IT is not unusual at the moment to see a woman walking down the road in Edinburgh with a ukulele attached to her head. I have also had the pleasure of standing at a bus stop watching a clown unicycle to join the queue before hopping on board with the rest of the passengers.
The Edinburgh Festival is in full swing and street space is at a premium. Some estimates say the population of the city doubles during the month of August and I have to say that it certainly feels like it. Every nook and cranny of free space in the city seems to have been turned into a venue and all manner of strange and wonderful events are taking place at all times of the day and night. 100 feet over Prince’s Street Gardens, a gigantic covered table is suspended where customers are invited to dine while taking in a panoramic view of the city and, if they wish, glance downward through the glass floor at the ant-like people milling around on the ground below.
The hard figures made available by the Fringe Festival give a good insight into the massive nature of the undertaking. Fringe 2006 featured 28,014 performances of 1,867 shows in 261 venues (Fringe 2005 featured 26,995 performances of 1,799 shows in 240 venues). It would take you five years, 11 months and 16 days to see every performance back-to-back. Last year, the Fringe sold 1,531, 606 tickets – the fourth consecutive year that the Fringe sailed past the million-ticket barrier.
Even in recession-ravaged times, the festival continues to grow and visitors continue to flock to the city in their thousands.
As usual, Ireland is very well represented by both visitors and performers. The Irish production Freefall has been garnering great reviews at the Traverse Theatre and a host of comedians are playing to good audiences at the Fringe. Some of our great literary exports are appearing at the Edinburgh Book Festival to sold-out audiences but despite all these great things, I have a little concern that it may not be this way forever.
In both Britain and Ireland, funding for the arts is falling under the guillotine of government cutbacks. With budget deficits on both sides of the Irish Sea, ministers are looking to the creative sectors of society to find savings. This could have dramatic consequences. It is generally accepted that belts must be tightened in these tough economic times but without government subsidy, those working in the arts may find it very difficult to continue in their chosen field. This is particularly true of the more avant-garde works and productions.
In a letter to The Irish Independent published on August 5 this year, Marcella Corcoran Kennedy from Birr, County Offaly stated the case very succinctly. “Many talented people in the arts sector have seen opportunities for work dry up, following funding cuts imposed by the Government last year. Withdrawal of funding from arts projects takes away employment opportunities for visual and performing artists and has a negative impact on the quality of life of the project participants, for example, youth and eldercare projects.”
In Britain, the new Tory/Liberal Democrat coalition is proposing the abolition of the arts council. If these kinds of cuts are made what will be the effect on the cultural life of both nations?
The national campaign for the arts set up a Facebook page in 2009 and has 6,500 members. The site moderator posts news stories from Ireland and Britain regarding various cuts in arts funding and makes for very grim reading. It is clear that the artistic life of Ireland and Britain is under attack. This is a sad state of affairs. In tough times, it is life-affirming to experience the boundless creativity on show at the Edinburgh festival. The exuberance and life on the streets is infectious and despite the almost constant rain, there is a real buzz on the streets. While no festival in the world can challenge it from the point of view of numbers, this kind of exuberance is recreated in Ireland with the Galway Arts festival and others like it around the country. A nation is wealthier when its creative people are nurtured.
People working in the arts do not do it for the money. Most people I know who work in the sector would frankly be better off on the dole, they do it for the love of their craft. If the arts are not supported they will not get the opportunity to nurture this passion and all of us will be left poorer for it.
There is a false perception in political circles that the arts is a money pit where untold millions disappear without a trace but this is simply not the case. Many politicians suggest that private investment is where the future of arts funding lies. This is, simply put, nonsense. Private investors, in the main, are seeking sure bets for their investments, making them unlikely to back anything that is not going to be a sure fire hit. This will inevitably squeeze out the more cutting edge projects to the benefit of the mainstream productions. It could lead to a situation where endless West End musicals play on our stages while new Irish playwrights flounder in poverty unable to get their work produced.
Similarly the Edinburgh Festival, along with all other arts events, will feel the pinch too. We must not allow our politicians to sabotage the creative life of Ireland and Britain with their short-sighted cuts for short-term gain. The ultimate cost to our cultural lives will be immeasurable.
When I finish this column, I will once again take to the streets of Edinburgh to work for Amnesty International’s Burma campaign and interact with happy, satisfied people who have been entertained, challenged and treated to thought provoking, funny and ingenious artistic endeavour. Some will have been angered, upset or repulsed by what they saw but all will be thinking. We must not deny this to people particularly at a time of such economic depression.