We find ourselves in a similar position now to over 70 years ago. The genesis of the first Edinburgh International Festival recognised that art and culture were a means to healing a broken and exhausted society…
In part one Morvern Cunningham made the case for rebuilding Scotland’s ‘festival city’ from the roots up, growing with the strength of an oak tree. Here she develops the idea, showing how arts and culture can spread like branches throughout Edinburgh for all communities all year round.
Space in the city
Never has the importance of space been more keenly felt. As a result of the pandemic, we have all faced the reality of our immediate environments.
These experiences have been far from equal, however, regarding how much space we have access to in our homes – or online, whether we have another space to escape to, be that a private space like an office or public space like a park.
Lack of cultural space in the city has long been a challenge in Edinburgh, with independent and grassroots creative practitioners finding it increasingly difficult to access affordable space in which to live, work, rehearse and perform. This doesn’t have to be an irreversible trend if those in cultural power take serious steps to manage existing space better. There are three opportunities to plant acorns: make space available all year round; encourage shared space; make more space.
Edinburgh can-do all year round
During August, a ‘can-do’ attitude from the City of Edinburgh Council and other gatekeepers to cultural provision creates the temporary illusion that any available space in the city can be a venue.
This liberating approach is sadly not replicated throughout the rest of the year when artists and creative freelancers experience an ongoing dearth of city sites. Edinburgh promotors ought to be able to lease available spaces used by companies in August all year round.
Working collaboratively, organisations such as EPAD (Edinburgh Performing Arts Development), the University of Edinburgh Festivals, Cultural and City Events team, the Estate Management Team at the City of Edinburgh Council and the Edinburgh Festival Fringe Society have the ability to make the management of space in the city more accessible to Edinburgh-based creative practitioners for twelve months of the year.
Response: Develop EPAD’s useful online cultural space directory epad.space to include more of the spaces leased to Festival promoters during August, including those managed by the University of Edinburgh and listed by the Fringe Society as Fringe venues –opening up these spaces throughout the year for cultural purposes.
Share available space
Another way to make better use of existing cultural space, is to encourage proactive sharing by the cultural institutions that have access to it. This would help to repurpose underused space, nurturing talent and allowing new creative activity to take place. The move could also help foster a sense of shared collective ambition with mutual support leading to mentorship, business buddying and other collaborative opportunities as we begin to emerge from the pandemic.
This sharing could be expanded with sensitive dispersal of the August and Winter Festivals’ activity across Edinburgh’s neighbourhoods. Such an initiative could be achieved by investing in cultural activities at a community level and encouraging collaboration between festival promoters and local venues and other public spaces within our communities.
As well as empowering Edinburgh residents to take greater ownership over the city’s cultural events, spreading the range and scope of Festival activity to local neighbourhoods would also help alleviate the current saturation of cultural activity in the city centre at key times throughout the year.
Response: Cultural institutions and local businesses with access to space can provide a portion to Edinburgh-based creative freelancers throughout the year – ideally at little or no cost. Investing in communities to carry out their own cultural activity at key festive times throughout the year, and encouraging potential for collaboration with established cultural institutions and promoters.
Make more space
We need a comprehensive audit of vacant space in the city. This is a pressing need. Edinburgh has been losing grassroots creative and community spaces at an increasing pace in recent years.
A key site for cultural development is the grassroots. Emerging creative freelancers from a range of diverse backgrounds must be supported in the creation and management of key spaces for the benefit of Edinburgh’s cultural ecosystem.
Collectively, we all ought to be aware of the space that we take up and actively make room for others,, instead of continuing to offer opportunities to those already in receipt of privilege. Those in cultural power need to make space for others, who can in turn create more inclusive spaces of their own.
Response: A comprehensive audit of vacant space in the city should be carried out, including spaces owned by the City of Edinburgh Council. Development of a joined-up council-run plan to manage these on a short-term basis to cultural tenants. Invest in, support and create new grassroots cultural spaces in the city that are run by, platform and centre those from minoritised communities.
The flourishing of the human spirit
We find ourselves in a similar position now to over 70 years ago. The genesis of the first Edinburgh International Festival recognised that art and culture were a means to healing a broken and exhausted society, at the end of the Second World War.
It is certain that the full impact of the global crisis on our way of life is yet to be fully felt. Even so, I cherish the hope that out of the pain and heartache of the last 12 months we can begin to rebuild a cultural sector in this city in a better image, one that will help process the communal trauma we’ve all experienced to some degree, and that can reflect the myriad of human stories that need to be told as we start to emerge from this crisis.
This time however, Edinburgh’s cultural sector has to be rebuilt sustainably. It has to be recognised that the cultural sector in the city operates as part of a larger ecosystem, and each component within it needs to understand their place and contribution as well as respecting each other’s role within it.
We now have to focus on creating the best conditions for the seeds of change to grow and thrive. Cultural activity doesn’t generate in a vacuum, it needs to be nurtured by a supportive system that gives it room to grow. We cannot simply go back to how things were before.
Our shared future is local
The COVID-19 pandemic has acted as both an amplifier and a fast forward button. It has shown that we need to pay attention and invest in the local, in our immediate environment. We’ve all been shopping, working and socialising locally as a result of the restrictions experienced in the last 12 months. These trends towards the local are projected to continue post-pandemic, with a general societal move towards supporting local independent businesses, flexible working patterns and greater use of local green spaces.
As our future will be localised, it is up to all of us to contribute to a better outcome for ourselves and others as we go forward into the great unknown of a world post-pandemic. We no longer face a Build Back Better scenario, but instead one of rebuilding. Let us rebuild a city of care, one that values its people first and foremost, one that nurtures its grassroots arts and community activity, that is committed to representation at each and every level, promotes health and wellbeing above any other model and that includes everyone in discussions about the future of their city.
This is my portrait of Edinburgh Reimagined. I look forward to seeing yours.
This is an extract from Edinburgh Reimagined: The future will be localised, supported in part by a Momentum micro-grant from Festivals Edinburgh. Published in extended pamphlet form by Out of the Blueprint
Illustrations by Bethany Thompson.