Save Scotland's arts! Edinburgh International Film Festival and Filmhouse's collapse into administration may just be the start – Joyce McMillan

It has been a chilling week for the arts in Scotland, after a punishingly difficult three years for cultural organisations everywhere.

Dorothy and the Scarecrow prepare for an outdoor showing of The Wizard of Oz during the Edinburgh International Film Festival last year
Dorothy and the Scarecrow prepare for an outdoor showing of The Wizard of Oz during the Edinburgh International Film Festival last year

With hindsight, the sudden collapse last week of the Centre for The Moving Image charity which ran Edinburgh Filmhouse, the Edinburgh International Film Festival, and the Belmont Cinema in Aberdeen, may come to be seen as one of those iconic events that help to define an era; in this case, a post-lockdown time of severe difficulty for all those art-forms that involve getting people out of the house and bringing them together in public spaces, to experience what cannot be appreciated in full on our screens at home.

The statement from CMI, explaining the decision to call in administrators, spoke of spiralling costs – notably power bills – and of audiences running at 50 per cent of pre-pandemic levels; and although there may be some glorious exceptions, I would not be surprised to see similar statistics emerging soon from other places of public entertainment.

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It’s clear that the current acute phase of Britain’s cost-of-living crisis is already having a profound effect on local businesses that depend on discretionary spending; and if you add the growing fear of another winter wave of Covid infections, and the fact that ticket prices themselves are soaring in response to rising costs, it’s difficult not to conclude that the impact on cultural organisations will be severe.

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The National Galleries of Scotland have already reported that they may have to cut back sharply on opening hours, or even close one of their Edinburgh galleries completely; and as the supportive impact of pandemic funding fades away, leaving arts organisations desperately trying to restore old business models in a changed economic landscape, more high-profile casualties are likely to emerge.

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For those of us with long memories of the Scottish arts scene, the contrast with the celebratory atmosphere of the late 1980s and 1990s – when both Glasgow and Edinburgh were seeking to expand and burnish their images as global cities of culture – is particularly painful to recall; and when The Scotsman reported earlier this week that even Edinburgh’s beloved Ross Bandstand is at risk of being ruled out as an entertainment venue because of the potential for rockfalls from castle – which might also prevent future large-scale firework displays from the ramparts – it seemed not only like the end of an era, but also like a symbol of the hollowing-out of our cities, as people mourn the loss of shops they have long since ceased to use, tourists outnumber city centre residents, and the cultural beacons that once lit up the landscape threaten to flicker and fade.

Nor is there any simple solution to this litany of threats to our shared and “live” cultural lives. With all forms of government spending under huge pressure, it is immensely politically difficult for governments to do more than sustain cultural spending at current levels; and in any case, the cultural landscape has changed so radically that simply pumping more money into existing systems may not work.

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It’s debatable, for example, whether there is really much public good to be gained from arts organisations whose price structures now routinely exclude 75 or 80 per cent of a hard-pressed population.

Yet even when all of that is said and recognised, the idea of entering these uncertain times without the support of shared cultural experience – and without these places of beauty and revelation at the heart of our cities and towns – seems unimaginably bleak.

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And there is one other vital truth about arts funding; in that it tends – if even moderately well targeted – to deliver a huge impact for the amount of money involved. In the last year before the pandemic, for example, the Scottish Government’s total spending on arts, cultural collections and events amounted to just £180 million; a substantial sum, of course, but a drop in the ocean of overall spending, and less than half of one per cent of the Scottish Government’s total budget.

Yet for that amount, cultural spending surely delivers a bang far beyond its relatively modest buck. In the last 70 years, it has helped to redefine Scotland as a modern nation, inspired First Ministers from Donald Dewar to Nicola Sturgeon, made our leading cities into global tourist attractions, transformed the prospects of many artists born in Scotland, employed scores of thousands (the arts are famously labour intensive), and enriched the lives of millions.

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And there is a strong case that given the scale of the social and civilisational crises we now face, this is precisely the moment not to allow the arts to decay; but instead to strengthen our centres of culture and creativity as a vital element of our national and local resilience, and our capacity to imagine new futures.

When the closure of Filmhouse was announced last week, many Edinburgh citizens mourned. “It was as if Edinburgh always had a magic wardrobe in Lothian Road, like the one in The Lion, The Witch And the Wardrobe,” wrote one fan on Twitter, “where you could walk in, and anything could happen; and now suddenly, it’s not there any more.”

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At their best, all arts venues are portals in exactly that way; doorways to new worlds, new possibilities, new futures. In this bleak winter, we will need them more than ever, from glorious Christmas shows in our theatres, to the wonderful Taste For Impressionism exhibition now offering soul food to thousands at the National Gallery.

And it would be a fine thing, in such depressing times, for the Scottish Government to swim briefly against the grim tide of austerity by increasing its investment in a sector that has always delivered so much for so relatively little; and that can do so much to help keep our towns, cities and communities alive, shining, and reinventing themselves, in the toughest of tough times.

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