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Catch up On Prof. Joe Goldblatt's event What Will Be the Future of Edinburgh’s Festivals?


At our first webinar since reluctant acceptance of the need to forsake face-to-face for online, we were thrilled to be addressed by our own member, performer, producer and professor Joe Goldblatt on What is the Future of the Edinburgh Festivals?

Joe reminded us that former US defence secretary Donald Rumsfeld had famously responded to the discovery of no weapons of mass destruction in Iraq by saying that reports of something having not happened were always interesting because there were known knowns. Additionally we knew that there were known unknowns, some things that we did not know. But there were also unknown unknowns, the ones we didn't know we didn't know. And as we studied history it was the last-mentioned category that tended to be the difficult one.

In looking to the future of the Edinburgh Festivals, it is the unknown unknowns that we must explore together. We know that Festivals comprise events, combining in joys, sorrows and triumphs, and an event is a unique moment of sensations being rearranged as in a kaleidoscope. Events can also be likened to milestones in our lives, remembered when the continuity that linked them has faded, so that what makes our existence worth living is their recollection as an inspiring series. We may thus come to know how Edinburgh Festivals given us milestones to mark our lives, but how unknown may be the ways that they can continue to do so in the future?

In the beginning the Edinburgh Festivals were part of the world's postwar recovery, creating a platform for the flowering of the human spirit, when in 1947 the City opened its heart to visitors, many of whom stayed in its citizens' private homes. Jewish artists led the way, first Festival director Sir Rudolf Bing reuniting conductor Bruno Walter with his Viennese Symphony Orchestra. Events took off as other artists flocked here to follow the example of the officially-invited ones, and as the Fringe and other Festivals gained recognition so an input-output model developed whereby investors and creditors, venues and other suppliers and employees delivered events which yielded economic and social impacts, audiences, sponsorship and donations. Later other rivals grew in cities like Manchester and Salzburg, and studies showed that these received greater subsidy

On first discovering the Festivals fifteen years ago, Joe found that he could not stop buying tickets, assembling a sequence of experiences unavailable anywhere else. His wife wondered if he needed therapy, to which he replied that it was group therapy, and the group was the audience!

When the 70th anniversary of the festivals was celebrated with a son et lumiere at the Usher Hall, it was symbolic - and now seems a portent of things to come - that the event spilled into the street, embracing without having to draw in the crowds gathered outside.

Analyses of the Festivals' impact found benefits that far exceeded the downsides of early opponents. Nevertheless a study led by Joe at Queen Margaret University exploring the International, Fringe and Book Festivals in 2011 highlighted a growing need to identify new sources of funding beyond public support and earned income. It recommended that a combination of banks, venture-capital firms and venture philanthropic organisations might provide valuable alternative funding sources in the future.

Still more recently, concern grew about how the Festivals' continuing success was impacting on the City's infrastructure in what was described as "overtourism". However all of this was to be dramatically knocked on its head when lockdown in the face of global pandemic forced the collapse of international travel and the imposition of social distancing, ruling out the conditions for normal interaction at event venues in Edinburgh as elsewhere across the world.

With aircraft grounded and people no longer able to mix, a very modest revival of social interaction in the summer of 2020 could not extend to any return of the Festivals as we had known them. Students of event management found themselves referring to work by Dr Roslyn Derrett in 2009 who had found that essential components of resilience were participation, governance and context, in a framework where well-being, stability and prosperity might interact through a sense of place, image and cultural tourism to support a resilient community festival.

Already there are some signs of how individual Festivals might react to the shock. The Fringe is looking to a new path that emphasises environmental sustainability. The Edinburgh International Festival is contemplating a year-round offer to people that it previously did not reach. The Edinburgh Book Festival sees its future as more on line.

Air travel is showing a slower recovery than happened after 9/11 and Sars – and obviously a ban on international travel without quarantining will take its toll. People may be nervous about returning to crowded venues, preferring outdoors options such as drive-in gigs or inflatable pods.

Looking to future scenarios after what is emerging as the transitional year of 2021, three options that can be seen are : to relegate the Festivals into obscurity (which given their past prowess seems unlikely) ; to see them retain the status quo, which might be rather more likely ; or to reinvent them in the context of a new normal, which surely is highly likely to happen. In this new form, while remaining true to their roots in the Scottish Enlightenment, the Festivals might become smaller in size, shorter in duration and sharper in form, using hybridization to integrate seamlessly live performance with technology.

French philosopher Paul Valery wrote that the trouble with our times is that the future is not what it used to be. At this point we can only surmise on the forms that it might take, factoring in also Brexit as another challenge to the flow of artists and ideas. Will hospitality return to the roots of the Festivals, with visitors forsaking the pressures of Airbnb to lodge once again with Edinburgh's citizens? Will the need for social distancing promote the creation

of satellite neighbourhoods on a hub-and-spoke basis where event-goers can frequent drive-in venues or stay in spaced-out surroundings, so helping spread the Festivals' social and economic benefits more widely across Scotland? With impact thus mitigated, could the Festivals become year-round, thus easing the focus on August and the festive season? And will opportunities for remote viewing permit events to be shared with much larger audiences than could ever be squeezed into Edinburgh's small and now socially-distanced venues, thus enabling a perhaps travel-resistant virtual clientele to share the joys of our Festivals in appreciation that culture and community unlike sport are inclusive and uncompetitive.