Edinburgh Art Festival: New director wants to see work transforming public space in the city

Artists are set to get the chance to create more new work for public places during Edinburgh’s main summer festivals under plans to expand the reach of the city’s biggest visual art showcase.

The new director of the Edinburgh Art Festival has set out a vision of transforming key parts of the public realm as this year’s event got underway with the unveiling of a string of commissions for sites along the banks of the Union Canal.

Kim McAleese, who has previously worked in Birmingham and Belfast, said she hoped “magical moments and encounters” would be created across the city in future to try to open up access to the festival, which will celebrate its 20th anniversary in 2024.This year’s arts festival features special commissions, projects, events, dance performances, sound installations and boat trips between the Lochrin Basin and Wester Hailes, which have been programmed to mark the 200th anniversary of the canal.

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Ms McAleese commissioned work for public locations across Birmingham and Belfast in her previous jobs.

Kim McAleese is the new director of the Edinburgh Art Festival. Picture: Lisa Ferguson

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    She said: “The art festival was originally set up by a consortium as a marketing exercise. The festival and its funding have really been really built up over the last 18 years so that it can have public commissions.

    “I love working with artists who make interventions that are maybe a bit more ad-hoc.

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    "Edinburgh has an incredible offer of galleries and exhibition spaces, but the public realm feels a lot more available and accessible to people.

    “It doesn’t need to be huge, spectacular and over-the-top. You can have magical moments and encounters with artists in public spaces. They can be really transformative.”

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    Kim McAleese is the new director of the Edinburgh Art Festival. Picture: Lisa Ferguson

    Ms McAleese said she was keen to draw inspiration from the efforts of her predecessor, Sorcha Carey, and the city’s Hidden Door art festival, to open up and revive interest in buildings which were previously inaccessible to the public.

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    A former off-licence at the Westside Plaza shopping centre has been turned into a pop-up venue that is expected to be one of the main hubs of the festival, which will be running until August 28.

    Artists have been creating work inspired by the construction of the canal, its links with the city’s industrial heritage, the surrounding environment, and the gentrification of derelict and redundant sites in modern times.

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    Ms McAleese said: “We have got seven different public commissions along the Union Canal this year and really showcasing the relationship we have with lots of different community groups in Wester Hailes.

    “It's interesting to me that more than half of the attendees across the festivals are from Edinburgh. It's really important to be able to take the world-class offer of the festivals to people in Wester Hailes who maybe don’t have a lot of disposable income. We have to make the festival quite open for people.”

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    Ms McAleese has pledged to maintain and develop the global links of the art festival, which features work from more than 100 artists and 35 exhibitions in its 2022 edition.

    She added: “Edinburgh really feels like a proper European cultural city.

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    "It’s really important to me that the festival maintains its internationalism and its interaction with people from different cultural backgrounds.”