WE are at a “pivotal moment” for our arts sector – but culture can help Scotland recover from coronavirus, according to the former head of Creative Scotland.

Janet Archer became Edinburgh University’s first-ever director of festivals, cultural and city events last year after leaving the national organisation.

Her current role involves strengthening the university’s partnerships with the capital’s cultural sector.

In any other June that would mean working with key players in its international festivals. This year it means curating and delivering a new series of online debates about the value of creativity, not only to the arts but also to society and the wider economy as the sector struggles with cancellations, restrictions and funding problems.

The Edinburgh International Festival and the Fringe – the world’s biggest arts festival – have been cancelled for the first time since their inception, with the Military Tattoo, Edinburgh Art Festival and Edinburgh International Book Festival also called off, aside from some online activity.

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Together, the events attract crowds of around 4.4 million people every year to performances by more than 25,000 actors, comics, musicians and writers from 70 countries.

Archer hopes her series, the Edinburgh Culture Conversations, will also attract international audiences.

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The 10-week programme, staged in conjunction with the Edinburgh Futures Institute for interdisciplinary learning and research, will bring together members of the public, artists, academics and cultural leaders to debate the future shape and purpose of the culture sector. Makar Jackie Kay, singer Karine Polwart, artist Hanna Tuulikki and Shona McCarthy, chief executive officer of the Edinburgh International Fringe Festival, will all take part. Members of the public are being encouraged to submit questions during the debates, which will be streamed live and recorded for future viewings.

The first, which will include Edinburgh International Festival director Fergus Linehan amongst others, will take place tomorrow and question how to “ keep the Festival spirit of internationalism and interculturalism alive”.

“It felt important to do something at this pivotal moment,” Archer said. “The festival has never been cancelled before. The work practitioners in Scotland carry out is quite extraordinary. It seemed to me that it wouldn’t be so difficult to put something together that would draw on that breadth of expertise and knowledge.”

In 2019, 1.2m Fringe-goers visited venues on the Edinburgh University campus, which alone hosted 65 individual theatre spaces, bars and offices.

Culture Secretary Fiona Hyslop has announced a £10m Performing Arts Venues Relief Fund – part of the Scottish Government’s £185m Business Support Fund – to support shuttered venues, and there are a number of other fundraisers for individual sites, such as The Stand’s comedy clubs.

“Last year everybody was absolutely on target to have a really successful year, and that’s been pulled from under everybody’s feet,” Archer continued. “Many, many people are going to be impacted – all of our hotels and guesthouses, restaurants and bars.

“But it’s not just Edinburgh, Scotland has something like 400 festivals and every one of them in this period is going to be impacted.

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“What I’m hopeful about is having experienced many of these festivals I know how passionate and determined people are. I know there are all sorts of conversations going on about how people can be brought back together.”

The arts, Archer says, “can be part of civic, emotional and economic recovery for the future”.

PART of that involves interpreting the times we are living through, with the impact of the pandemic as well as huge political, social and environmental change.

“Culture can feed you in a way that other things can’t,” Archer said. “It lets you absorb something and process it in your own way, and then have a chat about it in the bar afterwards. It respects people. That’s where it differs from media, which is all about messages, and that’s incessant now. With culture, you can choose how you participate and engage, you can take your time and reflect.

“The concept of cultural expression and internationalism and creative risk-taking is ingrained in the psychology of Edinburgh,” she added. “Since the festivals came into place post-war, it’s been a huge part of the cultural calendar globally, not just in Scotland. It’s all about people and relationships.

“The international relationships that Scotland has engendered through all of its festivals are paramount. Cultural activity doesn’t just enable more cultural activity, it also underpins everything else that we do. We can see how culture is used to open doors to opportunities in education and industry and many different areas.”

For more details about the Edinburgh Culture Conversations or to sign up, visit: www.edin.ac/2Z4YZwc