Joyce McMillan: Leith Late lays down blueprint

IT’S one of the transforming powers of art that it can help change the way we see familiar things, not least the places where we live.

Morvern Cunningham with some images displayed on Leith Walk. Picture: Hemedia
Morvern Cunningham with some images displayed on Leith Walk. Picture: Hemedia
Morvern Cunningham with some images displayed on Leith Walk. Picture: Hemedia

From Glasgow in 1990, to the Greenock Sugar Sheds just last week, that old magic has been at work, often with massive support from local authorities and governments; but it can rarely have worked so brilliantly, and on such a slender, unpretentious shoestring, as it does on the midsummer evening every year when Morvern Cunningham launches the Leith Late Festival, a brief but joyful celebration of creative life in and around Leith Walk.

Built on the simple idea of encouraging venues that normally close at teatime to stay open for the evening – and even those that would normally be open to stage a special exhibition or event – Leith Late is now in its fourth year. And this year’s festival, which opens tonight at 5pm, is the biggest and most ambitious yet, involving 25 venues from the Collective Gallery on Calton Hill to the Coburg Art Studios near Leith Shore, and featuring an after-party at Leith Theatre.

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So for five hours this evening – and, in a new initiative, again tomorrow afternoon, from noon until 5pm – you can saunter the length of Leith Walk and beyond, or travel up and down the walk in a vintage London bus (Saturday night only), enjoying live music at the Joseph Pearce Pub or The Windsor, a touch of poetry, film and music from Neu Reekie at the Brass Monkey, or exhibitions and installations in venues as familiar as the Out Of The Blue Drill Hall, as new as the Art Cave in Great Junction Street, or as unexpected as the Settlement Project in Haddington Place, which features a new installation by Andrew Gilbert on post-colonial themes, presented by Leith Late itself. Leith Late also has a producing hand in the photography exhibition by Ugandan artists Immy Mali and Moses Serubiri at the Super 5* & African Flavour Lounge in Great Junction Street, a new Leith Late venue.

There’s also a chance to savour the results of Leith Late’s year-round projects, funded by a shoestring mix of grants and donations from small private sponsors and various City of Edinburgh Council community development funds. There’s the Shutter Project, creating spectacular art to brighten up the closed shutters of shops at night; the Mural Project, with its giant new mural in Halmyre Street and its Paolozzi homage in Henderson Street; and the Leith Walkers project – already established in Leith – with its powerful images of Leith Walk residents, exhibited along the way as part of Leith Late.

“We still don’t really have consistent funding of any kind,” says Cunningham, juggling Leith Late maps and brochures in the cafe at Out Of the Blue. “We had high hopes of some Creative Scotland funding this year, but when that didn’t come through we thought let’s just expand the whole thing and do it anyway. Our audience feedback is great, and so long as we can sell enough tickets for the party – and they’re almost sold out already – we can make it work.

“I think this works really well in Leith because the place has such a strong identity – and because there are so many artists here, so many venues and spaces. We’re not part of the Leith Festival, but I love the fact that we’re coinciding with the last weekend of the festival this year, so we can contribute to that feeling of celebration.

“I absolutely don’t doubt, though, that given the resources, this idea could be rolled out to many other places, in Edinburgh and beyond. Portobello, South Side of Glasgow – those are the sorts of places where it could really work. And if Leith Walk ever becomes so gentrified and upmarket that there’s no room for an event like this, then I guess we’ll just move on. I don’t see that happening, though – not anytime soon!”

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