Covid shut Edinburgh’s arts and cultural sector down overnight, as it did across the UK and around the world. Existing inequities and precarities were exacerbated by successive lockdowns, but the pause they enforced opened up time and space to consider ways in which kinder, more equitable and more sustainable ways of working could develop in the future.
Future Culture Edinburgh which I co-devised with independent creative Morvern Cunningham, was a hybrid event which took place in September last year, exploring the communication of value and values by cultural organizations and creatives.
Our aim was to create an equitable platform – particularly for those who might not normally take part in these conversations – to discuss how culture in Edinburgh happens: what we should celebrate and keep, and what we might leave behind or change. The provocations and workshops were designed to inspire creative thinking and imaginative approaches to considering multiple futures, alongside solutions-based, collective action towards a more equitable future of culture.
The research identified four core, interlinked areas that participants felt could improve across 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 of representation
- Sustainability – the sensitive integration of environmental and economic strategies for long term benefit and support of cultural programs and careers
Structures for collaboration
UK-wide research, including the Center for Cultural Value’s Culture in Crisis, shows that inequalities were evident pre-pandemic. And our findings demonstrate the strength of feeling about identifying 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 creative careers.
Participants looked to existing cultural leadership for structures through which to collaborate, but also hoped to achieve change that addresses the power imbalance between cultural gatekeepers and the more vulnerable workforce in the sector.
Festivals – and Edinburgh’s year-round cultural sector – were celebrated as structures to keep when linked to a spirit of community and collaboration. Suggestions for change in festivals were both specific and also linked 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 address economic, social and cultural barriers to access through equitable engagement with communities.
This is well illustrated in the Edinburgh Culture and Communities Mapping Project, which uses participatory mapping to explore relationships between the said geography, its communities and its cultural spaces.
Less prominent than we anticipated, particularly considering Covid, were digital, online and hybrid cultural activities. Perhaps digital technologies are not perceived as having equitable, values-driven agendas for culture. Or it may be that there is a rush towards a ‘business as usual’ model, despite the acknowledged positive impacts for accessibility for some audiences through digital access. Although, as evidenced in Culture in Crisis, in general during 2020-21 digital reached existing audiences, not new ones.
Preserve the hyperlocal alongside the global
Edinburgh’s international reputation as a globally connected cultural city is an example of where a balance feels difficult to strike, across the sector’s complex social, cultural, and economic needs and values. Participants were looking for a vision for the future that preserves the best of the local and hyperlocal focus of the pandemic, alongside an environmentally sustainable, open and positive spirit of global collaboration, which Edinburgh is both renowned for and proud of.
Articulating that vision and putting it into action requires complex, long-term, and wide-ranging collaboration. We found a perceived need for cultural leadership, but also for active listening by leaders to those at the receiving end of inequalities, 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 a more equitable balance of power and a sense of reciprocity, shared responsibility and accountability in Edinburgh, and further afield, could be found.
Imaging futures without constraints
Some of our speakers, specifically addressing challenges to open access at the Edinburgh Festival Fringe but also speaking of the need for equitable and inclusive practices, considered devising a set of principles and guidelines to achieve this. The introduction of a framework to address equity may feel counterintuitive, particularly regarding policies which profess openness. But there already exist tacitly agreed practices for accessing cultural professions arising from current models and structures.
What our speakers and data from Future Culture Edinburgh suggest is that there is a growing demand for values, principles, visions and the frameworks that support them to be recalibrated and rewritten. Imagining futures without constraints, rebuilding funding structures, developing principles for equitable access to cultural events and careers, shared responsibility for tackling inequalities of access, dispersal of activities across the city – this felt positive and transformative but also radical, sometimes divisive and complex.
Tackling this complexity asks a lot of a sector which is recovering from a pandemic and the reactive ways of working it exacerbated. What our findings show is that to be radical we do not necessarily have to be reactive, and that strategies for change that are long-term, collaborative, people-centered and values-led can be both radical and sustainable.
Vikki Jones is a Research Associate at the University of Edinburgh.