Edinburgh festivals: Debates over their future have been reignited ahead of the 75th anniversary – Brian Ferguson

It may be only the middle of February but the debates around Edinburgh’s summer festivals have already been reignited ahead of their 75th anniversary season this year.

A lot may have changed in Edinburgh since the city last played host to the world's biggest cultural celebration in full effect in 2019.

But there is little doubt that the problems, headaches and issues that sparked so many headlines, opinion columns, blogs and discussions on social media in the last few pre-Covid years have not gone away.

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Three separate, but undoubtedly related, pieces of research published in the last week are a helpful reminder of where the city had got to just a few months before the pandemic struck.

A wide-angle view was taken in the Future Culture Edinburgh report, which suggested radical change and a major power shift were needed at the top of the city’s arts scene if long-standing "fundamental inequalities" were to be tackled.

One of three new Edinburgh University-funded studies, it highlighted the “power imbalances between cultural gatekeepers and the more vulnerable workforce in the sector", and suggested the city’s arts institutions had to take the lead in creating more support for grassroots organisations and freelance workers.

Better treatment for performers and companies taking part in the Fringe, by far the biggest of the city's festivals in terms of both the number of productions staged and audience size, was at the heart of a report which urged the festival to abandon its long-standing “open access” ethos.

An independent working group found that it was in practice restricting access because it had created a “pay to perform” landscape that deterred many performers and companies.

The 75th anniversary season of the Edinburgh festivals will be staged this summer. (Picture: David Monteith-Hodge)The 75th anniversary season of the Edinburgh festivals will be staged this summer. (Picture: David Monteith-Hodge)
The 75th anniversary season of the Edinburgh festivals will be staged this summer. (Picture: David Monteith-Hodge)

The prospect of the festival having an official set of standards or “best practice” guidelines for the first time in its history was also put forward as a way of tackling some of the most serious concerns raised about the way Fringe venues are run, especially when it comes to pay and conditions.

The final report recommended the widespread dispersal of Edinburgh’s festivals and events to help tackle perceptions in some communities that people feel excluded from them.

Drawn from workshops across the city, it found huge enthusiasm over the prospect of music, comedy, dance, and food and drink events happening in these areas, particularly if local people have a hand in putting them on.

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Participants in every area even put forward suggestions for local green spaces to be considered for the events of the future – a far cry from recent battles over the condition Charlotte Square and Princes Street Gardens have been left in after attracting huge festival crowds.

There is much to chew over in the three studies, which were published as the Fringe Society continues its own research into the form the event should take this summer and beyond.

That is certainly not a task for a single individual or an organisation.

In fact, it is incumbent on every senior figure involved with Edinburgh’s festivals, and their funders at local and national level, to work together more than ever before this year and put their minds to some hard thinking to find a better way forward for the city and all those with an interest in its annual cultural celebrations.

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