Edinburgh Festivals 2023: Urgent action required before it's too late to ensure their survival – Shona McCarthy

In hard economic times, it often feels as if people think investment in arts, culture, creative expression, is an unaffordable luxury.

Many Fringe performers want to return in 2023, but nearly nine out of ten say they may struggle to afford to (Picture: Jeff J Mitchell/Getty Images)
Many Fringe performers want to return in 2023, but nearly nine out of ten say they may struggle to afford to (Picture: Jeff J Mitchell/Getty Images)

Our sector is almost always the first to experience disinvestment in times of crisis but often the first to be looked to when thoughts turn to rebuilding hope, optimism, prosperity. The Edinburgh Festivals are a fine example of this belief in the power of the arts to boost the national mood and forge cultural links internationally.

The International Festival was established to heal the human spirit and reconnect people across Europe, after the horrors of the Second World War. The Edinburgh Fringe sprung up around it, powered by local performers who wanted to be part of that emotional, social and cultural regeneration, rooted in a truly open access model of participation.

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A thriving and inclusive creative sector is not a luxury or added extra, it is an essential part of the best of who and what we are. It is as vital to our well-being and health now, through the dark times, as it is to job creation, opportunity and economic recovery going forward.

In 2019 the creative industries contributed £115.9 billion in gross value added (GVA) to the UK economy. That’s six per cent of the UK’s total GVA, more than the combined contribution of aerospace, automotive, life sciences, and oil and gas and equivalent to 70 per cent of the GVA generated by the financial and insurance sector.

Our sector also created jobs at three times the UK average, employing two million people across the UK and supporting a further 1.4 million jobs across the supply chain. So the arts and creative industries are a route to opportunity and employment as well as life enhancement. The Fringe’s network of producers, venues and events creates at least 5,000 jobs each year, with most of our employees living and working in Edinburgh.

Our social and cultural contributions are similarly immense. Great strides have been made in recent years to address inequity in the arts and creative sector. We have worked hard to remove barriers to those who have historically found it most difficult to find a foothold or even aspire to a career in this field. There is still much to do in terms of where the arts are positioned in our schools and education system, to fully understand the transferable skills gained from early exposure to the arts that enhance employability, creative thinking and success in any sector.

We cannot afford to lose these assets built over many years. Having just about survived three years of pandemic-related disruption, we have to face the evidence that audiences will not able to return in sufficient numbers in 2023 to generate the income needed to cover all the costs that are rising so rapidly. There are no cultural recovery funds to draw on.

Our sector is teetering on the edge and risks more doors closing forever, and becoming increasingly unappealing as a career choice. Without support, belief, investment and recognition of our value, the arts sector is set to lose vital talent and skills in the short-term, and become the privilege of only those who can afford it, as either practitioners or audience members for the longer-term.

I believe we underestimate the value of our creative output, and its still enormous potential to be at the heart of recovery, at our peril. The Edinburgh Festival Fringe is both a local and a global stage; it is a global marketplace for the whole of the UK, bringing some 63 countries to our stages as well as programmers, curators and screen commissioners from around the world to source new talent and work.

The Fringe is not like any other festival, you can be part of it if you are just starting out, or if you are at top of your game and testing new work. It is as important to the performing arts as Venice is to visual arts, Cannes to film, and South by Southwest is to music. It has been going for 75 years, and with our sister summer festivals, we create an event on a par with the Fifa world cup or an Olympic Games, but happening every single year, with nothing close to the investment or supporting infrastructure.

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We know from recent research that 70 per cent of artists from Fringe 2022 would like to bring a show in 2023. However, the cost-of-living crisis and affordability are major barriers for 87 per cent of our artists.

Add to this Edinburgh-specific issues and the challenge becomes monumental. We fully recognise the need for regulation around the short-term lets in the city and will continue to be largely supportive. However, there are significant unintended consequences of the way in which the new legislation is being interpreted in Edinburgh specifically. This will result in the removal of nearly all affordable accommodation in the city for its festivals workers and artists, short-term home-sharing and home letting has historically been a way for residents to show support for artists, whilst supplementing their own incomes.

So this is a plea for recognition and support for this special thing that Edinburgh has, before it is too late. The creative and cultural sector is a critical part of our economy, but more importantly, it says more about who we are as people, than any other sector. Tough decisions and choices have to be made in times of economic crisis, but there also needs to be a vision for how we emerge. A spirit of collaboration will be vital to ensure the survival and long-term sustainability of the city’s cultural assets, of the globally renowned Edinburgh Fringe and our sister festivals. Complacency is simply not an option if we are to have any hope for renewal.

Shona McCarthy is chief executive of the Edinburgh Festival Fringe Society

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