Faces of the festivals: How do you curate a city?
By Dan James, Festivals Edinburgh Blogger in Residence, August 2018
One of the things that has struck me most during my time at Edinburgh's August Festivals is just how much work goes into delivering such epic, interesting and varied programmes. It's easy to rock up, appreciate it and not grasp just how much effort goes into the other 11 months of the year.
As such, I wanted to catch up with a few people from behind the scenes and meet the faces of the festivals. Sitting down over a coffee with Sorcha Carey, Director of Edinburgh Art Festival and chair of Festivals Edinburgh, I wanted to know a little more about her role, how emerging artists can get involved and a real burning question: how do you curate a whole city?
one of the most special things we have is our gallery partnerships and the amazing exhibition programme that comes from these.
Sorcha, tell me a bit more about your role at Edinburgh Art Festival?
"As the Director of the Festival, I ultimately lead on the overall shape and content of the festival. I don’t personally curate all the art, one of the most special things we have is our gallery partnerships and the amazing exhibition programme that comes from these. The galleries individually curate a range of art that really represents how important art is to the city all year round and our programme helps promote the ambitious projects throughout many galleries.
"As such, my role as director is to think of the festival as a collective and part of that is from a visitor perspective and ask the question: when people come to our city, what is the range of our programme? We will have major shows and then a mix of leading and emerging artists locally and internationally. My role is to ensure we are both supporting and growing this.
"I also curate and invite a small number of projects each year for our commissions programme. For this year one of our projects is working with Ruth Ewan, and she very much wanted to think about how Edinburgh in August becomes a street performance with her show Sympathetic Magick. Equally, visitors to Edinburgh will encounter the arts in all sorts of small places. Street magic is very different from small close up magic in a pub or a library, and this adds a unique figure to our programme."
And I guess the age-old question that follows is: What is art? I've seen a surprisingly diverse collection this year from the traditional to magic and music performances? Do you think the lines get blurred between the different festivals?
"The artist Joseph Beuys who came to Edinburgh in the 70s and 80s famously said everyone is an artist, so that gives us the potential that even the audience can be the artists when they come to Edinburgh. I think one of the defining characteristics of art as it's made now is it is less bounded, and the boundaries are being constantly broken down. That is a characteristic of the world we live in and is happening in all fields and walks of life, we are becoming much more open and fluid with our boundaries, and in that respect, art reflects our world and what is happening around us.
"I think it is really special that in our programme there are lots of opportunities to see artists in more traditional formats but also go on a journey and encounter how artists are working today.
I think one of the defining characteristics of art as it's made now is it is less bounded, and the boundaries are being constantly broken down.
"One of the things that is most interesting for me is being one of five festivals happening at the same time there are always opportunities to reach new people. Some of our programme is very mindful that people who are coming here might be visiting for music or books, but through our programme, we are able to reach people that may not be considering visiting galleries so when we programme magic or music say, we might be able to reach new people who are looking to experiment.
"Festivals provide a safe space for people to explore and experience new things and people navigate a festival with an element of surprise. This gives us a great opportunity to help people visit galleries and explore our programmes which may not normally do so."
As someone who knows the Festival City well, what would be your top tips for someone who is visiting in August for the first time?
"I would tell them to wear comfortable shoes, you can not have an authentic festival visit without comfortable shoes! (Dan: I back this up 1000%!)
a lot of the best moments in Edinburgh's Festivals comes from spontaneity and just going through a new door and discovering a new and captivating experience
"Secondly, talk to other people; one of the great things about Edinburgh is there is still a great word of mouth culture, you’ll be overwhelmed by lots of posters and printed programmes, but there is nothing like a visit based on people's recommendations and the audience to audience recommendations are really valuable. Don’t be afraid to follow your gut instinct and ignore the 5* reviews, a lot of the best moments in Edinburgh's Festivals comes from spontaneity and just going through a new door and discovering a new and captivating experience."
I think it's easy for us as visitors to rock up in August, appreciate what we've seen and then assume everything is packed up and paused until the next year. What is the reality of the over 11-months for you and your team?
"Lots happens the rest of the year. In September we are always looking back and learning from the festival and thinking about the things that did work and also how we can improve things. That time of reflection helps us to shape the following year. Some of that is internally, but we also do a lot of audience research by opening up direct conversations.
"A key thing is that festivals obviously need money to be mounted, especially given over 90-percent of our programme is free at the point of access, so there is a lot of fundraising that goes into putting the festival together. You need strong proposals and ideas to fundraise against, so we are constantly talking to artists about what is going to happen in the coming year.
"A lot of the work we produce is commissioned specifically for the festival, so that is a long process of discussion, conversation, commissions and production which is a journey throughout the year.
"An important thing that happens for us, and across the festivals, is we are all talking to each other so throughout the year we will be meeting with our 20 plus partner galleries and discussing plans, support and ways we can collaborate together on activities such as Art Late. We also have a family of festivals, and I am chair of Festivals Edinburgh which brings together the 11 festivals to discuss how we can work on common initiatives. The 11 festivals meet regularly to discuss challenges, opportunities and collective discussion to remain the world leading festival city that is Edinburgh."
I've been really impressed with the range of venues the Art Festival uses. How do you choose venues and open up closed spaces to the public each year?
"One of the things we really enjoy is finding ways to open up the city and discover new venues and open up areas that are new to the festival and our visitors, then negotiating to be able to make those spaces open to the public for the five-week run. We're really proud to open up those spaces and find new creative ways to work in them."
Any tips for aspiring artists who want to be featured at Edinburgh Art Festival?
"We have two opportunities for people to get involved, one is is called Platform, and provides artists with a platform at the beginning of their career.
In January we also issue an open call for anyone who wants to bring their work to the festival
"In the final year of art school there are prizes, awards and grants but after the first year or so, opportunities get fewer and to sustain the practice can be challenging. As such we wanted to provide a supportive opportunity for Scottish artists so we introduced that opportunity, Platform, and it’s an open call, assessed by a panel who choose four or five to promote in the programme.
"In January we also issue an open call for anyone who wants to bring their work to the festival, an open opportunity to share their work. Similar to the fringe, it’s self-organising so comes with its challenges but its a really great opportunity to share your work during in the August period on the world stage.
"Of course, if you come, and you really do want to take part its a great place to network, meet people, introduce yourself and share your work and ideas which will help you build new relationships and networks to support you in getting the shows you want down the line."
As a relatively young festival, what does the future hold? Is there anything exciting going on behind the scenes?
"I'm very excited that this year we moved into the French Institute, a new home with a long-term presence and lease by the Royal Mile which puts us in the central festival location, it’s really exciting for us as a young festival to join that space.
alongside the visitors to Edinburgh for the festivals, locals really do immerse themselves in the city and exceptional culture during August
"Our festival will always be about the whole city and encouraging people to go to some of the less visited parts of Edinburgh which is an important aspect for us. But, to be in the exciting place that people can find us at our new home, coupled with the new partnership alongside the French Institute, will allow us to work with them together.
"I’m always really fascinated by the way that history in a city plays out in our contemporary experience. One of the things I really love about this building is that this building was the registry office for the city and when we had our launch here five weeks ago, we had a few people who got married in this building. I also registered the birth of my son here, so it’s really pleasing that we have moved into a building that has so many memories for our locals in the city. It’s really important to remember that alongside the visitors to Edinburgh for the festivals, locals really do immerse themselves in the city and exceptional culture during August."
Take a look at the fascinating programme from the Edinburgh Art Festival and discover the incredible programme Sorcha and her team have curated throughout the whole city, it really is impressive how all this hard work comes together.