How to Future Proof Our Festivals

Robert Sanderson (1848–1908), Drill Parade, Edinburgh Castle, 1886 (detail)

Photo credit: City of Edinburgh Council, Art UK

Professor Joe Goldblatt

A man dressed in lederhosen stands behind me in a queue at a coffee shop that I regularly frequent in my neighbourhood. I ask him if he is performing in the Edinburgh festivals and he enthusiastically says he is singing in The Sound of Music. Impulsively I softly sing the first line of the title song, “The hills are alive …” and he enthusiastically replies in a deep loud baritone voice “With the Sound of Music!” The rest of the queue applauds and one man shouts “Bravo!”

A few blocks further down the street a group of teenagers dressed in goth like clothing are in a tight nit huddle just outside a Fringe festival theatre. I inject myself into their conversation and ask with a wink if they are a secret society? They all nod in agreement and then I promise not to tell anyone because “What happens at the Fringe stays at …” and then they shout in unison “The Fringe!” I then ask if they are performers and together as one chorus they sing gaily “Yessssss Weeeeee Are!!

The best festivals provide that desperately needed alchemy of quality, innovation, and affordability that unites total strangers in a spirit of joy through a shared passion for music, dance, drama, art, film, literature, and much much more. Each summer, in the 76 years since the Jewish refugee of Nazi Germany Sir Rudolf Bing along with his fellow Jewish refugee from Vienna, Austria the maestro Bruno Walter welcomed the first audience to the Edinburgh Festivals, year after year they have brought international acclaim to Scotland’s capital city. And along with that acclaim, there are also the perennial controversies and questions about the real value of funding these annual extravaganzas of culture.

One example of how a nearby international neighbour has avoided these controversies and grown their festivals from strength to strength, despite the pandemic, is Salzburg, Austria. In 1920, following the horror of World War I five men including the famed director Max Reinhardt inaugurated the annual Salzburg Festival. This five week festival of music and theatre was interrupted during World War II, however, since then it has grown dramatically in size and quality.

This year’s Salzburg Festival claims to have a 67.5 million euro (£58 million) budget that has increased from 66.8 million euros (£56 million) last year, when 224,933 tickets were issued and 96% of their capacity was sold. According to Salzburg Festival officials, about 75% of revenue comes from their box office, sponsors, donors and rentals of venues in non-festival months. 335 million euros (£316 million) of funding has been approved by the city, state and Austria, with additional fundraising to bring in even more to build larger production facilities. And if this was not enough, a visitors’ centre is being funded by a 12 million euro (£10 million) gift by the juice manufacturer Capri-Sun and will open in 2025.

The bean counters of this festival recognise that as costs rise they must work ever harder to create affordable options for younger audience members. Therefore they matched long time audience members with young people 16 – 26 to provide the young and often first time audience members with 20.00 euro (£17) tickets for all performances. According to the festival president Kristina Hammer, this strategy will result in future proofing or “igniting the young people because the parents and the families don’t do it anymore.”

Over ten years ago event management economic impact researchers at Queen Margaret University published several strategies to future proof the Edinburgh festivals in order that the consistent quality and affordability for future audiences would be secured. These recommendations included appointing within local and national government elected officials who are festival champions to draft legislation to improve funding policy, collecting a small levy from tourists that would generate millions per year from tourists for festival infrastructure and improve affordability for tickets to young people and others, and further cultivate individual and corporate donations to support these essential programmes through demonstrating greater relevancy to education, health care, social care, and the overall quality of life of our city and country.

According to our Edinburgh festival leaders, their combined events annually produce hundreds of millions of economic impact locally and nationally, however, their public funding has remained flat or has been reduced for the past decade. By contrast, in Salzburg, a city of 180,000 as compared to Edinburgh’s 500,000 residents, local and national government have forcefully joined hands to fully fund their cultural treasures.

Another example of the results of full government support for cultural infrastructure may be seen in Oslo, Norway where within three city blocks and in less than fifteen years there is a new public library built at a cost of 2.2 billion Norwegian kroner (£165 million), an Opera and Ballet House that was powered by 4.4 billion Norwegian kroner (£331 million) investment, and finally the Edvard Munch museum that rises 12 stories into the sky with an investment of 2.8 billion (£210 million) Norwegian kroner. All three temples of literature and culture brought over £700 million in capital investment to this city of just over 600,000 citizens.

In my view, Edinburgh and Scotland must rapidly raise its game if we are to successfully compete upon the world cultural stage. The opportunity to future proof our festivals has been demonstrated by other European capitals and now we must use the intellect and innovation of our Scottish enlightenment ancestors and demonstrate our ambitions, similar to Bing and Walter as well as the talented artists who come here from all over the world are once again, boundless. The next time you visit the Usher Hall, you may notice a plaque funded by the Jewish community of Edinburgh in 2017 that honours Bing and Walter. When you see this impressive plaque, remember, they may be watching our generation to see if we have the same courage, commitment, and bold initiative that they, our civic leaders and citizens provided following a World War to create “a platform for the flowering of the human spirit” that we enjoy today. They also may be wondering what the future may bring for the Edinburgh festivals. I believe we should wonder as well and then roll up our sleeves, as they have done in Salzburg and Oslo.

Professor Joe Goldblatt is Emeritus Professor of Planned Events at Queen Margaret University. His views are his own and do not reflect those of any other organisation. For more information about his views visit

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