'Brexit Festival' shows value of large-scale free events but raises some difficult questions – Brian Ferguson

As late afternoon cast the shadows of the trees across Glasgow’s Kelvingrove Park on Sunday, it was hard to imagine a more idyllic setting for a festival in Scotland.

Wednesday, 22nd June 2022, 7:29 am

The samba band musicians leading a merry throng around the park looked to be having as much fun as their followers.

Around them, folk were sprawled out on the grass, queuing up for street food, ice cream or cold drinks, or strolling around stalls.

It was a scene frankly unimaginable this time last year but one that almost seemed a throwback to another era of simpler, more carefree time – and events.

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Clem Sheridan (8) and Sholto Sheridan (6) met 'The Tree Men' at the Dandelion Festival in Glasgow's Kelvingrove Park at the weekend (Picture: Andrew Cawley)

The past weekend, my first taste of Scotland’s post-Covid outdoors festivals, was a reminder of everything that was great about them, but one that also posed some intriguing questions.

It was bookended by visits to Kelvingrove for the biggest event to be staged in Scotland so far as part of Unboxed, the UK-wide celebration of culture instigated by the UK Government in the wake of the EU referendum.

Pilloried for some time as “The Brexit Festival”, the project has gradually but tentatively emerged from the shadows of its origins, thanks to a rebranding exercise and the efforts of Martin Green, the chief creative officer of both Unboxed and the Commonwealth Games in Birmingham this year.

Launched with a spectacular opening sound and light show at Paisley Abbey in March, Unboxed will see six projects rolled out across Scotland by the end of September, including Dandelion, the only one created, and literally rooted, in Scotland.

There has been something undoubtedly intriguing about the harvest-themed Dandelion and its ambitions to bring musical and food-growing events, projects and partnerships together across Scotland.

Developed during the pandemic, Dandelion has created vital work for artists, musicians and creative producers at a time when the cultural sector is still a long way off a full recovery from Covid.

The line-up assembled for the Kelvingrove event – one of two free Dandelion festivals, with the other planned for Inverness in September – was as strong as an any festival this summer.

Yet the nature of the event and how it was paid for did leave questions lingering in the air. How many of the 44,000 who reportedly visited the festival knew it was inspired by the Brexit vote?

Was it fair for the Dandelion project to create and run large-scale festivals in direct competition with other events entirely reliant on ticket sales, not just last weekend, but right across the summer?

And what will be the long-term cultural legacy of Dandelion be if the free festivals staged in Glasgow and Inverness are not repeated next year?

Dandelion is one of the most heavily-subsidised cultural projects in modern times in Scotland, yet any criticism has been muted by the calibre of those involved and the quality of its initial programming.

It also struck me as crucial that people were able to walk in off the street to a large-scale festival, the kind of which are few and far between these days. The number of schoolchildren and families in attendance at Dandelion at the weekend spoke volumes.

Against the backdrop of an escalating cost-of-living crisis and eye-wateringly expensive prices for concerts, the ability to deliver events of that nature has perhaps never been more important.