Faith Liddell explains how collaborating has helped Edinburgh’s festivals to join together into something bigger than the sum of its parts

2011 started off on a busy and international note, with the heads of eight of Edinburgh's major festivals flying to India to meet artists, thinkers, producers, cultural organisations and government agencies. We talked about deepening our relationship with India and explored programming for the festivals in 2012 and 2014, when Edinburgh’s Festivals plan to capitalise on the enormous benefits associated with the London 2012 Olympic and Paralympic Games and the 2014 Commonwealth Games in Glasgow. Meanwhile, back in Edinburgh, our marketing team has been talking to international broadcasters about extending its Olympics coverage to Edinburgh. As we moved from meeting to meeting in Delhi and from industry briefings to appointments with government officials (with the invaluable support of the British Council, I should add) I took a moment to reflect on how far we'd come as a collective of festivals. We are reaching out to each other, and to the world in ways we would not have previously imagined.

It all started in January 2007, when the festivals employed me two days a week to tackle what they had identified as a serious challenge - to maintain their position as a pre-eminent festival city in the face of galloping competition from emerging festival cities around the world. (The report that examined these threats was aptly named ‘Thundering Hooves’.) Now, four years on, our turnover has increased from £30,000 to over £1m per annum and our team has grown to eight, all working with our festival colleagues to devise and implement major collaborative projects that develop audiences, deliver growth and help the festivals remain competitive.

We are an ongoing experiment, but one that is deeply rooted in this historical city of Edinburgh, in Scotland itself, and in the cultural and creative history that our festivals have built over 60 years. This is why we continuously seek the support and weave the strategic objectives of our funding partners into our plans – the Scottish Government, the City of Edinburgh Council, EventScotland, Scottish Enterprise and Creative Scotland. We are sharing our plans with VisitScotland and the marketing body set up to promote the city of Edinburgh, so that together we can achieve more.

We have expanded our initial remit and developed additional areas of cross-festival collaborative working that are key to the growth and sustainability of an event that attracts four million attendances year-round. We're looking at environmental sustainability, professional development, and have set up the Edinburgh Festivals Innovation Lab. The Lab is a place where our 12 festivals work together to develop and prototype solutions that use digital technology to improve the festival experience for audiences, artists and the festivals themselves. All of the work we do is about additionality and opportunity: delivering projects that could not be realised independently, due to capacity or resource, or that are best approached as a collective or driven by collective ambition and vision, exploiting the full strength of Edinburgh’s combined festival muscle.

Our collaborative methodology is rigorously structured and essentially underpinned by communication. Our work requires constant dialogue, robust research, vigorous debate, and transparent approval and decision-making processes. Festivals have the power of veto over any project (that is, one of them can halt what we are doing for any reason at any time) and this has been critical to building trust and ownership. Accountability is paramount to our team; we always operate with the understanding that the 12 individual festivals we work with must embrace the projects we are working on and contribute to their evolution and success.

To this end, we have regular meetings with festivals, partners and stakeholders. We have created working groups, and worked hard to agree common agendas, shared strategies and clear action plans across marketing, programming, innovation, the environment, sponsorship and fundraising, and professional development. We use external evidence and research wherever possible to support business cases. We have created a culture of honest and constructive exchange of information: an essential requirement for collaboration to thrive among festivals which, from the outside at least, could be viewed as competitors.

Far away from home, India was a great opportunity to reflect on this collaboration, and how, in many ways, we are only at the tip of the iceberg. Our directors were promoting their individual festival programmes to a host of Indian partners, agencies, artists and decision-makers, yet doing so as a delegation, in the context of an overarching cultural diplomacy strategy that they themselves had agreed and devised. They were promoting Edinburgh’s festivals as a whole, but in a way that didn’t homogenise the appeal of their events, but rather made it clear that Edinburgh is so much more than the sum of its parts.


Faith Liddell is Director of Festivals Edinburgh.