The future of culture in Edinburgh

Covid shut down Edinburgh’s arts and culture sector overnight, as it has in the UK and around the world. Existing inequalities and precariousness have been exacerbated by successive closures, but the pause they have imposed has opened up time and space to consider ways to develop more respectful, fairer ways of working in the future. and more durable.

Future Culture Edinburgh, which I co-designed with freelance creator Morvern Cunningham, was a hybrid event that took place in September last year, exploring the communication of value and values ​​by cultural organizations and creatives .

Our aim was to create a fair platform – especially for those who would not normally participate in these conversations – to discuss how culture is happening in Edinburgh: what we should celebrate and conserve, and what we could leave or change. The provocations and workshops were designed to inspire creative thinking and imaginative approaches to envisioning multiple futures, alongside solutions-based collective action towards a more equitable culture future.

The research identified four main and interrelated areas that participants felt could be improved in Edinburgh’s cultural infrastructure:

  • Equity – of access to cultural activities and work through collaboration, responsibility and accountability
  • Access – the facilitation of broad opportunities for creatives, communities and audiences
  • Diversity – of stories and representation
  • Sustainability – the sensitive integration of environmental and economic strategies for long-term benefit and support of cultural programs and careers

Collaborative structures

Research across the UK, including the Center for Cultural Value’s Culture in Crisis, shows that inequalities were evident before the pandemic. And our findings demonstrate the strength of sentiment to identify opportunities for positive structural change, and the need for increased support from leaders to enable artists and workers in more precarious positions to develop and sustain careers. creative.

Participants looked to existing cultural leadership to find structures through which to collaborate, but also hoped to achieve change that would resolve the power imbalance between cultural gatekeepers and the sector’s more vulnerable workforce.

Festivals – and Edinburgh’s year-round cultural sector – were celebrated as structures to be kept when linked to a spirit of community and collaboration. Suggestions for change in festivals were both specific and also related to broader concerns about the sector. A sector, it was felt, whose structures restrict access to cultural careers for a diverse workforce and which struggles to overcome economic, social and cultural barriers to access through equitable engagement with the communities.

This is well illustrated in the Edinburgh Culture and Community Mapping Project, which uses participatory mapping to explore the relationships between the city’s geography, its communities and its cultural spaces.

Digital, online and hybrid cultural activities were lower than expected, especially given the Covid. Perhaps digital technologies are not seen as having equitable, values-driven cultural agendas. Or there may be a rush to a “business as usual” model, despite the recognized positive impacts for accessibility for some audiences through digital access. Although, as Culture in Crisis testifies, in general, in 2020-21 digital reached existing audiences, not new ones.

Preserving the hyperlocal alongside the global

Edinburgh’s international reputation as a globally connected cultural city is an example of the difficult balancing act between the complex social, cultural and economic needs and values ​​of the area. Participants sought a vision of the future that preserves the best of the local and hyperlocal focus of the pandemic, alongside a spirit of eco-friendly, open and positive global collaboration, of which Edinburgh is both renowned and proud. .

Articulating this vision and implementing it requires a complex, long-term and far-reaching collaboration. We found a perceived need for cultural leadership, but also for leaders to actively listen to those who experience inequality, and for a clear, transparent and public articulation of the values ​​through which this leadership operates.

Through the collaboration of all stakeholders, including grassroots artists, organizations, funders and practitioners, our findings suggest that a more equitable balance of power and a sense of reciprocity, accountability and responsibility shared in Edinburgh and beyond could be found.

Imaging the future without constraints

Some of our speakers, specifically addressing the challenges of open access to the Edinburgh Fringe Festival but also speaking of the need for fair and inclusive practices, have considered devising a set of principles and guidelines to achieve this. Introducing a framework to address equity may seem counter-intuitive, especially when it comes to policies that profess openness. But there are already tacitly agreed upon practices for access to cultural professions stemming from current models and structures.

Where our speakers and data come from Future Culture Edinburgh suggest that there is a growing demand for the values, principles, visions and frameworks that support them to be recalibrated and rewritten. Imagining unconstrained futures, rebuilding funding structures, developing principles of equitable access to cultural events and careers, sharing responsibility for tackling unequal access, dispersing activities across the city – all of this was positive and transformative but also radical, sometimes divisive and complex.

Tackling this complexity demands a lot from a sector recovering from a pandemic and whose reactive modes of operation are heightened. What our results show is that to be radical we do not have to be reactive, and that long-term, collaborative, people-centered, values-driven strategies for change can be both radical and durable.

Vikki Jones is a research associate at the University of Edinburgh.

@jonesvikkijones | @CreateInf

James C. Tibbs