Saving two key Edinburgh arts venues: An open letter to Creative Scotland

Tonight Andrew Dixon, chief executive of Creative Scotland, will argue that investing in creativity is vital to Scotland's cities. Saving two key Edinburgh arts venues would be a good start

• Forest Cafe is up for sale,which would mean the end of its free Fringe events and salon atmosphere

Dear Andrew Dixon,

Today you will be addressing an audience as part of the Edinburgh Lectures series, on the importance of investing in our cities. I understand a key premise of yours is that "artists and arts organisations are at the heart of everything". I couldn't agree more.

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I am the former artistic director of the Roxy Art House in Edinburgh, so naturally I'm a bit biased in these matters, but to me the link between a city's artistic output and creative culture and its sense of identity has always been clear. Nevertheless, I'll try to provoke some alternative ideas on the subject here. Debate is healthy.

As you will know, the Roxy Art House – which was succeeding as an ambitious, open multi-arts centre in the centre of Edinburgh, and was the venue you chose for the launch of Creative Scotland back in July – has been forced to close by the bankruptcy of its parent charity the Edinburgh University Settlement (EUS). Additionally, the Forest Caf, another arts venue, and a free institution like few others in the world, is also under threat, as it has been leasing its premises on Bristo Place from EUS. I'd like to suggest that both operations offer a unique opportunity to demonstrate effective investment in a city – Edinburgh – in a way that needn't cost Creative Scotland a penny.

In the case of the Roxy, you really couldn't pick a "highlight" to sum up its value. In the ten months between January 2010 and its closure at the end of October, the venue hosted all sorts of great events and special moments.

Perhaps it would be Little Bulb Theatre's Operation Greenfield, packing houses throughout the Fringe for its award-winning, off-kilter take on teenage Christianity. Or international star Nick Cave reading from his novel in the Roxy Hall, while downstairs a ska band headlined an absurdist clowning night called Nonsence.

Perhaps it would be either of the two Hidden Door festivals, featuring dozens of local artists, musicians, writers and film-makers. Each event transformed the venue. The first Hidden Door installed a maze (yes, a temporary maze) in the Roxy Hall, the second installed five stages for five acts to perform on at once (the finale was incredible) and laid down turf throughout the Roxy's studio theatre. Or perhaps it would be the troupe of master musicians from Rajasthan, who performed a sensational set of traditional, soulful Indian folk music back in July, their only Scottish performance.

The Forest has had its share of glories too. Longer established than the Roxy, in the ten years it has been operating it has won awards, hosted all kinds of arts events, from film screenings to theatre festivals, and helped scores of artists by giving space and even funding to do their work. All this has been done while maintaining a strict free-access policy, such that no-one ever pays entry for an event. Most of the support for this comes from a volunteer-run vegetarian caf, and travellers from around the world make the space their first stop in Edinburgh (for many it is a reason to come here in the first place).

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The Roxy and the Forest worked together well, too. Both were developed organically, driven by the passions of the instigators and their collaborators, but what emerged were two complementary environments that offered a useful "ladder" for aspiring artists in Edinburgh.

The Forest offers a space to try things out, free from the judgment a finished product would warrant, as well as from the challenge of persuading an audience to part with an entry fee. The Roxy was similarly open to new ideas, while offering artists the chance to earn money from their work, and to appear on a curated programme alongside leading international and cutting-edge artists. This ladder led towards the established bodies in the city with which the Roxy was already fostering collaborative relationships: the Traverse, the Filmhouse, the international festivals.

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This network, which was only starting to show what it was capable of, is under serious threat. Both the Roxy and the Forest are making good headway with campaigns to continue their activities, raising funds and sourcing investment. But both could benefit from the agency and the investment of an organisation like Creative Scotland. I can offer three strong arguments to suggest the city of Edinburgh would benefit too, based on my own understanding of what makes for wise investment in a city's artistic culture.

ONE: The activity supported should suit the needs of the city in question.

You have rightly won acclaim for the projects in Newcastle and Gateshead that were made possible by The Case for Capital, the North East arts funding organisation you ran for ten years: they have raised the profile and prestige of the area a great deal. But Edinburgh does not need an Angel of the North.

The city already has an iconic presence, thanks to its naturally spectacular setting, and buildings that include a bloody great castle on a rock, a remarkable medieval centre, and the Scott Monument – thought to be the world's largest monument to an artist. Nor does it need new "blue-chip" arts institutions, like the Baltic or the Sage.

Edinburgh already has a place on the cultural map thanks to its prestigious festivals, the National Galleries' world-class small collections, and its longstanding history of enlightened creative thinking.

What Edinburgh needs now is activity. This has been widely observed across the arts, from senior journalists to producers for budding theatre companies: things need to happen, people need to meet and to talk, and there needs to be a positive and inspiring infrastructure.

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With the Roxy in full swing, I don't think there was any one venue with such a range of events going on in a month in the city. And I can't think of anywhere that would match the Forest for volume and diversity of presentations over the ten years it has been running. These places are, literally, where it's happening.

TWO: Work with the people who are making things happen for themselves.

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Creative Scotland has come in to replace the Scottish Arts Council, and you have admirably asserted the importance of acting as an agent for the arts, and of looking to innovative approaches to solving some of the problems of the industry. Both the Forest and the Roxy have run as commercial entities that have, simply because they always wanted to, produced a great volume of artistic output and given a great deal of support to the artists they have worked with. Both can and will adapt their practices, and for each to enhance their commercial activities could be a perfectly organic development of professional principles.

I believe there are wonderful artistic projects that well deserve funding support and which will never be commercially viable. But surely it is counterproductive not to support the people who are, in a sustainable way and without even needing to be asked, supporting you and the goals you are seeking to achieve?

Both these organisations need to be sure of their premises. Anything's possible, conversations would need to be had, and I can't speak in detail on behalf of the Forest. But to my mind something so simple as a supportive loan to each could make an enormous difference: a loan that could also be repaid in full. To help save two valuable arts organisations at no long-term cost: that would be an investment worth celebrating.

THREE: There should be a healthy unpredictability to life in the city, and artists can help.

In his new book, Where Good Ideas Come From, Steven Johnson talks about the importance of the environment people find themselves in for inspiration, arguing – with weighty scientific evidence – that it's when people, be they scientists, artists, or military strategists, talk around the subject that ideas really come together (and indeed, I thank Ryan Van Winkle of the Forest for introducing me to Johnson's work).

Eureka moments are largely a myth. Instead, Johnson references the coffee shops of the Enlightenment, and the salons of fin de sicle Paris, as places that were creatively fruitful precisely because they were "unpredictable, even a little chaotic". And while our aspirations for longevity must be based on sound planning and effective practice, there is no point hiding that this element is something that, in their different ways, both the Roxy and the Forest bring to the culture of Edinburgh: places for people to share and to test their artistic ideas, where there is a sense that anything can happen. Both are incubators of inspiration.

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These networks and environments don't just come out of nothing, and are almost impossible to replace. The Forest is young, and the Roxy and Creative Scotland are both even younger. But all three are manifestations of much more longstanding cultural continuities, and all three are deeply invested in the future of the arts in Edinburgh and Scotland. It would be great to have a conversation.

Mr Rupert Thomson,

Former artistic director

Roxy Art House

• Andrew Dixon's lecture, Successful Cities Are Creative Places, is at the Filmhouse, Edinburgh, tonight at 6:30pm. You can follow the campaign to save the Forest Cafe at A Save The Forest benefit concert, headlined by Aaron Wright and the Aprils, will take place at Pilrig St Paul's on Leith Walk tomorrow at 7:30pm.