I was invited to contribute to a conference organised by The Cockburn Association titled ‘Whose Festival is it Anyway’ on Saturday 31st January. The conference featured panels exploring Edinburgh’s Festivals – past, present and future. I participated in a panel chaired by well-known broadcaster, Stephen Jardine, focused on Cultural Tourism and the Festivals: What will be the ‘new normal’? The panel discussion can be accessed on the Cockburn Association’s YouTube channel. This conference built on a large public meeting held in January 2020, City for Sale? The Commodification of Edinburgh’s Public Spaces which I also spoke at. The theme of festivals, public space and the city is the focus of a large research project, Festspace, that I lead, which is funded by the Humanities in the European Area (HERA).
In the discussion, I suggested that festivals are incredibly important for cities – including their residents, cultural workers, and businesses. The relationship between festivals and their cities is longstanding and vital for how places are perceived, internationally. You just need to think of Cannes, Venice, Salzburg and of course Edinburgh to make sense of that. Over-time (pre-COVID) we have seen ideas associated with festivalisation emerge, with both benefits and drawbacks. In a recent book on Festival Cities, John and Maggie Gold have suggested this trend reflects a “process by which increasing the number and duration of festivals held in a particular place produces tangible and intangible changes in the economy, culture and environment of that place” (p14). Functioning to attract inward tourism visitation as part of a growing visitor economy, festivals in Edinburgh (and elsewhere) have undoubtedly changed the city, generated business for many sectors and contributed to the city/Scotland’s place in the world. Of course some of these tangible and intangible changes have in recent years become increasingly problematic and open to public debate. In Edinburgh, festivals have become central, as opposed to peripheral, to the city’s economy. Debates in 2019/early 2020 about festivals taking over the city’s public green spaces provide evidence of a growing concern over the sustainability of the existing model for festivals. COVID-19 has clearly produced a shock to so many areas of political, social and economic life. Festivals and their associated relationship with tourism have been particularly badly hit by the measures introduced to disrupt the transmission of the virus. Mass public gatherings have, and will continue to be curtailed. The implications are serious and could be longstanding as they affect each of the main three purposes of festivals for cities: media for the transmission and reception of culture; ingredients in creating and maintaining place identity; intrinsic parts of the urban economy (Gold & Gold, 2020). I concluded my opening comments by suggesting that the likely response and future of festivals in the city largely depends on the ongoing impact of the pandemic on mobility, public confidence, and economic/public policy.
In the second part of the discussion we were asked to consider what we felt the future held for Edinburgh’s Festivals. I suggested that economics was going to play a significant role as we’re likely to experience an increasingly restrictive public funding environment at the same time as festivals require more public subsidy. I also think there’s going to be a need for new municipal strategies that rely less upon the staging of large-scale (often disruptive) festivals that alter the city’s public spaces for extended periods of time and yet also suffer from economic leakages. I also think it’s safe to say that the hybrid model is here to stay, though its form will adapt depending on whether people can return, in what numbers and how soon. For some festival genres, online events (or an online version) can be equally enjoyable and can also widen the audience, extending the reach of a festival beyond the restrictions of place. The question remains, however, whether festivals can effectively monetise online activities. While online events can work in some contexts, many festivals are about ‘place’ and there is a real danger of producing standardised, cloned events that have very little to root them in a particular location. Smaller, more neighbourhood-based festivals that have a meaningful relationship with locale/communities are likely to be possible alongside some carefully selected and mediated larger events. Certain event genres may also be viewed as less risky (e.g. light installations/projections like GlasGLOW, Wondrous Woods, or Christmas at Botanics). Finally, I suggested that a renewed emphasis on the social values of festivals and events is likely to be a progressive and positive outcome of the pandemic, with a focus on how festivals and events can contribute to social issues including climate awareness, inclusivity and diversity.