Edinburgh Festival leaders sound warning bells for the future

Edinburgh will need to build a host of modern new venues, reinvent historic ones and combine cutting-edge technology with culture to remain world-leading in future, according to figureheads of the city's flagship events.

Julia Amour is director of Festivals Edinburgh, the body overseeing 12 of the city's main events.
Julia Amour is director of Festivals Edinburgh, the body overseeing 12 of the city's main events.

Organisers believe digital tour guides, virtual reality experiences in public spaces, driverless cars, cinema-style auditoriums and “plug in and play” facilities for performers on the street are likely to be priorities for the city in future.

Greater collaborations with schools, including regular visits from performers, providing more support for cultural organisations based in the city year-round and extending the global reach of the festivals have also been targeted in a new long-term strategy.

However, festival leaders say Edinburgh risks slipping out of the premier division for hosting major events if it does not keep pace with major international rivals and invest in its cultural infrastructure.

Providing a “seamless tourism experience” for overseas visitors, ensuring potential audiences in and around Edinburgh do not feel excluded from attending the city’s arts festivals and ensuring they do not suffer from “salami slicing” funding cuts are said to be crucial to secure their future.

Senior figures involved in the city’s festivals have warned that the audiences of the future will no longer accept uncomfortable and over-heated venues, a difficult to navigate city centre, outdated transport systems and poor customer service.

Speaking ahead of the 70th anniversary of the birth of the city’s main festivals in 2017, they were responding to a call for Edinburgh to produce a long-term vision for how the city should look in 2050.

It emerged earlier this year that Edinburgh’s festivals now attract an annual audience of more than 4.5 million – around the same as the football World Cup. They are worth £313 million to the economy – up around a quarter since 2010.

Last year a major report on the future of the festivals warned that alternative sources of funding needed to be found to help them cope with the impact of a predicted “fiscal cliff”.

The £50,000 study found infrastructure improvements and investment in some of Edinburgh’s competitor cities were exposing significant “weaknesses” in the Capital, which has lost a number of cultural venues in recent years.

The report, which consultants described as a “spur to action to make sure Scotland, the city and its festivals do not rest on their laurels”, recommended creating new venues, catching up on the global digital revolution and improving the range of accommodation on offer in the city.

The views of the city’s festivals are expected to be key in shaping a “2050 Edinburgh City Vision”, which was triggered by council leaders in September to help set future priorities for the next ten, 20 and 30 years. A final blueprint is expected to be published next summer by the local authority.

Julia Amour, director of Festivals Edinburgh, which oversees the city’s 12 major events, said: “The current exercise that the city is going through is absolutely critical to the future of the festivals. We need to take stock and look at what will continue to keep us in the premier league over that longer timescale.

“The festivals have been a motor for the city’s development for nearly 70 years.

“There is now a really wide recognition of how important they are for its citizens, but also for its international reputation.

“There is a broad consensus that we need to continue to invest in the festivals. Nobody is going to replicate what Edinburgh has got, but the city will need to reinvent and refresh itself. That is the challenge.”

Mr Amour said Edinburgh was looking to cities like Montreal, which has eight public spaces and more than 40 different venues in its entertainment quarter, Quartier des spectacles.

Facilities have been installed which allow event organisers to create the kind of dramatic effects which have been used for the Harmonium Project and Deep Time, the spectacular curtain-raisers for the Edinburgh International Festival over the last couple of years.

She added: “We would like to see a public realm revolution in Edinburgh, but a lot of that is about installing the digital infrastructure so you can have a real 21st century experience in a city like ours.

“New venues need to come out of the needs of the city’s cultural institutions. We need to sit down with them, talk about how their audiences are changing and look at what they want in the future. We need to sit down with the city’s planners and really work out what the priorities are.”

City leaders have admitted there is a need to invest in new cultural infrastructure, as well as ensure historic venues like the King’s Theatre and Usher Hall are properly maintained.

Lasts month it emerged that a new £45m concert hall was being planned for a gap site off St Andrew Square, which would become home to the Scottish Chamber Orchestra and stage shows throughout the day during the Edinburgh International Festival.

EIF director Fergus Linehan said: “Festivals are a human experience and they always will be. It’s about seeing a piece of work, but it is also about creating a welcoming social experience, that is also delivered at a very high level of quality.

“That’s only going to get more competitive in future. The whole experience has to be considerably more sophisticated. There has to be a really honest assessment of where we are. In terms of infrastructure, any organisation that is not currently looking at how to maintain itself or provide better facilities is in terrible trouble.

“When you go to the cinema now you get a big comfortable seat, in a nicely air-conditioned room, with a little cup-holder and endless leg room.

“There is no doubt people are going to be less sympathetic on sitting on an uncomfortable bench in a place which is either over-heated or under-heated. It’s not necessarily going to be about new venues, but what condition they are in and how flexible they are.

“If there is a danger it is that Edinburgh takes it for granted and there is a sort of salami slicing process. It could be like someone who inherits a beautiful five-star hotel, which is an amazing business, but they don’t maintain it very well and it then starts to slide downhill.”

Shona McCarthy, chief executive of the Edinburgh Festival Fringe Society, said: “It would seem very odd going into the future if there couldn’t be some interaction between live performance and what technology can bring to the table.

“The city should be at the cutting edge of new technology and its relationship with the arts. To be honest, if we’re not there then will be left behind. There is no real excuse, as we have the research, the universities and young skilled-up technologically-aware people coming up, as well as the biggest platform in the world for the performing arts.”