Richard Lewis: Big birthday bash for Edinburgh's festivals

We must battle to keep city at international forefront says Richard Lewis

The model we have in Edinburgh is being replicated all over the world, from Melbourne to Toronto. Picture: Scott Louden

We’re still only at the end of August but already there are strong indications it has been another groundbreaking year for Edinburgh’s summer festivals. The quality of the performances and programmes only appear to be increasing.

The city has been working since 1947 on expanding and bettering the festivals, and this longevity is one of the greatest reflections of their success. Yet in order to strengthen the Capital’s reputation as the pre-eminent Festival City and a unique destination in Scotland, we need to ensure the city fights off strong completion for the festival top spot from other major cities.

Sign up to our Opinion newsletter

Sign up to our Opinion newsletter

We know the model we have in Edinburgh is being replicated all over the world, from Melbourne to Toronto, and as the philosopher Matshona Dhliwayo warns, an ambitious amateur can rise above a complacent master. It’s in the nation’s interests to see Edinburgh remain an ambitious master.

The festivals support Edinburgh’s international arts profile, which has a ripple effect across the whole country. The latest Festivals Impact Study suggests Scotland benefits from a staggering economic impact of £313m from Edinburgh’s festivals, not to mention the creation of more than 6,000 jobs. Edinburgh Airport is the busiest in the country but the Capital is a gateway for visitors to discover the rest of Scotland, in August and all year round.

All of this means Edinburgh plays a key role as a cultural ambassador and access point for the arts and it is in the Scottish interest to ensure this reputation endures.

Edinburgh will next year mark the 70th anniversary as the Festival City and it feels like the right time to monitor the state of the country’s relationship with its festivals. The Edinburgh International Festival was set up in 1947 with the specific purpose of bringing people and cultures together. Now, more than ever, with political uncertainty in Europe, that principle must be maintained.

As well as supporting the work of the Festival Forum, the City of Edinburgh Council has established an annual health check, working with festival directors to address specific issues and concerns the city needs to collaboratively address. It will help the council’s services work better together to meet the needs of the festivals.

In parallel a Culture Task Force has been set up to work towards greater partnership working between arts organisations, national institutions, the University of Edinburgh and NHS amongst others. Crucially, the big task for this group is to think strategically about Edinburgh’s year round cultural offering to ensure the city’s creative and cultural future is competitive.

Yet, as another festival summer draws to a close, we must also ask ourselves how we can further support the artists living, performing and producing in Scotland all year round.

As a musician myself and as someone who sits on six arts boards, I am well aware of the internal pressures faced by cultural organisations. We need to think creatively about declining budgets which is why we are aiming to set up a small fund of cash, called the Open Fund, to enable arts events, performances and shows to get off the ground with grants. Even a small amount of funding and support can go a long way.

In 2014 a small pilot project with the Festival City Theatres Trust, responsible for Edinburgh’s King’s and Festival Theatres, was funded by the Council. The aim was to explore the city’s small-scale performing arts sector to help it become more efficient and financially secure. We found that Edinburgh hosts a fantastic community of grassroots artists who are active and successful - but that this community struggles to achieve its artistic ambitions due to a lack of funding, people and rehearsal space.

As a result, the Edinburgh Performing Arts Development project was devised. It has successfully improved support for performance and dance infrastructure in Edinburgh and will eventually result in a directory of affordable rehearsal space. This will help performers find suitable places to practice and identify any gaps in the provision of rehearsal space in the city.

The city is doing a lot right but there are challenges that we must work through to ensure the entire cultural ecosystem in Edinburgh supports every level of cultural endeavour. Edinburgh boasts fantastic venues showcasing incredible performances every month of the year. I’m already looking forward to artistic director David Greig’s new season at the Lyceum and another fantastic season of shows at the Traverse and Usher Hall.

In providing support to this cultural community and by tackling infrastructure challenges, we are trying to ensure Edinburgh’s arts venues, year round events and festivals flourish in tandem, now and for another 70 years.

• Councillor Richard Lewis is festivals champion and culture convener for the City of Edinburgh Council