Julia Armour: How we can avoid a final flowering of Scotland's arts and culture

The annual cultural celebrations in Scotland’s capital face several challenges if they are to meet their vision for the future, not least a 40 per cent cut in public funding, writes Julia Amour, Edinburgh’s Director of Festivals

It has been a few weeks since Edinburgh’s August festivals finished. Despite the erratic autumnal weather, happy memories of summer still linger for me and many fellow audience members across the country.

Every year the capital becomes the world’s cultural meeting point, with citizens of Edinburgh and Scotland joined by artists and audiences from across the globe. Some people ask whether these festivals couldn’t just as easily take place in any city? But the festivals are locally rooted as well as globally minded – with over a thousand homegrown shows taking their place alongside a huge range of international arts – with Scots making up half of audiences in a concentrated moment of communal celebration. In fact, more Scots turn out each week for our peak festivals season than turn out each week for Scottish professional club football, so it’s true to say that they’re far from a minority sport.

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When walking around the city last month, I was immediately struck by one thing: A spirit of pure joy.

It’s this store of joy, rather than the blander notion of wellbeing, that I think is the overlooked intangible heritage our festivals offer the people of Scotland. The Scottish cultural workers gathered in Edinburgh year upon year – and many more like them – are the same ones who keep bringing the joy, connections and ideas to their communities across all four seasons.

We owe a huge debt of thanks to these people who make our festivals happen, and in return we must be acutely anxious about the challenges they face. Surely no-one wants the summer of 2023 to be remembered as a final flowering in what could become a desert for culture?

Our recent publication City of Imagination sets out a vision for our Festival City in 2030, and a course for action across the festivals and funders to ensure we can thrive as a sustainable and world leading festival city in this decisive decade.

Unfortunately at this moment we have to be honest and say that the obstacles in the way of reaching this vision are daunting.

It won’t surprise you to hear that levels of public investment are a key factor. But it may surprise you to learn that the festivals’ funding from the public purse has gone down by £5 million in real terms since 2010, a 40 per cent drop. This is just one example of a much wider picture for cultural infrastructure and creative livelihoods up and down the country.

Next week I’m joining other culture sector representatives giving evidence to the Scottish Parliament about the impacts of this long-term disinvestment. Public funds make up only 15 per cent of the festivals’ turnover but they are crucial to securing non-commercial acts, lesser-known talents, and the needs of under-represented audiences. Getting back to 2010 levels would be great but would still leave us some way behind our international counterparts who have seen continual investment for the past 13 years. It seems their nations fully recognise the strategic benefits of festivals for creative industries, communities, and national reputations.

Beyond investment levels, there is the familiar political problem of short-term thinking. This appears to have grown since the pandemic, with several recent proposals brought to the table seemingly without considering the full implications – including the detailed workings of the deposit return scheme and short-term lets regulations. Here, the deterrent to local people renting out rooms in their own homes for brief periods threatens to be a serious unintended consequence.

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Understanding such implications is crucial, as is the need to prioritise. Take the recent consultation on a future national events strategy. For the best return across a range of impacts, at some point the Government must carefully consider the balance between original homegrown events and mobile one-off events. The newly published figures for last year’s Edinburgh Festivals show that the economic return was nearly ten times stronger than for the 2014 Commonwealth Games, achieving £33 in additional output for every £1 in public funding. Yet, frustratingly, policymakers currently seem more focused on one-off initiatives.

Despite all the measures already taken across Scotland’s culture sector post-pandemic to cope with reduced audience numbers and higher costs, the reality is that instability and fragility are endemic.

To counter these pressures, festivals have scaled down staff numbers, infrastructure and project budgets, increased co-productions to share costs, generated six figure savings on e-ticketing, and more than doubled donor fundraising. However this does not plug the gap.

So what can be done? We believe there’s a fundamental mismatch between the levels of public investment, and Scotland’s ambition to place culture at the centre of Scottish life and extend its benefits to more people. We know that addressing this central problem is far from easy given the intense pressure on public funding. However if we are to achieve our cultural ambitions as a nation, we need to close the investment gap between Scotland and our European counterparts.

In 2019 a Scottish Parliamentary Committee recommended that Scottish Government aim to invest at least one per cent of government funding in culture. As part of the national Culture Counts network, we are now calling for next year’s budget to move towards rather than away from that benchmark. The millions that this will require may seem large but are tiny in comparison to other spending areas and bring an enormous return on investment.

If the gap doesn’t close, then the art of the possible is radically less than what Scotland says it wants, because we can no longer deliver on ever-wider policy priorities with reducing resources.

So I suppose the key question for debate is – are our political leaders ambitious for cultural success, and do they want to keep joy at the centre of our civic life?

Julia Amour is the Director of Festivals Edinburgh



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