Right now, the vibrancy and excitement of Edinburgh during the Festivals is there to be seen on every street corner. The sheer number of visitors, artists, performances and venues takes the breath away. It is the world’s largest cultural festival and it is a Scottish phenomenon.
It’s no mean achievement that Edinburgh remains the jewel in the UK’s cultural crown, particularly when you consider that we share these islands with London, a city that many commentators consider the arts capital of the world. But, at the same time, we need to think about building the foundations for future Festivals as Edinburgh faces ever-increasing competition from other international cities who covet the capital’s cultural crown and are investing heavily.
Fringe festivals along similar lines to Edinburgh have sprung up in every corner of the globe over the last few decades, based on Edinburgh’s successful model. Whether it’s the BRIC nations, the major Commonwealth countries, or cities closer to home in Europe, they all recognise the importance of culture in establishing their place on the world stage. And in a globalised world, culture gives cities a distinctive appeal; cultural prowess and economic success are increasingly seen as going hand-in-hand. Creative industries are an ever-increasing segment of modern economies and, even for other economic sectors, culture is what makes cities appealing to an educated workforce and the businesses that employ them.
The British Council helped found the Edinburgh International Festival in 1947, and it’s probably fair to say that at no stage since then have the arts been part and parcel of popular culture like they are today. At the same time, the arts are suffering funding cuts at a juncture where culture is proving itself to be a keystone for image-building, diplomacy and, ultimately, economic growth. While curbed spending is inevitable in the wake of economic downturn, we still need to find ways to promote our cultural assets in the current environment. The Festivals are pre-eminent on the world stage, characterised by maturity and wealth of knowledge, and with that maturity and confidence Scotland is in a position to use culture as a tool of diplomacy; allowing Scotland to reach out to other nations, to exchange knowledge and ideas and so build understanding and trust.
While it’s true that other cities are learning from, and catching up with, Edinburgh, there is every chance the city will remain a cultural beacon in the future if it can continue to internationalise its offering and share its experience of running world-leading festivals. You could argue that this process will create even more competition for Edinburgh – which it will – but competition pushes Edinburgh to innovate and stay at the top of its game. And it’s very apparent that this process also provides an infusion of ideas from around the world that help the Festivals evolve over time.
So how do we keep this virtuous circle going? Together with Creative Scotland and Festivals Edinburgh, we are running an international delegate programme this month called Momentum. We believe it is vital to the future of the Festivals and to keeping Edinburgh on top. The programme – involving more than 100 delegates from 15 countries – encourages leading cultural figures to focus on Scotland as a key international destination to showcase work and as the place to develop professional expertise around cultural policy and festival models. It also creates a crucial exchange of knowledge, information and ideas between Scotland and other countries, opening up international opportunities for Scottish artists, venues and cultural organisations.
While previous pilot delegate programmes placed the spotlight on India, Brazil and South Africa, this year we have an even more extensive list of countries and regions we want to create stronger links with, including Argentina, Brazil (again), the Caribbean, Chile, Colombia, India (again), Mexico, New Zealand, Nigeria, Pakistan and South Africa (again). The connections we make with these countries this year will deliver a wealth of shows and talent at future Edinburgh Festivals.
Next year is a special year for Scotland, not least because of the 2014 Commonwealth Games in Glasgow, and it’s no coincidence that many of the nations represented on this year’s delegate programme are from the Commonwealth. Culture played a central role in bringing the Olympic Games to London and, in turn, the Cultural Olympiad sent out a positive image to the rest of the world. We’re contributing towards a culture programme that will ensure Glasgow 2014 does the same thing. Culture helps to project Scotland as a confident, outward-looking nation and it’s vital that we continue to harness cultural exchanges for the future, whether that is at festivals time, on the occasion of other important cultural events and indeed throughout the year; exchanges that will build trust and understanding between Scotland and other nations and lead, as we know they do, to positive economic benefit.
Last week, we held a reception for the many artists and performers, producers and playwrights from South Africa who are taking part in this year’s Festivals. By bringing a South African delegation to Edinburgh three years ago, Momentum planted the seeds for today’s successes; in fact, last year South African State Theatre’s Miss Julie was a Best of Edinburgh award-winner. The talent and performances of the acts from this proud nation have unquestionably added to the quality of the festivals and to Edinburgh as a proposition.
If today’s delegates give an indication of the shows we should expect in Edinburgh over the next couple of years, then countries like Brazil, India and New Zealand are of particular interest because we are hosting large delegations from those nations in the city this month. It is exciting to think about how these connections will translate to cultural exchange and Festivals performances in the future. The images conjured up by those countries alone, of their traditions, history and contemporary culture should guarantee that Edinburgh, and indeed Scotland, remains in robust cultural health.
• Lloyd Anderson is British Council Scotland country director