A city with a long love story with art in all its forms, Edinburgh’s creative scene is often regarded as a brand. Names UNESCO’s first ever Literature City, the historic capital has long been home to poets and playwrights, artists and artisans and every expressive discipline in between. Today, the creative industries are a staple of the city’s ever-growing economy, often and intrinsically tied to the 12 annual international festivals Edinburgh – however, as anyone working in arts and culture in the city would tell you, these famous festivals are only one piece of the puzzle that makes up the iconic scene. Beyond the international reach and press coverage of the famous Fringe Festival, the highly regarded Edinburgh International Festival or the sprawling Edinburgh International Book Festival, there is a tight-knit community of local independent artists, collectives and companies fighting for their stake of the proverbial pie. While the 12 official festivals contribute as massive £208 million to the city economy, creating 6,000 jobs on the way, creative professionals, local artists and performers are not always benefiting in the same way as the more formalized players working with and within the festivals.
In a successful attempt to lobby for the needs or, more accurately, desires of the cultural industry, Desire Lines is a unique and ongoing initiative that lets the creative and cultural professionals have a direct say in the policies, processes and support systems that surround their disciplines. Described as “call to action from Edinburgh’s cultural community,” the project is an ongoing dialogue initiated by and for the creative industries, comprising of continuous meetings, conversations and digital inputs, that have culminated in a document with “a series of clear aims and actions proposed by the cultural community, to be delivered in partnership with the wide range of organizations and individuals who have Edinburgh’s best interests at heart.” Initiated in 2014 by a group of creative and cultural organizations, Desire Lines’ call to action was published in 2015, successfully influencing the City Council’s policies and attitudes towards the independent creative scene. Until today, the conversation continues, with meet ups, debates and dialogues organized regularly to ensure creative industry stakeholders get the support they need.
A key part of putting Desire Lines together, Creative Edinburgh’s executive director Janine Matheson’s ethos has long been one of collaboration and cooperation for the advancement of the industry as a whole. Creative Edinburgh is the largest network of creatives in the city, and works with various individuals and businesses to build capacities to “experiment, innovate and succeed.” Based at Edinburgh’s Codebase – a co-working space which, prior to Creative Edinburgh’s tenancy, mostly hosts technology and digital media companies – the organization certainly practices what it preaches, bringing together its artists and makers with digital professionals and technology innovators, opening up what could be considered an insular arts community to a wider tech-driven one. Perfectly poised, then, to lead a discussion on what the creative industries – tech and digital included – need, Matheson is certainly passionate about the importance of civic engagement among her peers. “On the national level, policy is certainly focused more on tech and digital, but I wouldn’t say that that community feels satisfied with the support,” she explains. Vis a vis that, “it’s always been a challenge for the creative and cultural industries to prove their value and measure their impact.”
“The City Council has a 10-year-old cultural strategy, which is fine – except that it was 10 years old!” jokes Matheson. Nevertheless, the local authority reached out to the creative community to scope the scene and identify what needs to be done so that the city of Edinburgh could retain and support its artistic talent and, consequently, its world-famous cultural credentials. “So they met with different people running creative organizations and networks, including Creative Edinburgh, to get a feel for what kinds of themes need to be included in the new cultural strategy,” says Matheson. Perhaps unsurprisingly for anyone familiar with artists and cultural professionals, there was some resistance among the community towards the way Edinburgh City Council approached the creation of the new strategy. “They got a kind of pushback from the sector – many were saying that they don’t want a top-down cultural strategy, and that they wanted to work with the local government to design it together. And that’s how Desire Lines was born; a small steering group that Creative Edinburgh is happy to be a part of,” says the organization’s executive director, who is herself a creative producer and visual artist.
Along with Matheson, the Desire Lines steering committee include representatives from Edinburgh International Book Festival, the Cultural Enterprise office and Festivals Edinburgh, as well as a slew of independent theater and dance companies, cultural centers and venues. “There were three big events to spark conversation and discussion, but it wasn’t just creatives that turned up – there are people who really care about culture’s standing in the city and the accessibility of art in general,” explains Matheson. Through these events, an online survey, forum and hashtag, more than 600 of Edinburgh’s creative community were directly engaged in the lobby. From there, the steering committee and project managers worked on distilling all the feedback they got into five, broad themes; five desire lines.
1. Articulate the positive impact of arts and culture in Edinburgh and maximize the resources available to help it thrive;
2. Adopt an enabling attitude to venue regulation and cultural provision throughout the year;
3.support greater partnership working across the arts and culture sector enabling it to flourish year round;
4. Ensure that everyone has access to world class arts and cultural provision;
5. Invest in artists’ development, and support and sustain the local artistic community.
Alongside these optimistic desires, the ongoing conversations by a spectrum of the creative industry’s most passionate also produced actionable ideas. “Some are small things, and some are really big, meaty things. So that’s now with the council to further develop them. There’s a lot in there that needed to be said out loud,” says Matheson. One of their boldest proposed ideas was to create an entirely new position within the local government to nurture the cultural scene. “One of the things the document really focuses on is having a director of culture; to create a new position within the council. We’ve always had cultural services and economic development departments, and they never had a director of culture and this something we proposed and the Council grabbed at,” she explains, which is especially significant in the context of budget cuts and redundancies recently plaguing Edinburgh City Council.
In 2006, Edinburgh City Council itself had commissioned a report entitled Thundering Hooves; “the sound of the competition catching up to Edinburgh,” as the Head of Marketing and Innovation of Festivals Edinburgh, James McVeigh explains. With an aim of creating a list of recommendations for the city to bolster its creative industry through the official festivals, the report came out with an overarching actionable conclusion – the industry and its stakeholders need to work closer together and each of the 12 festivals need to collaborate further. Nearly 10 years later, coinciding with Desire Lines, Thundering Hooves 2.0 was commissioned and, according to McVeigh, the biggest conclusion was that the city shouldn’t be looking externally, nor comparing itself to cities like Austin or Barcelona, but instead work on fostering its own credentials. “Now the zeitgeist is about collaborating to stay ahead, rather than competing,” he says. While these conclusions may not have come as a surprise for the artists, performers and creators that work independently of the more formalized festivals, it marks a distinct and innovative shift for the local government which, like many of its counterparts across the world, often face criticism for being slow, cumbersome and out-of-touch with the reality of those working on the ground.
“Over the years, there’s been a slight fault line between the [official] festivals and year-round provisions for arts and culture. Year-round venues, companies and performers have always felt like the festivals get all the attention,” admits McVeigh. “So the conversation of how we re-address that balance came up a lot among the Festivals Edinburgh board meetings.” Thus, representatives of Festivals Edinburgh too joined the Desire Lines conversation, strengthening the collaborative nature that is so essential for the cultural industries’ lobby. In fact, two years after the establishment of Desire Lines, the collective continues to reach further and further, encompassing more and more of the creative community and winning over more and more city officials. While a task force has been set up within Edinburgh City Council to apply the recommendations made by the call to action, the latest event by Desire Lines in September 2016 saw members of parliament in attendance, proving that grassroots, collaborative movements can make their way onto the agendas of politicians, after all.
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