Edinburgh Festivals' balancing act is crucial to recovery – Julia Amour

Edinburgh’s festivals and other interested parties need to map out a way to renew our world-leading festival city so it is at the forefront of leading positive change, writes Julia Amour of Festivals Edinburgh.

Street performers draw a crowd during last year's Edinburgh Festival (Picture: Jeff J Mitchell/Getty Images)
Street performers draw a crowd during last year's Edinburgh Festival (Picture: Jeff J Mitchell/Getty Images)

The audience chatroom was buzzing last Saturday as Nicola Sturgeon interviewed Booker prize-winner Bernadine Evaristo at the online Edinburgh International Book Festival.

Along with the book talk, some themes kept coming back: sadness at missing the thrill of live events but pleasure at being with others from across Scotland and the world; delight from people with health conditions who could join live from home; approval that voluntary donations made the session accessible whatever your income; and hope that the Book Festival’s finances could allow it to come back in future with parallel physical and virtual editions.

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We’re listening to all the feedback this August, and this is a good cross-section of the issues and opportunities facing Edinburgh as a festival city in the wake of the Covid-19 crisis. Pioneering Edinburgh’s identity as a place of cultural discovery for over 70 years, festivals have played a unique role in enhancing quality of life for locals, offering full-time livelihoods for at least 7,000 people, and developing Scotland’s place in the world.

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However, in recent years, the bite of austerity and pace of globalisation affected the city and its festivals to the point where debates became polarised about how to move forward with managing a cluster of events on a par with a Fifa World Cup. The truth is that the major city festivals are rightly expected to bring many things to many different people: including artists, audiences, wider residents, workers, and businesses. It’s a delicate balancing act.

This moment of profound risk and reflection is a time to listen to each other and build a shared understanding of how that balancing act works – otherwise the law of unintended consequences will see some groups miss out when we are all trying to help them get back on their feet.

Here are four areas we think are critical to keep in balance for a sustainable future festival city.

The creative spark

The brilliant creativity of artists, performers and professionals is what makes festivals possible. We have been able to inject over £14 million a year into supporting creative talent and production across Scotland, launching countless careers. However, many freelancers have now fallen between the cracks of state support, and the cultural venues and production companies that employ them face huge uncertainty.

Next season, budgets could be much reduced if audience numbers and ticket income are affected by wider public health concerns and economic hardship. Yet everyone involved in reimagining Edinburgh’s future has an interest in how the city can be attractive and affordable to the creative community. This makes it even more vital to plan together for how our cultural workers can be best supported, and marginalised voices given more space.

The audience connection

Recent months have shown us that people are hungry to connect through culture. Despite the immediate challenges for live events, festivals have a vital longer-term role in helping places to thrive by creating reasons to come together for individuals, families, friends, communities and visitors. Two-thirds of residents previously took part in our festivals, and in building back we want to deepen our work with communities to make everyone feel welcome and help with the health and social impacts of the crisis.

Larger-scale performances in thriving year-round cultural venues, city centre events and ticket-buying audiences are integral to this effort, but that’s often misunderstood. They generate the income that provides the foundations for community and learning programmes to be developed with public funders’ support. In our latest season we worked with nearly all the city’s state schools and with over 130 community groups, a reach that would have been impossible without these mutually reinforcing activities.

The world of work

It will be even more important to balance this equation for the future if we want to support wider livelihoods. The festivals’ audience appeal creates jobs for people living across the city in service industries as well as indirectly in sectors like food production and construction. Our capital’s reputation as a world-leading festival city also underpins Scotland’s attractiveness for people looking to work, study, visit and do business here.

Edinburgh’s high GDP is founded on professional and tech sector jobs. But these are only ever going to make up a minority of the workforce, and so a key way to support local communities will be through fairer economic inclusion. Our festivals want to come back in good shape to support a wide range of work and enhance skills, career pathways and local supply chains, with the agreement of our supporters that these outcomes are worth prioritising and investing in.

The wider environment

In the jobs market, it’s distressing to see so many workers and businesses feeling the loss of the 2020 season, and this underlines the urgent need for the city to focus on a recovery that encourages responsible, curious and loyal visitors in line with the 2030 tourism strategy.

Refocusing the visitor economy will also support Edinburgh’s wider ambitions to be thriving low-carbon pioneers. Across the festivals, we’re committed to a shared carbon reduction route map that identifies the areas of operations and wider systems that need to change.

Internationalism remains a core value at this time of rising insularity, but the Covid-19 crisis is also fostering new thinking about how to sustain future cultural exchange without such intense global mobility. We all know that the world is changing faster than ever – even before the global pandemic – and that yet deeper challenges to well-being, livelihoods, equalities and the health of our planet will face us in the years to come.

The way people are now being drawn to culture to find meaning, joy and balance in their lives echoes the founding spirit of the festivals after World War Two. Edinburgh took a leap of faith into the future in 1947: today, we urgently need festivals, other sectors and policy-makers at all levels to map out together how we can renew our world-leading festival city to be at the forefront of leading positive change.

Julia Amour is director of Festivals Edinburgh

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