May 11, 2014 7:53 pm

Edinburgh festival chief eyes revamp

The incoming director of the Edinburgh’s International Festival has announced a revamp intended to fend off growing global competition to the vital driver of the Scottish capital’s tourist economy.

Fergus Linehan, who takes over from next year, said this week that the festival would match its dates to its more anarchic cousin the Festival Fringe for the first time since the late 1990s. He also plans to introduce new genres of music and allow participating artists more thematic freedom.

Hotels, restaurants and retailers across Edinburgh enjoy a hefty boost from a summer arts season that has flourished since the festival was established to lighten postwar cultural gloom in 1947. Local authorities say 93 per cent of Edinburgh hotel rooms are occupied in August and pedestrian footfall on the capital’s main shopping street is higher than it is at Christmas.

Edinburgh’s festivals generated £245m in economic output for the capital in 2010 – a bigger contribution than golf tourism made to the Scottish economy as a whole, according to an impact assessment by BOP Consulting.

But a proliferation of arts festivals across the UK and around the world has made it more of a challenge for Edinburgh to stand out as a destination. A 2006 study commissioned by authorities and festival organisers concluded the Scottish capital was in danger of losing its competitive edge. As the “thundering hooves” of rivals galloped past, it said, “Edinburgh stands grazing in the field.”

Festival organisation has since been revamped, but Mr Linehan – who was appointed last year to replace departing director Sir Jonathan Mills – made clear that having the international festival start and end later than the colourful and chaotic Fringe was a problem that needed to be resolved.

The Fringe shifted its schedule in the late 1990s to begin a week earlier than the international festival, which usually runs into early September. The change extended the summer festival season to four weeks, but Mr Linehan, an Irishman who has led the Sydney Festival in Australia and the Dublin Theatre Festival, suggested it put at risk Edinburgh’s core appeal.

The city’s festival attraction to audiences rested in large part from having the huge range of shows and events that were available while the international festival and the Fringe were both under way – something that was currently lost in the first and last weeks of the season, he said.

“The truth is, in its composite parts, Edinburgh’s individual festivals are replicated elsewhere in the world, in various forms, to various degrees,” said Mr Linehan, citing Austria’s Salzburg Festival as a rival for the Edinburgh International Festival and the Adelaide Fringe for Edinburgh’s pioneer open-access festival.

“I find that as cultural tastes become more eclectic, the possibility of being able to dip into the different festivals in the one period is all the more important,” he said.

Mr Linehan also announced plans to try to widen the international festival’s appeal by augmenting its classical music programme with new genres that could include electronic music, folk and jazz. He said he would abandon the practice of organising the festival around set themes in order to “give artists their head”.

Matching the dates of the two festivals may prove controversial. For hotels and other businesses it risks exacerbating capacity problems during a time of peak demand.

It will also increase the already fierce competition for audiences felt by Fringe venues and promoters, many of which already struggle for exposure even in the week before the opening of the international festival’s high-profile shows.

At Mr Linehan’s press conference, Joyce McMillan, chief theatre critic of the Scotsman newspaper, said she supported the plan to match dates but that major Fringe venues could rethink their schedules in order to maximise media attention for publicity-starved productions.

“I think they will start to move earlier if you move earlier. I just want to warn you that that is going to happen,” Ms McMillan said.

Fringe organisers declined to comment on whether matching dates would be beneficial, saying there was plenty of time to “work out the details” before the international festival implemented its proposals in 2015.

“We know that it is this combination of distinct festivals that sets Edinburgh apart . . . but our success is dependent on each festival retaining its independence whilst continuing to collaborate in the interests of audiences and the wider city,” said Kath Mainland, chief executive of the Edinburgh Festival Fringe Society.

The Edinburgh Chamber of Commerce offered a guarded welcome to Mr Linehan’s plans. “The link between the Edinburgh International Festival and the Fringe is a historic one that should provide an even greater draw for visitors to the city,” said David Birrell, chamber chief executive.

Mr Linehan acknowledged that there would be downsides to shortening the festival period, saying festival organisers worldwide always faced calls to spread out the benefits they brought. But, he said, Edinburgh should not let the potential costs prevent change: “Retaining the pre-eminence of the festival is the most important thing for the city”.

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