John McLellan: Great art needs subsidy

Director Jonathan Mills with the full programme for his final Edinburgh International Festival. Picture: Jane Barlow
Director Jonathan Mills with the full programme for his final Edinburgh International Festival. Picture: Jane Barlow
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When the many elderly-looking gents in bow-ties and dinner jackets turn up at the Usher Hall for tonight’s opening concert for the International Festival, many Edinburgh folk will be forgiven for thinking departing director Jonathan Mills needed a lie-down before demanding more public cash.

Without being presumptuous, the commonly-held view of what is collectively known as the Edinburgh Festival is comedians, pretentious theatrical wannabes in dingy church halls, more comedians and the fireworks.

The core of the whole affair, the Edinburgh International Festival, unashamedly appeals to very niche audiences and indeed Mills has been criticised in the past for an overly elitist approach, but the truth is that without the strong cultural spine the EIF provides, the rest of it wouldn’t be the same.

This year on the Fringe alone there are more than 3000 shows in 299 venues (surely they could have found one more?) and the variety on offer has never been greater.

Given the Fringe is a vast pool for talent scouts, a testing ground for established stars’ new material and one of the rare occasions when London types get beyond the M25 (ok, with the exception of Glasto, Haye and Glyndebourne) there is no doubt the Fringe is here to stay. The comics will continue to pour in even if the EIF is weaker.

But there are plenty of other places anxious to grab a slice of what Edinburgh enjoys. Manchester, with its shiny new media quarter, would love to prise the Guardian TV Festival away but finds that hard because the executives who come up here on expense accounts can justify the trip because the performers and their agents are here too.

Throw in the variety of the Book Festival and it’s not just comedians and actors with whom they can make easy contact. Edinburgh in August provides a concentration which even Soho can’t match.

But to attract serious decision-makers and to continue to make a mark on the international cultural stage needs more than familiar faces from Live at the Apollo.

Nothing is forever and none of what is on offer here can stand still, and this is Mills’ point.

Great art needs subsidy, it always has. Be it through the patronage of the church or the wealth of the aristocracy, someone has always paid. For the International Festival, in the past it benefitted from a rather macho muscle-flexing from Scotland’s big companies who competed to see who could back the best shows and throw the best parties around them.

Look at the EIF programme now. For understandable reasons major corporate support is significantly diminished and needs to be rebuilt. On the plus side, the Bank of Scotland and Shell UK are “corporate friends”, mighty Heineken is one down the scale as a “corporate associate” and BP is a production sponsor. Thankfully the fireworks still has a headline sponsor in Virgin Money.

No surprise RBS is well out of it but where is Standard Life? Fund manager Baillie Gifford is there, but no Martin Currie. Law firms? Apart from Maclay Murray Spens they are absent.

The big firms buy tickets and put on beanos for their clients and contacts, but in terms of real investment in the productions themselves, corporate Edinburgh is keeping its head down.

The EIF would be in crisis without Carol Hogel and the Dunard Fund and increasingly it relies on the continued support of important but low- profile individuals who are, it is fair to say, not in the first flush of youth.

The likes of Ewan Brown, Jim Stretton, Geoff Ball and Donald McDonald were all business titans in their day, but who takes on the mantle of cultural benefactors from them is not at all clear. That was one of the reasons when ten years ago, with Scotland on Sunday’s arts critic Iain Gale, the successful campaign to establish a Festival of the Visual Arts was launched.

What was identified was that Edinburgh in August was not on the calendar of the kind of extremely wealthy and globally influential figures who flock to events like the Venice Biennale. Perhaps they still don’t come here, but without a successful International Festival they never will.

For many years it was clear the Fringe played to an essentially domestic market, which was why the management team piled in during the London Olympics to use the opportunity to reach a wider audience.

So around 50 foreign journalists came up to see Edinburgh at Festival time and the result is a marked increase in international coverage in quality publications. Over time that should mean more visitors from more places, but while the experience might be new to them, the events need to renew themselves to keep hold of what we’ve got.

That’s why new ventures like the Assembly Rooms revamp, the development of George Square from a temporary home to a new hub, or the pedestrianisation of George Street are so vital.

Economic impact surveys estimate the Festivals bring over £250m to the city, with around £150m coming from the Fringe, so anything which puts that at risk needs tackling as a matter of urgency. Locals might moan about not being able to get about town so easily, but £250m would be a big hole to fill.

A total of £5m of public money goes into the International Festival, so £250m seems like a fair return. Sir Jonathan is correct in that the International Festival’s cash challenges will not go away and although I’m the last to argue that throwing public money at a problem is a good idea, in this instance even £6m would seem like a wise investment.

He is also right to resist expansion for the sake of it, with the possible exception of more performances of the same number of productions.

If there is one criticism of the programme it is that most of the major shows are only on, at the very most, three times. That’s not nearly enough to generate an increasing return from the amount of interest some of them generate. How many times can you see Nicola Benedetti perform with the Czech Philharmonic this year? Once.

But more productions? Not when there are already over 3000 to choose from.

So if you’re down Lothian Road way tonight and you see older types in their finery pouring out the Usher Hall on their way to dinner, remember that without them, we might be £250m worse off.