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David Porter » Articles at Suite 101 » The Cultural and Economic Importance of the Edinburgh Festivals

The Cultural and Economic Importance of the Edinburgh Festivals

2011 sees twelve major diverse events, many of world-class quality, helping to make Edinburgh the heartbeat of Britain’s cultural body.

The UK, particularly in the summer months, has wall-to-wall festivals, from parish churches to major open-air marathons. Most cities and many stately homes host festival crowds enjoying music, theatre, film, flowers, aircraft and politics of every conceivable kind, which pull in money and heighten publicity.

Edinburgh 2011’s offerings run from Science (31st March-13 April); Imaginate Children’s (7-14 May); Film (15-26 June); Jazz and Blues (22-31 July); Art (4 August-4 September); Military Tattoo (5-27 August); Fringe (5-29 August); International (12 August-4 September); Books (13-29 August); Mela (2-4 September); Storytelling (21-30 September) and Hogmanay (30 December-2 January).

It’s the ‘International’ that most people think of as the ‘Edinburgh Festival’, but in fact events are run by different organisations, so there isn’t one overall festival, although ‘Festivals Edinburgh’ is their umbrella discussion body.

There is simultaneous happenings of arts and culture, impressive for their sheer range and versatility. The aims of Mela, for instance, tap into Edinburgh’s (and Britain’s) multi-cultural melange and ‘seek to find the connections that unite us all’.

The Historical Connections

In the post-war era of rebuilding, reshaping the nation, the Edinburgh International Festival was established (1947) to provide ‘a platform for the flowering of the human spirit’. There was also clear understanding that it would play a role in the regeneration of Scotland’s economy.

The festival offered platforms in different venues to classical and contemporary theatre, music, dance, opera, visual arts, talks and workshops. From the outset, the emphasis was on performance quality. Appearance was, and still is, by invitation of the Festival Director.

Some eight theatre companies arrived who were not part of the official festival, and set up on the fringes to perform. This became the Edinburgh Fringe Festival, which is now the largest of its kind in the world. This is open to any production that can find a venue in the city, and that is often the biggest challenge, there being such pressure on space.

The Economic Benefits

Matthew Reason, Administrative Assistant in the Press and Marketing department of the Festival Fringe, published a letter he sent to students who had asked about economic benefits as part of a project. He is often asked such information, and his comments relating to the late 1990s still pertain.

He described as ‘substantial’ the worth to Scotland in general and the City of Edinburgh in particular. The 1997 50th birthday celebration saw over 400,000 people spending £2.3 million on tickets alone, never mind their food, accommodation and travel. He cited a 1996 Economic Impact Study that found all the festivals, including Hogmanay brought over £120 million a year and supported 4000 jobs.

By 2010, studies showed £261 million of additional tourism revenue for Scotland and £245 for Edinburgh from the festivals. With money on that scale, future investment is vital.

Not all artistic ideas are instant money-spinners. Creative Scotland is a body charged with promoting Scotland’s arts, screen and creative industries at home and abroad. They think these sectors are worth shouting about, and ‘we’ll lead the shouting’.

They set up the Ideas Bank, where people can propose bold, perhaps risky ideas to see how investment/support partners may be found. Potentially, the concept should reap long term harvests in that fertile ground between finance and creativity.

The Civic and Cultural Benefits

‘The festival effect’ is hard to quantify in social, cultural, fiscal and environmental impacts, but studies show that civic pride is heightened, imaginations are stimulated and families and young people are inspired by one or more things they see at a festival, outside their normal expectations or comfort zones.

Chair of the Festivals Forum, Lady Susan Rice, said the festivals ‘are a cultural phenomenon, celebrated globally and treasured locally’. She said that in a competitive tourism market and shifting economic climate, they had to ‘to ensure the Festivals flourish for generations to come’.

With focus on environmental considerations of human activity, organisers actively seek to reduce paper, minimise waste, recycle, use responsibly resourced materials, and reduce carbon footprints. Even allowing for the huge number of venues in use, and often short term occupation of spaces, they have piloted a ‘Green Venue’ project to curtail environmental footprints. Modern global business customers expects no less.

And Still It Grows

The twelve events didn’t all start in 1947. The Tattoo began in 1950, Jazz and Blues in 1978, Books in 1983, Mela in 1999. But it doesn’t stop there, the twelve are joined by many others. A People’s Festival began in 2002, and an Interactive one in 2003. Contemporary art came in 2004.

2006 saw the Free Fringe, Spirituality and Peace in 2005, iFest (internet) in 2007 and Comedy in 2008 onwards. There are Festivals of Islam,Swing, Harvest, Ceilidh Culture, Harps, Science Fringe, Easter, Fire, Dark City (goth music), Children’s International Theatre, Meadows and World Justice.

There is also the August Festival of Politics, with the 2011 theme: Renewing Politics in the Age of New Media. Besides the usual talks,workshops and discussions, the restaurant doubles as a music and theatre venue, allowing politics and the arts to interact. The Scottish Parliament building is ideal with many rooms and the Debating Chamber.

It’s all part of the continuing evolution of Edinburgh cultural festivals to which many other capital cities can only aspire.

First published on Suite 101, 3 August 2011

Image: Street Performance in Edinburgh – Christian Bickel

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