Edinburgh is Sleepwalking into a Cultural Disaster
Guest post by Harry Giles
The litany has become terribly familiar: La Belle Angele, the Big Red Door, the Lot, the Roxy Arthouse, the Forest Café, and now Cabaret Voltaire and the Bongo Club. In the last decade, Edinburgh’s independent arts venues have been closed or threatened with closure, one by one. Each new loss has occurred for ostensibly different reasons – the Cowgate fire, the sequestration of the Edinburgh University Settlement, buy-out, lease termination – but the differences between the closures risk masking the importance of the trend. What’s happening doesn’t just present a tremendous risk to Edinburgh’s local arts culture, it also indicates a shameful lack of cultural leadership – the refusal of the property sector, local government or creative support organisations to step into the breach. This failure risks undermining everything that makes Edinburgh’s cultural sector so special and so valuable to the city.
It is often young artists and makers who lead the charge for small-scale independent venues, and it’s no wonder – these are the places where many artists make their start. Venues like the Roxy Arthouse and the Forest Café built their support bases by providing free or affordable space to young and emerging artists, offering many a platform early in their careers. Take, for example, the story of successful Edinburgh poet Claire Askew tells of the support she found at Forest, or Out of the Blue’s claim to be a “catalyst of creativity” with “list of guests that reads like a ‘who’s who’ of cultural alternatives”. Without platforms like this, it’s difficult to see how Edinburgh can hold on to its emerging young stars. – Would a local musician like Withered Hand be successfully headlining the Edinburgh Fringe at the Queen’s Hall, or would he long since have left?
Supportive venues are also crucial to leading community involvement in the arts, through the accessible facilities they provide. Venues like the Big Red Door saw an astonishing diversity of talents and identities – and, if they monitored access, would produce equal opportunities statistics a mainstream theatre would kill for, or at least put together a hundred-page planning application for. Venues like Out of the Blue in Leith, North Edinburgh Arts in Pilton and The Space in Craigmillar continue to do sterling work, but the closures have entirely gutted community access in central Edinburgh. In circumstances like these, it’s difficult to see how our communities will ever produce artists in the first place, even if we bring back venues for them to perform in.
The social and cultural impact of closures is thus fairly clear, but it’s worth also dwelling on the economic role independent arts centres play. A good analogy here was played out on a national stage last year, in the wake of the swingeing cuts made to arts budgets. Astonished by the scale of the cutbacks, artists raised an important question: When the arts generate more money for the country than is spent on them through VAT receipts alone, even before the wider economic impact is analysed, how can such cuts be justified? The justification for the subsidised sector extends beyond the direct business revenue: most artists now working in the commercial sector will have spent much of their careers in subsidised arts. The economic success of big cultural business is reliant on national support for the arts.
The same argument plays out locally in Edinburgh, when considering our small independent venues and our huge cultural institutions. In 2011 Festivals Edinburgh released its wide-ranging Festivals Impact Study, revealing that the 12 major international festivals generated £260 million in revenue for Scotland in 2010. That makes the Festivals a huge commercial success – but their success relies on Edinburgh’s local cultural economy, a unique venueography that supports an astonishing diversity of artists. It’s a story analogous to the Glasgow Miracle: astonishing success commercially in the visual arts built on free and accessible culture. The commercial success of Edinburgh’s festivals is built on the labour (often given freely) of thousands of artists and venue organisers; the cultural diversity is built on principles of open access; the uniqueness of Edinburgh’s festivals is built on the strength of Edinburgh’s year-round cultural ecology. What’s happening now threatens ecosystem collapse: Edinburgh risks being left only with huge trees, the undergrowth stripped away and the soil rapidly eroding.
Still, one might argue that venues opening and closing is part of the natural order, and anyway most of these venues are to blame for their own failure. Steve Cardownie, festivals and events champion at the city council, responded to the litany of closures by saying in the Scotsman, “These things gradually evolve, and venues come and go for a variety of reasons.” The best answer I can give here is to tell a little of the story of the Forest Café, the venue I know best.
The Edinburgh University Settlement, the Forest’s landlord, collapsed in October 2010. With the lease due to end in August 2011, Forest was given its marching orders by the administrators, PricewaterhouseCoopers. Despite no sale being completed, PwC refused to consider a month-by-month lease for the Forest, an approach which would have supported our attempt to put together a bid for the building and brought more money more quickly to the EUS’s creditors. Following departure from 3 Bristo Place, Forest began its search for a new home.
Since then, not only have we put together several compelling business and funding proposals, we’ve also worked hard to build relationships with local and national government. We’ve met with MSPs in the Scottish Parliament, and even had a Parliamentary Motion lodged in our favour. We’ve met with local government officials to pursue the option of asset transfer, a nationally-supported policy to transfer unused buildings to community projects, but made no noticeable progress. We’ve made bids for properties – including Council properties – but so far have been outbid by purely commercial endeavours. Then, just this month, we faced the news that our old home was about to be sold to a restaurateur and a Fringe tycoon.
Forest’s failure to return so far is thus not for want of trying – highly committed volunteers continue to work to find the project a future home. Instead, what we’ve encountered from every side is a privileging of short-sighted business interests and a complete lack of cultural leadership. Our story is a story of could-have-beens – What if PwC adopted the sensible approach and rented us 3 Bristo Place? What if the Council gifted us on of its many empty buildings for peppercorn rent? What if Malcolm Innes bought our home to rent back to us instead of to amplify his capital? – any one of which would have seen us return to make our extraordinary contribution to Edinburgh’s arts.
Our reliance on volunteer labour – the same volunteer labour that builds our country’s successes in the cultural economy – left us vulnerable to business interests and unable to capitalise on political support. It’s the same reliance that has stymied the New Victoria, the same lack of leadership that sees La Belle Angele held up by planning procedures.
What gives me hope is, ironically, the public response to local government’s disastrous review of entertainment licensing fees. The City of Edinburgh Council’s own short-sightedness has led it into very public embarrassment, and the speed of community reaction has forced it to backtrack and recognise the vital contribution of free arts spaces. My hope, then, is that the crisis in the cultural ecology and economy that’s been brought on in recent years will force the very cultural leadership we’re currently so lacking. Until that happens, independent arts venues will come and go and will struggle on – that’s what artists do, and what we live for. But until that happens, the resilience and sustainability of Edinburgh’s cultural sector is very much in question.