This year sees not only the return of the Scottish capital’s annual festivals post-pandemic, but also the 75th anniversary of the Edinburgh International Festival (EIF), the Edinburgh Fringe and the Edinburgh International Film Festival (EIFF).
Since 1947 the Fringe has grown into the biggest arts festival in the world, the EIF has consolidated its place on the world stage and festivals of books, art and television have joined the line-up. But the years have seen fortunes fluctuate too, and nothing has fluctuated as much as the status of visual art.
From 1950, EIF director Ian Hunter made art a central component of the programme. Major exhibitions wowed critics and audiences and helped put Edinburgh on the map as a premier art destination. A show dedicated to Rembrandt (1950) was followed by the Spanish Masters (1951), Degas (1952) and Renoir (1953).
1954 was a bumper year with a major Cezanne exhibition, including loans from New York, Los Angeles, Boston, Chicago and Amsterdam, and ballet devotee Richard Buckle’s ground-breaking Homage to Diaghilev, which featured designs for ballets by Matisse, Picasso, Braque and Gauguin.
In 1957 visitors flocked to the Royal Scottish Academy to see over a hundred paintings by Monet and notable exhibitions continued in the 1960s, including on the sculptor Jacob Epstein (1961), over 200 works by Delacroix (1964) and a major retrospective on Charles Rennie Mackintosh (1968).
In 1965 Richard Demarco, gallery director and co-founder of the Traverse Theatre, asked EIF director Lord Harewood: “All the dancers are alive, all the members of the orchestras are alive. Why are all the artists dead?” Harewood responded by appointing him to direct a programme of contemporary art within the festival. However, the next year brought a new director, Peter Diamand, who welcomed the idea on the condition that Demarco find the money. “So,’ says Demarco, “with the fearlessness of extreme youth, I accepted.”
For the next 25 years Demarco would create exhibitions under the EIF banner, showcasing in particular contemporary art from behind the Iron Curtain, most of which had never been seen in Britain. The funding came largely from overseas. There were major exhibitions of Canadian art (1968), Polish art (1969 and 1972) and the landmark show Strategy: Get Arts (1970), a blockbuster on the German avant-garde featuring artists such as Joseph Beuys, Gerhard Richter and Gunther Uecker. It was the beginning a friendship between Demarco and Beuys, who would be a guest at festivals for the next decade.
“That was the moment when the Edinburgh Festival behaved in a way that I could be proud of,” Demarco says. “It was presenting work which was up there with the great art festivals of Europe, the Venice Biennale and Documenta. It was work which, according to the critics, far outshone the New York art scene.”
Demarco is concerned that there is nothing now in the Edinburgh festivals which showcases ground-breaking art in the way Strategy: Get Arts did, addressing the critical issues of the world today, and that art is not celebrated on the same level as opera, theatre and dance.
In the mid-1980s, EIF director Frank Dunlop supported two major exhibitions of Scottish art: Artists at Work (1986) and The Vigorous Imagination (1987). The latter, curated by art critic Clare Henry, is considered the breakthrough show on that decade’s new wave of figurative painting in Scotland. Both exhibitions featured on the cover of the EIF programme.
By 1990, however, there was concern that visual art had slipped off the festival agenda. In 1991, the year Brian McMaster took over as director, Clare Henry wrote in The Herald newspaper that the visual arts in the festivals were ‘at an all-time low, thanks to festival authorities who have consistently marginalised them…The art world’s eyes are already on [McMaster] in a last-gasp hope that a new boss will provide the kiss of life to a moribund festival exhibition programme.’
It was not to be. For the next 14 years, visual art would languish without a seat at the festival table, though individual galleries (including the National Galleries of Scotland) continued to programme their most ambitious work every August.
Visual art did make a brief return to the EIF programme in the early 2000s under then director Jonathan Mills, with programmes such as Jardins Publics (2007), curated by Katrina Brown, director of the Common Guild in Glasgow, and The Enlightenments (2009), which featured nine projects by American conceptual artist Joseph Kosuth, German artist Tacita Dean, who works primarily in film, and Taiwanese-American contemporary artist Lee Mingwei, among others. A few subsequent shows by international artists received EIF backing before visual art once again dropped off the festival agenda.
In 2003 a steering group drawn from the public and private gallery sectors met to discuss a shared programme, which led to the 2004 launch of the Edinburgh Art Festival (EAF), which in its early years was simply an umbrella programme bringing together previously planned exhibitions.
However, in 2011, under director Sorcha Carey, the EAF secured money from the Festivals Expo Fund to commission a small number of new works by contemporary artists. This continued through piecemeal funding and partnerships with city galleries, leading to a regular EAF commissions programme featuring artists such as Martin Creed, Nathan Coley, Ciara Phillips, Ruth Ewan and Alfredo Jaar.
Kim McAleese, who took over as EAF director in July this year, paid tribute to what Carey had achieved, saying: “Sorcha did amazing work fundraising and making things happen. The programme has grown from something that was basically a consortium of people showcasing visual art in the city at festival time into something where high profile international artists are commissioned to make brand new work. I want to build on that legacy.”
McAleese says she has a particular interest in embedding long-term, socially engaged art of the kind happening in this year’s EAF with Dutch artist Jeanne van Heeswijk in Wester Hailes and large scale commissions in public spaces.
McAleese, who plans to seek a meeting with Nicola Benedetti when the latter takes over as EIF director next year, is hopeful that the Edinburgh Art Festival can continue to raise the profile of art in the festival landscape. She says: “There’s still a bit of work to be done, but the EAF is a young festival. We’re turning 18 this year, but we’re still the baby of the bunch. I think there’s a lot of opportunity here for visual art to be on a higher profile. We maybe just need a couple more years!”
It is a different picture at the Adelaide Festival of the Arts, launched in 1960 on a model similar to Edinburgh’s, but which presents visual arts every year as part of its core programme. Rebecca Healy, joint-Artistic Director from 2017 to 2022, said: “The visual arts have always been an essential component of the Adelaide Festival. While different artistic directors have at various times focussed on certain creative forms, all art forms have had a consistent presence in the programme.”
In recent years, the Adelaide Festival has invested heavily in free, interactive public art, such as Japanese installation artist Tatzu Nishi’s human-size A Doll’s House in 2020 and American artist Robin Frohardt’s 2021 The Plastic Bag Store in 2021, a life-size shop stocked with thousands of familiar ‘products’, all of them made from single use plastic bags. Other featured artists have included Bill Viola, Susan Hiller, Jenny Holzer and Isaac Julien, while the festival presented the first Australian exhibition of the work of Frida Kahlo. In 1990 the Adelaide Biennial of Australian Art was conceived as part of the festival and it has since presented work by nearly 500 artists.
Other featured artists have included Bill Viola, Susan Hiller, Jenny Holzer and Isaac Julien, while the festival presented the first Australian exhibition of the work of Frida Kahlo. In 1990 the Adelaide Biennial of Australian Art was conceived as part of the festival and it has since presented work by nearly 500 artists.
An Edinburgh International Festival spokesperson said: “Since Sir Ian Hunter’s tenure as Festival Director in the 1950s, visual art has been included in the EIF programme to varying degrees. Most recently, the International Festival partnered with the Fruitmarket Gallery and Jupiter Artland in 2019 and Talbot Rice Gallery in 2021 and this year the visual artist Leena Nammari is creating a floating installation at The Studio, part of the Festival’s Refuge programme.
“Visual art does not sit within the core programme of the Edinburgh International Festival – which is dance, theatre, opera and music – and since 2004 the Edinburgh Art Festival has provided a platform for visual arts at the heart of Edinburgh’s August festivals.”
However, Clare Henry believes an annual “blockbuster” show under the EIF banner is necessary to restore the profile of visual art at the festivals. She says: “Since it dropped out of the brochure, it has gone from bad to worse. It creates a vicious circle where radio and TV ignore the visual arts, so international artists and curators believe it’s not worth coming. We need money and we need it to be an integral part of the EIF, not part of a small organisation that doesn’t have the budget.”