OF THE festivals in Edinburgh in August, Edinburgh Art Festival is the youngest and, like the youngest child in a large family, it has had to fight hard to carve its niche. Launched 18 years ago as an umbrella programme which publicised the exhibitions happening in the city’s galleries, it secured limited funding for a programme of its own largely due to the efforts of the previous director, Sorcha Carey.
Carey made that budget go far, with an average of four projects a year, often in quirky, unusual spaces around the city. Artists who took part included Nathan Coley, Ross Sinclair, Ruth Ewan, Monster Chetwynd, Charles Avery, Isaac Julien, Alfredo Jaar and Emeka Ogboh. But the team had to work hard to establish the Festival’s identity when its budget was smaller than that of some of the individual galleries in its “partner programme”.
Kim McAleese, who took over from Carey last July, programmes her first Festival this year, making a number of important changes. She has shortened its run-time from a month to just over two weeks (August 11-27), and has chosen to focus on one-off performances and film screenings, rather than commissioning exhibitions.
She says the new dates place EAF “right in the centre of what’s happening in August. With the focus on performance practice and things that are event-based, it made more sense for the Festival to run more in line with some of the other festivals.
“For me, the wonderful thing about the Festival, especially post-Covid, is the opportunity to bring people together. I wanted to feel like there were these bursts of energy when people could find one another. That has informed my thinking around programming for this year: what it means to be together, and how in an art festival we often have the opportunity to platform those who are overlooked or under-represented.”
Festival highlights include History of the Present, a opera-film by Maria Fusco and Margaret Salmon about the Troubles in Northern Ireland, which will be accompanied by a live performance by percussionist Angela Wai Nok Hui; a new performance by Alberta Whittle, co-commissioned by EAF and National Galleries of Scotland, and events with Edinburgh-based poet Nat Raha and French artist and poet Tarek Lakhrissi, whose work is currently showing at Collective Gallery. The annual Platform exhibition for early career artists will take place in Trinity Apse – a spectacular historic church on Chalmers Close, off the Royal Mile.
While some question the wisdom of focusing on one-off live events in a city where there are currently thousands of live events on offer, McAleese makes the point that performance is a key element of many contemporary artists’ practices. “There are so many incredible artists working in so many different ways, including film, writing, performance, poetry, music. I wanted the festival to explore all of that.
“Whilst there aren’t a lot of exhibitions in our commissioned projects, most of our partners are presenting exhibitions: Grayson Perry, Leonor Antunes, Alberta Whittle, Peter Howson, there are a million things you could see. What I wanted to offer is something which feels more broad and more inclusive. I wanted there to be a heavy presence of female and non-binary artists, trans artists, women of colour, people who have various disabilities.”
At the EAF hub in the French Institute, artist Sean Burns will present his film Dorothy Towers, about two tower blocks in Birmingham located next to the city’s Gay Village, which will form a basis for workshops and events about queer histories in Edinburgh. And Beirut-based collective Haven for Artists, who are involved in social, educational and activist projects in Lebanon, including for women’s and LGBTQ rights, will be in residence in the Hub throughout the Festival, meeting local groups and giving the festival’s opening lecture alongside members of Belfast-based Turner Prize winners Array Collective.
McAleese says that artist activism, and platforming under-represented voices formed “a key driving force or rationale for the Festival”, adding: “Having a local connection with a big international conversation is really important to me. I met the director of Haven for Artists last year and we hit it off straight away. I really wanted them to set the tone for the Festival.”
Having worked collaboratively in all her previous roles in Birmingham and Northern Ireland, she says that, if EAF is to make an impact despite its limited budget, it must work with others, both with other festivals (this year she pilots three Sunday Salons alongside the Film and Book Festivals) and with the galleries in the partner programme.
“With many of the gallery partners, the exhibition programme was already set in place for this year, so in coming years we will be working more closely together on exhibition-based projects. I really want the Art Festival to add something that wasn’t there already, but that can only happen if we work closely together. That’s the direction I want the Festival to go.”
Meanwhile, she hopes the 2023 Festival will offer something for everyone, and the re-organised programme, which lists galleries and events by geographical area both in print and online, will make it easier for locals and visitors to find what interests them.
“If you’re someone who likes a party, there’s something there for you at Jupiter Rising. If you’re someone who really wants to sit down and be in a room with the people who founded the first LGBT bookshop in Edinburgh you can do that. If you want to go see a really strange opera-film with live percussion performance, we’ve got that. If you want to go and see the biggest Grayson exhibition in UK history, that’s there for you as well.”
Edinburgh Art Festival, August 11-27, for more information see www.edinburghartfestival.com