Edinburgh International Festival: outgoing director asks for pledge of long-term funding to secure future

Edinburgh International Festival director Fergus Linehan oversees its latest event. Photo: Lisa Ferguson

Fergus Linehan called on the Scottish Government and City Council to take a longer-term view of the event after years of funding cuts or slight cuts.

Linehan, who oversees its latest event, said the festival needed more protection against “bumps in the road” which could affect its finances.

He suggested that the festival be seen as a key historical asset for the country alongside Edinburgh Castle.

The Edinburgh International Festival opened on Friday with the spectacular outdoor Macro at Murrayfield Stadium. Photo: Andrew Perry

Mr Linehan was speaking weeks after a new 2030 vision for Edinburgh festivals warned they needed new investment models to give them ‘maximum resilience’ in the future.

The plan has been published by Festivals Edinburgh, the umbrella organization which has brought together leading figures from the city’s main events since 2007, and the Edinburgh Festivals Forum, on which the council, the Scottish government, events bodies and of Tourism and the University of Edinburgh.

He said: “The Covid-19 crisis has exposed the fragilities of the whole cultural sector, in particular its long-term financial viability and its ability to invest in change.

“Before the pandemic, the sector had already experienced a difficult decade since the global financial crisis of 2008, with festivals seeing a 30% reduction in real terms in public subsidies which they had compensated for by diversifying their sources of income.”

Mr Linehan said: “Looking back in hindsight, we are probably thinking about these things in too short a time frame.

“The issue is not really a cost of living crisis, terrible inflation and tight times.

“The real challenge is knowing what the long-term perspective is. The danger that you’re going through a bad time, the investment goes down a bit and then that becomes the high point.

“I think there has to be a long-term view and an acceptance that in any given year there can be bumps in the road.

“We are now in the year of the 75th anniversary. Taking a 20 or 25 year view of the festival sounds very grand, but it would take the politics out of the immediacy and at least set a goal for where things need to be.

“I also think the festival needs to be funded in a way that’s not based on cash flow for that year. It should be treated more like a historic asset like Edinburgh Castle.”

Under its current funding arrangements, the EIF receives over £5m a year from the Scottish Government, City Council and Creative Scotland, and is the most heavily funded event in the country.

Linehan has previously criticized the city council in particular for regularly targeting the EIF for cuts.

Speaking in 2019, he said: ‘I just want to know what the plan is. Do you keep cutting or is there a time when the festival ends? In three years, will all roads lead to a swamp? Is the only strategy to keep slicing salami? If so, the festival will end.

“If we had bounced back to the same level over the last decade and had to take our meds, it would be different. But you can’t deteriorate a basic funding base indefinitely.

Darcy J. Skinner