Damian Killeen: Culture must stretch beyond city centre

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Some years ago, a visitor to a major video installation in Portobello’s Victorian swimming baths by the internationally-renowned, Edinburgh-born artist Michael Pinsky complained: “This is the kind of thing we should be able to see in the city centre. We shouldn’t have to come out here to see work of this quality.”

This is typical of comments Portobello’s cultural groups have heard over the years from other Edinburgh residents as well as from the city’s cultural institutions and council managers; the idea of culture outside the city centre is too often associated with low expectations in terms of quality or innovation.

Now, however, recent major reports, such as Thundering Hooves 2.0 and Desire Lines, expressing the concerns of the city’s cultural community about Edinburgh’s all-year-round cultural policies and practices, suggest that, with rising costs, alternative offers and increasing strains on the city’s infrastructure, the tide of Edinburgh’s pre-eminence in the cultural world might be changing direction. As befits a seaside community, Portobello, along with others, would like to see the tide shifting more in our way.

Culture in Edinburgh is a matter of feast and famine. The all-you-can-eat buffet is laid out in August and disappears in September. Most of the year we have a good offer of pre-packaged, touring productions and shows but, with notable exceptions, few places where art is actually made. Local artists, performers and cultural producers struggle to find the livelihoods they need to enable them to develop their careers. This is not the way to develop Edinburgh as year-round city of culture. The city managers do not recognise that they have to feed the goose if it is going to lay more golden eggs.

In Portobello, for example, contrary to a neighbourhood plan agreed by the wider community, a planning decision for the ScottishPower site is resulting in the loss of artists’ studios and a recording studio used by musicians from across the city. Planning officials declared the community’s views redundant and the chair of the planning committee said that if people wanted this kind of provision, someone could develop it elsewhere in the neighbourhood. No amount of cultural aspiration can survive this level of philistinism.

Portobello residents pay for cultural provision, including substantial subsidies to the festivals, through their taxes and they expect to see the benefits spread more widely through a joined-up process of cultural planning and development. This should include the creation and protection of spaces for making and experiencing culture year-round. We have ideas for cultural developments to benefit the whole city and we contribute our time and energy to maintaining our community’s cultural vitality. We deserve to be heard above the din of Edinburgh’s festive jamboree.

Damian Killeen OBE is chairman of Big Things on the Beach