The Edinburgh International Festival will undergo a radical re-think in the run-up to its 75th anniversary in 2022 under a vision aimed at turning it into a truly global event for the first time.
Organisers have made a new commitment to ensure parts of the world beyond Europe and the English-speaking countries gain much greater representation as part of a wide-ranging blueprint for the event’s future.
They also want to tackle head-on the biggest issues being debated internationally and to ensure the festival showcases the most ground-breaking and confrontational art being created around the world.
Director Fergus Linehan, who last year signed a contract to stay at the helm until 2022, said new “first principles” would influence the decision-making process over the next five years.
Cheaper tickets are expected to be offered in future to workers in the creative industries in Edinburgh, while the festival is also expected to forge new partnerships with some of Scotland’s leading arts organisations.
Companies from Africa, the Arab world, Indonesia, Korea, Japan and China are expected to get a much bigger profile in future festival programmes after Linehan admitted the geographical focus of the event had “narrowed” in recent years.
The festival has started talks with its main funders over a long-term vision that will be underpinned by a commitment to “demonstrate creative excellence, bring the world’s finest talent to Edinburgh and raise the ambitions of Scotland’s creative sector”.
However, its new vision will also offer a much bigger platform than before for Edinburgh-based artists and performers to get involved in the event, as well as a pledge to step up efforts to overturn perceptions among many residents of the city that arts and culture are “not for them”.
Linehan said: “I think people want us to be putting on the major artists of our time. We’ve probably been a bit homogenised in terms of being very European in recent years. There has been a bit of a gravitational pull away from other countries.
“That has been partly down to finances. Quite frankly, it is more difficult to take something from much further away, when people do not have as much familiarity with the country.
“We really want to ask questions about how global Edinburgh really is in August.
“I know some of the big Fringe operators have also found it difficult to bring companies and artists here from non-English speaking countries.
“The really unfamiliar, very progressive piece of work is becoming more difficult to find in August as well. The really progressive artists that I see around the world, the ones pushing the form, are not really here.
“As well as the festival being seen as excellent and welcoming and fun, it’s about ensuring that it is also really innovative.
“It’s more difficult than before to bring something here that people have never seen before and is maybe going to be quite confrontational and certainly unfamiliar.
“Part of that has been because we’ve had to earn more revenue, frankly.
“There is a lot of work around at the moment that is very issued-based, around things like environmental issues and migration, that is being produced by people you’ve never heard of before, in languages you don’t speak.
“A lot of that programming has got squeezed in terms of the funding squeezes we’ve had.
“They can be projects which have a relatively small audience and are quite complicated to do, but they are the projects that sometimes really give you an edge as a festival. We need to really speak up for that work and say how important it is.”
Linehan said the festival wanted to have a “wider conversation” about its future without the “spectre” of funding arrangements hanging over it.
The event has received around £4.5 million in core funding from the city council and Creative Scotland in recent years, although more than half its budget is made up from ticket sales and sponsorship deals. The 2018 programme includes £190,000 in Scottish Government “Festivals Expo” funding for a showcase of Scottish music at Leith Theatre, while £100,000 from EventScotland will help pay for a Year of Young People initiative around the opening event, Five Telegrams.
Linehan said: “We want to ask questions about what we really feel about excellence.
“Everyone says they’re all for it, but excellence is really expensive. It costs a lot and it is very time consuming.
“It’s really important in terms of the overall mix of the festivals. But we have to explain it to a lot of people and go, ‘Look, do we really want this world-class thing?’ Because if we do it’s going to be expensive.’”
The EIF has just announced a second major partnership with a high school in Edinburgh – this time Leith Academy – after several years working with Castlebrae Community High in Craigmillar.
Linehan said: “We are very proud of a lot of the work we do to connect in with the city, but I think we have to think what the ideal situation looks like.
“We will do things that some people will just not like, but I still feel, in general, that we are not altogether comfortable with the level at which people in Edinburgh connect with us.
“There are people in Edinburgh who feel a real disconnect from us.
“It’s not just about the festivals. It’s more of a question about arts and culture, but it’s really about us redoubling our efforts in the future. We feel that our relationships throughout the city are not strong enough.
“Culturally, as an organisation, we all really want it to happen.
“Part of it is to do with perception and part of it is down to how we work with other organisations. It all takes time and money and we can’t do everything.
“We want to ensure there are more opportunities for artists working in Edinburgh to perform at the event.
“Tickets should probably be a hell of a lot cheaper for you if you are in the creative industries in Edinburgh.”