Edinburgh International Festival: Nicola Benedetti can be a crucial Scottish culture champion as it faces huge challenges – Brian Ferguson

Change is undoubtedly in the air in Edinburgh – particularly for those with an interest in the city’s cultural scene.

Nicola Benedetti has just started her tenure as director of the Edinburgh International Festival (Picture: Jessica Shurte)
Nicola Benedetti has just started her tenure as director of the Edinburgh International Festival (Picture: Jessica Shurte)

After a long, agonising journey to get events back up and running and venues reopen following the lifting of Covid restrictions, the city has had a whirlwind few months. The return of Edinburgh’s festivals in full effect in July and August also saw the return of packed venues, streets, bars and restaurants.

But behind the scenes it was a fraught and frenetic time for many, with new staff at every level of every organisation, hugely different ticket-buying patterns and rising costs to grapple with across the board. The city hardly had time to catch its breath before being plunged into the global spotlight with the death of the Queen.

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While there was private relief that massive disruption for the festivals had been avoided, there have been no shortage of other worries. Behind-the-scenes concerns about an impending “perfect storm" for arts organisations facing soaring energy bills, a drop in pre-pandemic audiences and a daily diet of negative headlines about the UK economy burst into the public domain with the collapse of the charity behind the Edinburgh International Film Festival and the Filmhouse cinemas.

Anyone under the impression that this was merely likely to be a one-off has had another wake-up call courtesy of the National Galleries of Scotland, which is considering cutting back opening times, and has already imposed a temporary closure of one site, as it deals with a crisis “more serious and more difficult to deal with than the pandemic itself”.

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Rising costs have already been blamed for a delay in reopening the Scottish National Gallery or getting work underway on a long-awaited revamp of the King’s Theatre, even though the building was temporarily closed in August.

Against this backdrop of angst and uncertainty, Nicola Benedetti has arrived at the Royal Mile headquarters of the Edinburgh International Festival to take charge of Scotland’s most prestigious cultural event.

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The task would be daunting enough given the event’s 75-year-old heritage, its successful reinvention by her predecessor Fergus Linehan and inevitable questions – about her suitability for a role given a lack any great experience of programming festivals and how she plans to balance the demands of the job with her international touring commitments.

But she may well have to take on an even greater leadership role given the challenges the cultural sector could face in the weeks, months and years ahead. In fact, she has arrived in Edinburgh just at the right time given the obvious need for Scottish cultural to have a vocal, passionate and compelling champion at the moment.

Benedetti has done a number of interviews, including with The Scotsman, since taking up her post at the beginning of the month. While her inaugural programme is under wraps until the spring, Benedetti had lots to say as she set out her vision of attracting new audiences to the event, making the festival and its venues more welcoming, and raising its ambitions.

Her desire to celebrate Scottish stories was the element that seemed to signal the biggest shift from her predecessor’s tenure – and one that opens up a whole world of possibilities about who she will be working with and what will end up on the city’s stages.

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