Book festival’s budget cuts are reality check likely to provoke hard thinking elsewhere - Brian Ferguson

There were no fireworks to round off Edinburgh’s festivals season in August, but it certainly ended with a bang.

In the absence of the traditional finale, it was left to the Edinburgh International Book Festival to provide a fitting end.

First Minister Nicola Sturgeon’s interview with Succession star Brian Cox was one of many sold-out book festival events I attended – thanks to a programme packed with star power. Its line-up felt like a real statement of intent on behalf of the city’s festivals – they were going to think big, aim high and maintain their ambitions emerging from Covid.

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By the end of August, it appeared they had made a triumphant comeback against all the odds of a pandemic that had closed venues and events the previous winter, with around 4,400 events attracting an audience of more than 2.5 million. However, my conversations with people behind-the-scenes painted a picture of a festivals landscape with countless problems bubbling beneath the surface – not least over audience numbers failing to match expectations.

The Edinburgh International Book Festival will not be returning to the Central Hall in Tollcross in 2023. Picture: Roberto Ricciuti
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Leading Fringe venue operators attributed most of the blame for a 25 per cent box office decline to “soaring accommodation costs”. But they also cited the cost-of-living crisis and the “lingering effects” of Covid.

An unfolding crisis has since swept up many of Edinburgh's best-known cultural institutions.

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The shocking collapse of the charity behind the Edinburgh International Film Festival (EIFF) and the Filmhouse was accompanied by a whole host of warnings to MSPs about a “perfect storm” of factors across the arts sector, with the National Galleries and National Museums organisations among those to go public over their challenges.

More sobering news is reported today in The Scotsman after the book festival has revealed it is cutting its budget by 25 per cent to cope with a drop in audience demand and its future projections.

First Minister Nicola Sturgeon interviewed actor Brian Cox at this year's Edinburgh International Book Festival. Picture: Robin Mair

Despite inevitable and understandable questions about the running of the EIFF and the Filmhouse, their collapse felt like an omen of darker times for the wider cultural sector and so it has proved.

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The book festival’s insistence on taking difficult decisions now to avoid “bigger problems” further down the line feels like a reality check that will provoke hard thinking elsewhere ahead of a winter looking even trickier to navigate than the previous two.



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