How will Edinburgh emerge from the pandemic? In the early days of Covid-19, lockdown changed the city landscape more than anyone could have imagined. In the first of a two-part series, Morvern Cunningham sets out why and how Scotland’s capital must be rebuilt. From the grassroots up.
A message from the future
What lies ahead?
Reimagining the world. Only that.
From Azadi by Arundhati Roy
We are now twelve months on from the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic in the UK, a moment that took place in the spring of 2020 and essentially shut down the arts and culture sector overnight. Even now, many artforms and practitioners are unable to return to any degree of normalcy.
Early on in the first lockdown, the mantra of “Build Back Better” seemed to be on everyone’s lips, including my own (“You’ll Have Had Your City?” Building Edinburgh back better post-pandemic). The phrase itself is an emblem of a reanimated wartime spirit, warm in its comforting message – not only would eventually things get back to normal, but they would also be somehow miraculously improved (the “new normal”) at the same time.
The subsequent reality, however, has been starker than this initial optimism may have led us to believe. Since the pandemic began, our governments have failed millions of people – in particular, the vulnerable and the marginalised. We now know without question that people in care homes, disabled people, people of colour and/or those from working class backgrounds in this country have been disproportionately affected by the crisis.
For the arts and culture sector in the main, not a great deal has changed in the intervening period of dormancy. Inequalities and elitism that were present in the arts pre-pandemic have prevailed throughout the crisis. Millions of pounds in bailout funds have been pumped into cultural institutions across the country, irrespective of their primary audience demographics or levels of community engagement. Precious little of this support has trickled down to independent artists and freelancers, dependent on the fundamentally flawed Self Employed Income Support Scheme or Universal Credit, other than in the form of often small and one-off bursaries that are oversubscribed.
A real and present danger
Crucially, in the midst of the UK-wide vaccination programme and as various new roadmaps out of the latest lockdown are devised and rolled out, we are at a perilous turning point. With Edinburgh’s major festivals expressing ‘optimism’ they can return in summer 2021, and other cultural players putting pressure on the government for dates of reopening, we in the arts and culture sector face a very real and present danger. We face the risk of returning to a kind of normal that we saw pre-pandemic. Only this time, the normal we are heading back to is likely to be worse than before: even more unequal, increasingly competitive and less caring of its people as a direct result of the crisis.
Amidst this hellscape, however, an element of hope might still endure through the darkness. Since lockdown one, conversations both public and personal have been taking place, groups have been springing up to discuss the best paths forward, and there is a palpable sense that it’s now even more urgent than ever that we use this enforced pause as an opportunity to shape what our future and the future of our children will be. This can be the start of the journey to reimagine and rebuild a more equitable society that works for the benefit of the many, as opposed to the few. No longer is it reasonable to assume that structures and processes take place simply because “This is the way we’ve always done things.”
In the light of the current crisis, we as a society are increasingly questioning this mindset. Indeed, “Why are we doing what we’re doing?”, “What is the purpose behind what we’re doing?” and “Who is this really serving?” are all important questions to be asking of ourselves as we emerge from the pandemic.
Time for fundamental change
What I would like to see as the outcome of questions such as these is fundamental change. I believe this is the only way we’re going to see transformation at a grassroots level. What follows here are my suggestions for positive changes, gleaned from my time working in the arts and informed by a series of creative conversations I’ve been conducting with people from across the arts sector and in cultural power in Scotland over the last few months.
During the course of these conversations, I’ve heard resignation and helplessness, I’ve been told that life isn’t fair and that for one group to be prioritised, another has to suffer. I’ve heard from creative practitioners on the brink of walking away from their sector, and others who have already walked. But I don’t believe it has to be like this.
Call me naïve or a dreamer, stupid or deluded, but I still believe in the possibility of change, the potential to make things – even marginally – better than they were before. And I still passionately believe that this is the time to do it. If a global pandemic isn’t the impetus for starting again with care and love and the power of hindsight, then frankly, I don’t know when is.
Root and branch: Edinburgh reimagined
From the smallest acorns great oak trees grow, and I wish to sow my own personal acorn here, of hope for a better arts sector, a better Edinburgh and a better place for us all to live. Oak trees are not only a symbol of age and strength, but of resilience – their root systems run deep underground, interconnecting with one another, making them more resilient to the crises they may experience during their lifetimes.
My particular tree symbol encompasses what I believe to be three vital and interrelated foundational elements, corresponding to the roots, trunk and branches of the cultural ecosystem of the city of Edinburgh: These three building blocks of change can be set out as:
Value systems – the roots of everything we do and hold dear, the essential foundations of governance.
Support Structures – the trunk: the practical structures we put in place to uphold our values, for example, through public funding and networking.
Space in the city– where the real work takes place; the branching growth that occurs from what we have chosen to value and support. This requires managing and sharing existing space as well as creating space.
In exploring these elements, I’m attempting to boil down to the fundamental essence of what I feel is most important for all of us, individually and collectively, to be revising and reassessing at this crucial time in the development of humanity.
In Part Two, I will investigate each of these foundational building blocks in closer detail, identifying where I believe changes are necessary in order to make access to culture more equitable in the city. My hope is that by implementing incremental change at every level, a better balance of cultural power will be achieved and new possibilities will manifest – ultimately enriching many more people in the city of Edinburgh and beyond.
Images from lockdown walks in 2020: Fay Young