The Edinburgh festivals have been offered millions of pounds in emergency funding in the face of widespread fears they may never fully recover from the severe impacts of the Covid pandemic.
The Fringe, international and book festivals, which help make up the world’s largest annual arts season, have been forced to very significantly curtail this August’s event for the second year running. One of the most famous, the military tattoo staged at Edinburgh castle, has again been entirely cancelled.
Many senior figures in the August festivals now believe it is unlikely the events will ever return to their record-breaking scale of 2019, when they sold more than 4m tickets over a four-week run, with well over a million people attending events.
The international festival will provide only about a quarter of its normal programme this year; the book festival has abandoned its traditional home, a tented city in Charlotte Square gardens in the new town, for Edinburgh’s art school; while the Fringe will dramatically shrink in size this year, with a far smaller number of venues staging events outdoors, on the streets and in open-sided marquees.
The Scottish government and Edinburgh council leader, Adam McVey, insist they are fully aware of the scale of the crisis facing the festivals, which generate up to £1bn a year in income, and the knock-on effects that has on the city’s economy. But McVey said the immediate priority was coping with the ongoing and “dynamic” Covid crisis.
“Edinburgh will still be the home to the biggest arts festival in the world, but for now we’re just going to have to put the city’s public health first,” he said.
The Scottish government has offered the cultural sector more than £25m in emergency funding, drawing on Covid relief money from the Department for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport in London. McVey said the council was also offering a further £300,000 to the city’s smaller arts organisations, to spread out the emergency aid.
Some argue that a more scaled-back festival season would be a bonus: in common with other global tourist destinations such as Barcelona and Venice, many Edinburgh residents found the festival season suffocating, its littered streets jammed with tourists and taxis; squares and parks taken over by late-night ticket-only Fringe venues; and property and rental prices vastly inflated by speculators cashing in on Air BnB rentals.
One influential sponsor suggested the enormous scale of the festivals and the continuing growth in audiences pre-pandemic also bred complacency; that impeded innovation and self-criticism about the quality of what was offered.
Nick Barley, director of the Edinburgh international book festival, historically the world’s largest, said the pandemic gave the festivals and the city a chance to re-evaluate the scale and type of their events, and to reinvent themselves.
“The race is on to do something else, which is to bring numbers back up to a really healthy level but not to the crazy over-festivalised level of 2019,” he said. “This is also an issue which affects Venice, Barcelona, any city which has had tourism and culture as part of this unholy duality, which got slightly out of control in the 2010s. We’re all trying to work out how we can do it in the post-Covid era.”
There is broad consensus among festival directors, promoters and political leaders this year is about survival. Fergus Linehan, the international festival’s director, said that while this August’s events would be much smaller, they needed to “keep the flame burning [and] keep the festival in people’s minds and hearts.”
Staging next year’s festivals will be their biggest test, to see whether audiences have overcome their anxieties about mass gatherings. The international festival, born in 1947 amid the deep recession and ruins of the second world war, celebrates its 75th anniversary in 2022.
While Fringe producers fear many highly skilled technicians and performers could leave the industry, due to the collapse in live performances during the pandemic, Linehan said 2022 could be a vast celebration. Next year’s festival could provide artists and audiences with the chance for a “huge civic moment of everything through from civic celebration to requiem, giving thanks to everyone.”
Barley said the crisis had forced his festival to reshape how it staged its events, embracing the digital streaming it was forced to use last year when all its in-person events were cancelled. One major sponsor, the investment firm Baillie Gifford, which part-owns Tesla and Spotify, has put Barley in touch with a former Spotify executive, to develop new ways of monetising the festival online.
“That’s the race, and it’s a pretty exciting race. For Edinburgh, the challenge surely has to be how to become the world’s leading hybrid festival city, one which is as good in real life as it is online – whether you’re in the new town or in Texas. If we can crack that, then we have a festival city that works for the 21st century.”