Edinburgh International Festival: Director Fergus Linehan reveals first plans for 2021 comeback

The director of the Edinburgh International Festival has predicted there will be “pent-up” demand for the city’s cultural extravaganza to return next year – but has warned of the risk of the event facing a “scorched earth” landscape if companies and venues do not survive the Covid-19 crisis.

Fergus Linehan is director of the Edinburgh International Festival. Picture: Alistair Linford
Fergus Linehan is director of the Edinburgh International Festival. Picture: Alistair Linford

Fergus Linehan said the festival would need to bounce back with a “compelling” programme in 2021, but said the festival was likely to feature international performers and companies, and more opportunities for local arts organisations to get involved in the event.

Mr Linehan said there was an urgent need to help some companies which had been “absolutely annihilated” by the impact of the pandemic since a ban on large gatherings for events was imposed in Scotland in mid-March.

He also declared that the EIF would have a key role in the city’s economy recovery from the pandemic, drawing comparison with its origins in 1947 in the aftermath of the Second World War.

Mr Linehan suggested that the festival would be rethinking its relationship with the city and its people before it returned next year, saying: “It would be terrible if we came out of this and there was a sense of celebration and people felt it was absolutely nothing to do with them.”

Speaking on a Royal Society of Edinburgh podcast, Mr Linehan said the case for investing in arts and culture events was being made by how much they had been missed.

He said: “We identify what we believe is important to us through our cultural choices. That’s been taken away from us. I hadn’t thought quite so much about how much people use culture as an outlet, whether as an escape from the stresses and strains of their lives, as a social outlet, or just the sheer catharsis of the work.

“In its absence it is really showing up how important it is for the wellbeing of people and their sense of themselves.

“I think initially people will just rush back to what they’ve been really missing. I feel there’s going to be a lot of pent-up demand and people will want to show loyalty to whatever they’re interested in.

“One of the big concerns is that this ends and we are ready to go in August 2021 and we just have a kind of scorched earth of venues and companies.

“Building-based organisations, with a large turnover and fixed overheads, who are dependent on tickets sales and bar income, have been absolutely annihilated. We need to make sure we don’t lose the whole world through which all of this happens.

“Our main responsibility is to make sure we can come back really strongly. When the city is ready and the country is ready we need to be ready. That’s why I am concerned about some of the venues being in a bad way financially or administratively.

“When the switch is flicked, and hopefully that will happen with a vaccine in the new year, the first festival we do is going to be critical. It needs to have that sense of social cohesion, we need to get people to start visiting Edinburgh again and we are going to have to have an offer that is compelling enough to get people back.

“We also have to bear in mind that we are a large organisation and we have an incredibly strong group of people that support us. I think there is a role for us in terms of perhaps helping and leading some of the other August festivals to make sure the festival city as a whole is there.

“We will come out the other side of this. But the idea of who is part of this community will be a really profound question for us. That’s sometimes been a complicated question for us.

“People look to us to have an international remit. We try to think globally, we’re very much a European institution, but we’re also thinking about the UK, Scotland and Edinburgh.

“It would be terrible if we came out of this and there was a sense of celebration and people felt it was absolutely nothing to do with them.

“We’re going to have to look at how we make more work locally. We’re very lucky to have a great range of companies and great artists who live here.”

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