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Shona McCarthy - a city with culture and community at its heart #Edinburgh2050

11 February 2019

Our latest #Edinburgh2050 blog comes from the Chief Executive of the Edinburgh Festival Fringe Society, Shona McCarthy. 

If you look back in time, Edinburgh has always been at the fore of creative expression and innovative thinking.  By the time we reach 2050, it will be 300 years since Edinburgh was at the height of the Scottish Enlightenment period,  a time when freedom of expression was at the heart of the discussion and debate. By 2050 Edinburgh should be a city where each of its residents has the opportunity to be able to express themselves and follow the course they choose in a connected, empowering and flourishing metropolis with culture and community as its beating heart.

The Edinburgh Fringe and our sister festivals are in many ways carrying the torch of the Enlightenment by providing a space to have an opinion and tell a story through creative discourse.  The only fundamental difference is the vast array of options we now have available to express ourselves.  In 1947, eight performing companies – who turned up uninvited to the inaugural Edinburgh International Festival – didn’t “haud their wheesht” and found their own venues and performed anyway. 

This birthing of the Fringe concept was a massive innovation at the time and still is today, the first open access platform for creativity, long before social media was even dreamed of. Just over 70 years later, there are over 200 fringes across the world, taking their lead from Edinburgh and collectively creating a global network that can’t be constrained by walls or geographic boundaries.  As well as being the world’s greatest live platform for creative freedom of expression, the Fringe is an economic powerhouse, currently providing over £144 million annually for the city, and this will continue to grow year on year.

Jumping ahead to 2050, innovation and technology will continue to drive and shape how the Fringe develops and how Edinburgh grows as a city.  The Fringe Society prides itself on being a trailblazer, responding to the audiences and artists, developing new technology that still puts Edinburgh at the heart of innovation.  From our state-of-the-art app and bespoke box office systems – issuing 2.8 million tickets per year across 300 venues – to our sensory backpacks supporting people with autism; from our global webinars for Fringe participants – which saw artists tuning in from 22 different countries – to the introduction of cashless payments for buskers on the High Street; from our innovations in access aimed at making our venues and stages accessible to people of all abilities, to our ambitions for a ticketless and paperless Fringe, we want to lead Edinburgh’s ambitions to not only be a cultural capital but a global cultural innovator. Whether it is AR, VR and other immerse cultural experiences or new methods of artistic production and collaboration, technological innovation will be at the very heart of our activities in 2050.

Our ability to take on challenges and look after the long-term health of the Fringe – its participants, audiences and wider environment – sits at the heart of the Fringe Society’s work.  Even though we are the largest annual gathering for performing arts in the world, the Fringe is also firmly rooted in the city, delivering for local artists and audiences in their droves (last year, we issued over 600k tickets to Edinburgh residents alone, more than the city’s population).

In the same way we encourage everyone with a story to tell and place to tell it to be part of the Fringe, we absolutely support access for everyone to engage and see the shows.  We are expanding and deepening our work with communities and educational establishments across the city, constantly striving to break down barriers to participation.  The Fringe has always been elastic and dynamic.

2050 may well see the benefits of the Fringe reaching into new areas of the city, supported by improved transport connectivity, enabling access to the arts for all residents and ensuring that the joy of culture is part of everyone’s lives. By 2022 we will have developed deep relationships with 31 communities across Edinburgh, understanding how the festival and its resources can best fuel their own creative ambition.

By 2050, every part of the city will be enabled to run its own Fringe or equivalent platform bespoke to the creative communities in each place.  And we will ensure that the economic benefits of artist and audiences staying in the city has benefit citywide. The Fringe can be the catalyst to bring people together, meeting their neighbours and local community, starting a conversation, laughing or crying at a show together, stimulating a debate and inspiring people to follow their own creative dreams.

The Fringe with its sister festivals in Edinburgh turns the city into a community for the month. Conversations happen with strangers about shows and events and art. The city becomes a place of possibility, of imagination, a sense of anything can happen and anyone can be met. The key question is how to bring this community that happens in Edinburgh every August – this change in public discourse infused with creative provocation and new ways of looking at issues – how to harness this as well new technology, partnerships and networks to extend this community and this discourse locally and globally. 

In 2050 the kind of energy, sense of possibilities and new conversations that are catalysed by sustained exposure to art in a festival or city of culture environment, will be brought into our education systems and our public and political discourse in order to make the world a better place.

The beauty of the Fringe is that it IS for everyone: for the beginner, the amateur dramatic, and by the same token it absolutely has world class performers.  I don’t see this ever changing, the power of citizen engaged, citizen curated and citizen engaging arts programming that reclaims the public realm and how it can transform public discourse, even in 2050.

We have Edinburgh Castle at the top of the Royal Mile and the Scottish Parliament at the bottom, making Edinburgh a city of contrasts, presenting a historical and a contemporary city.  The cultural heritage of the city’s festivals is now as much part of the vital tapestry as the stunning built heritage that houses them. The Fringe is at the heart of a contemporary enlightenment and something that we should be very proud of as we move forward to 2050.

Shona McCarthy is the Chief Executive of the Edinburgh Festival Fringe Society, the charity that underpins the Edinburgh Festival Fringe, the largest arts festival in the world. Originally from County Down, Shona has dedicated her career to championing and developing arts and culture. As well as her Fringe commitments, Shona is also Chair of Oh Yeah Music Centre in Belfast, and Walk the Plank, a Salford-based Creative agency specialising in spectacular outdoor arts and pyrotechnics.