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“We must use this time to reset values and make our industry and institutions more relevant for the whole of society.” Janet Archer draws together this summer’s Edinburgh Culture Conversations.

Edinburgh Conversations: it's time to redefine culture at local level. This image shows a man playing a saxophone on an Edinburgh street with people walking by
Edinburgh Conversations: it's time to redefine culture at local level

Marek Szturc

The Edinburgh Futures Institute’s (EFI) mission is to encourage multi-disciplinary thinking in a world where old certainties in societies, democracies and economies are disrupted. This year, to explore how culture and creativity can contribute to post-Covid social, cultural and economic recovery, they delivered a series of Edinburgh Culture Conversations, a virtual dialogue between 58 artists, academics and cultural leaders.

These conversations were held against a backdrop of more than 70 years of arts funding across the UK. The Edinburgh International Festival was created in 1946, the same year as the NHS. By the 1970s, the Arts Council was supporting 262 organisations – across the four nations – and that number has grown to more than 1,000. The economy has benefitted massively. The UK’s creative industries represented 1 in 11 of all UK jobs in 2018. In Scotland, where the creative industries are regarded as a success story, the Edinburgh Festivals alone power many aspects of the Scottish economy. Over 6,000 full time jobs and contributing £280m and £313m for Edinburgh and Scotland economies, respectively.

It is devastating to witness all this unravelling because of the pandemic. Building back will require collective investment on every level. 

Common themes

A discussion centred on inter-culturalism and internationalism started the conversations - especially pertinent just now. We reflected on the concept of ‘britishness’ in a world where we all have multiple identities. We talked about the Universal Declaration of Human Rights; the commitment to making sure people are able to take part in, and express their cultural lives and selves; how engagement in formal cultural activities remains dependent on things like social class, social status and levels of education; and how things that have highest ‘social status’ get the most amount of government funding. 

Black Lives Matter ran throughout the conversations. We discussed how whiteness and otherness are used to wield power, and we acknowledged that we aren’t anywhere near solving this issue yet. We reflected that ‘beautiful things happen when different worlds meet’ and the ability to offer different ways of seeing things is vital. If we spend our whole lives with people like ourselves, we're never going to learn or change a thing.’

The impact of Covid

Every week bleak statistics emerged about the impact of Covid on productions, events, jobs and education. 

Yet, set against this was a heightened sense of how important creativity will be to help people navigate the almost overwhelming emotions of rage, anger and confusion caused by the pandemic. Creativity clearly matters. Grief felt by artists about their diminished sense of identity is profound. ‘If you’re an artist it isn’t just the thing that you do. It’s also the thing you are’. Some felt conflicted by a sense their work should not take precedence when people were dying. However, they have moved to considering how they can contribute to rebuilding society. We should nourish the collective power of this desire to heal.

Everyone expressed how much they miss ‘liveness’ and ‘gathering’ – acutely so in Edinburgh this summer. The impact of the rapid need to ‘un-produce’ generated ethical concerns, and honouring contracts and supporting freelancers and staff was vital. The move from funders and governments to underpin stability while people worked out what they needed to respond to the crisis was greatly welcomed.

Looking ahead

Restricted travel has made people think about the sustainability of constantly flying large numbers of people around the world – but also generated uncertainty given the employment implications of less international touring. Many organisations used the lockdown to build closer local community relationships – the language of ‘how can I be of service to the people I live among’ is one clear positive coming out of this period. But ‘thinking local’ wasn’t seen as a complete solution: international coordination is important because global supply chains are vital for production. We need to learn from other countries’ work with epidemiologists so performances to take place safely, though this might require higher public funding – harder in a Brexit context but not impossible. 

Education and how to foster creative talent is a key issue. ‘We don't grow into creativity – we grow out of it’ was a shocking indictment but starkly true. The question remains: what are we going to do when every employer in today’s world universally needs creativity? 

The swift pivot to digital has enabled organisations to stay connected with audiences as well as provide employment opportunities, though we questioned why we hadn’t better prepared given digital has been present in our lives for some time. This rapid pivot presents massive challenges, with the need to quickly develop new skills as filmmakers, sound engineers and set designers, and to find ways to monetise output. Yet there was much positive feedback about widening digital access and how data driven innovation and artificial intelligence can work to generate content and shape business models – a central concern for EFI.

Action now

So what can we do right now to address these? Three things: 

  • We need to work together to build the future 

Funders are signalling it is not possible to save everyone, which means we must use our collective intelligence to save the right things to benefit future generations. Success will depend on agreeing what we’re prepared to let go, how we address inequality and inclusion, and drive system change to protect as many of our cultural assets as possible. Everyone – including large institutions – must do things differently.

In an age where we will be intermittently prevented from gathering, we will need to create meaningful online experiences, building on everything we learnt in the summer.

  • We should redefine the role of culture at a local level

Cultural value has to start at a local level, where policy makers will incorporate culture if we generate cultural experiences that hold meaning for people in their communities. 

Culture has a massive role to play in placemaking and social solidarity, but this will only be realised if it is recognised and valued. We need to change the narrative from talking about what culture ‘needs’ or ‘costs’ to what culture contributes. If we achieve this, we might be able to protect jobs and create new ones. A point that resonated with me was ‘the world of arts and culture needs to think beyond itself’ – we must stop operating in siloes, and get better at telling the story of why we matter to society, not just to ourselves.

Our final session flagged the significant issues faced by young people, especially ethnically diverse young people who face severe pressures, with 50% more likely to be on zero hours contracts. There was a strong call to acknowledge institutional racism and social inequalities and galvanise action: one idea was that funded organisations, as a condition of funding, must commit a percentage of their budget to inclusive activity. It’s the right thing to do and opening up to a wider audience makes good business sense too, as diverse teams are 87% more productive. 

We can use this time to reset values to make our industry and institutions more relevant for the whole of society, and more inclusive, sustainable and progressive in future. 

  • We need to be the change we want to see

We cannot just sit in virtual meetings and talk - we need to build hope. Listening to how the panellists are applying themselves to the challenge gave me confidence that it’s going to happen, and colleagues from universities across Edinburgh and elsewhere are working to support this. 

Culture is fundamental to being human. For the whole of human history it has been the way by which we’ve been able to belong, participate, share, communicate and navigate. All of these things are crucial in shaping a sustainable future.

Janet Archer is Director, Festival, Cultural and City Events, University of Edinburgh
Globe icon ed.ac.uk/events/festivals
letter icon janet.archer@ed.ac.uk 

All the recordings of the of the Edinburgh Culture Conversations are freely available to watch. 

Link to Author(s): 
Janet Archer