals to support the arts, which will see some of the EIF’s current funding redeployed into a new “flexible fund” for organisations across Edinburgh, reflected a “clear and on-going shared commitment to the cultural health and vitality of the city.”

She added: “We are committed to actively support the upcoming generations of creative talent and will continue to work in partnership with festivals over the next three years to plan for their continuing role in the city’s future success.”

A spokeswoman for Creative Scotland said: “We’re exploring models of collaboration with local authorities to ensure a strong cultural offer can continue across the country. In our 2018 funding round 184 applications were received requesting £154 million against an available budget of £101.6 million.”