Brian Ferguson: Alliance of Edinburgh arts venues is overdue

IT seems somewhat strange and slightly belated that the first proper taskforce overseeing Edinburgh’s flagship cultural venues has only just been announced.

A loose partnership of venues in the Lothian Road cultural quarter already exists. Picture: Phil wilkinson
A loose partnership of venues in the Lothian Road cultural quarter already exists. Picture: Phil wilkinson

The powerful new consortium of main players has certainly made an impact with its initial public pronouncement today.

The first ever “impact report” into the city’s year-round cultural infrastructure revealed that not only is it worth almost £200 million, but it supports the equivalent of more than 5,100 jobs.

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The headline audience figure of 6.2 million, drawn from just nine organisations, is matched by an almost five-fold return on investment from around £42m in public funding.

But I can’t help wonder why it has taken so long for such a “strategic partnership”, as the Edinburgh Cultural Venues Group calls itself, to be formed.

Admittedly, the separate national galleries and museums organisations, have worked together occasionally in the past, while a loose partnership of venues in the Lothian Road “cultural quarter”, including the Lyceum, Traverse, Usher Hall and Filmhouse, already exists.

However it does seem bizarre than only now are these organisations and others, such as the Queen’s Hall, the Festival and King’s theatres, and museums and galleries run by Edinburgh City Council seriously joining forces.

Of course, it is obvious that each of these should be left to nurture and develop its own audiences, and pursue artistic excellence in its own field. But there are a whole host of reasons why there is a need for the group – especially one which promises to have an “authoritative collective voice”.

As the study states, public sector funding “is experiencing cuts at every level.” It is hard to see how the city’s cultural sector will escape unscathed in the next few years, with the city council warning it needs to make £100m worth of savings by 2020, and both the Traverse and Lyceum recently suffering significant cuts from Creative Scotland.

Edinburgh’s festivals formed their own alliance in the wake of research which valued their worth at £184m just over a decade ago. A follow-up study in 2011 found that had soared to £261m.

Expect much to be made of the findings in the new report about the “fundamental” importance of the year-round venues to the festivals, which it says would be “seriously disadvantaged” without them.

There is also clearly huge potential for these major venues to work on joint projects, whether they be marketing initiatives, programming and developing work, or sharing a box office system. Then they can turn to plugging the most obvious gaps in the city’s year-round infrastructure.