Festival chief admits city's summer events have not done enough for the people of Edinburgh

The director of the Edinburgh International Festival has admitted that the city's flagship cultural events have not done enough for the people of the city in modern times.

Fergus Linehan said although the city’s summer events had experienced “huge surges in demand” before the pandemic they also created “real problems."

Mr Linehan, who was appointed eight years ago, said he believed that they had not delivered “a sense of shared cultural or financial dividend” for local residents.

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He suggested that the infrastructure for the festivals had been developed with economic regeneration and tourism in mind rather than the people of Edinburgh

Mr Linehan, who was born in Dublin and worked in festivals in Australia before taking on the EIF role, predicted that the record attendances reached before the pandemic would return.

But he said Edinburgh “has to decide what it wants to do with that success.”

The EIF has been running since 1947, alongside the Fringe and the film festival. Their combined overall attendance, along with other event like the Tattoo, jazz, visual art and book festivals, had soared to more than 4.4 million by 2019, the highest ever. More than 25,000 artists and performers took part in around 5000 separate events.

All of the summer festivals were forced to go online last year in the face of the pandemic but are expected to return this July and August, with the exception of the Tattoo.

Speaking in an Edinburgh University webinar on the impact of the pandemic, Mr Linehan said: “We’ve lived through probably the greatest boom time for live performance in history.

“Rather than replacing live performance, the digital revolution created an insatiable appetite to actually be there in the room with the artists and a crowd. In Edinburgh, we saw huge surges in demand for the summer festivals.

“It’s not unreasonable to assume that out of the other end of the pandemic people will be incredibly enthusiastic about going to live shows.

“But it has created some real problems. In Edinburgh, the popularity of the festival season has not engendered a sense of shared cultural or financial dividend.

Fergus Linehan has been at the helm of the Edinburgh International Festival since the 2015 event.

“I often feel that one of the things that happened during austerity was that the argument the arts made for itself was about economic regeneration or tourism. Much of our cultural infrastructure was built with them in mind.

“Perhaps now we look at it and say it’s not actually built for the people who live in the city, it’s built around those ideas. They’re not getting a direct dividend or certainly not feeling it in the way they should.

“The reason Edinburgh in August is successful is that people find the city a wonderful place to visit and the festival a wonderful experience. I see no reason why that’s going to change. My prediction is that attendance at performing arts events is going to return to the record levels of pre-pandemic.

“That’s going to create a level of success that will present challenges and opportunities that were there before.

"It’s a problem of success. Edinburgh has to decide what it wants to do with that success, and how to harness and direct it.

“I’d argue that, as problems go, it’s not the worst one to have. It’s a problem many cities around the world would happily take off our hands.”

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