EDINBURGH’S festivals must embrace the European roots from which they were founded, according to veteran artist and art programmer Richard Demarco.
Italian-Scot Demarco claims to have attended the Edinburgh International Festival and the Fringe every year since its inception in 1947 when he was 17 years old.
A co-founder of Edinburgh’s Traverse Theatre, he later established the Richard Demarco Gallery and was involved in staging shows and exhibitions as part of the festival for many years. Artists he invited to the city included German performance artist Joseph Beuys and Polish painter and theatre director Tadeusz Kantor.
But now, with negotiations on Brexit due to be completed by the end of this year, Demarco is calling for directors of Edinburgh’s festivals to remind audiences of the events’ post-Second World War aims to promote European unity, reconciliation and co-operation.
The original arts festival was conceived by Rudolf Bing, an Austrian impresario who had fled Nazi Germany. He settled on Edinburgh as the location for his planned festival, with the intention of creating a new post-war identity for the city as “the cultural resort of Europe”. It sought to “provide a platform for the flowering of the human spirit” and “heal the wound of war through the arts”.
Demarco, who will turn 90 later this year, told the Sunday National: “The early festival was the Europeanisation of Scotland, a reminder of Scotland’s place in Europe.
“The festival began because we had to learn how to cry bitter tears for what we had lost. And everybody in Edinburgh in 1947 had lost someone. We’ve forgotten that. We’ve forgotten that the greatest gift that was ever given was given to Edinburgh back then.”
Now, with Scotland having left the EU despite voting to remain, he said that it was time “for something special to be done”.
“I think directors should study the original programmes for inspiration and offer audiences a taste of the origins of the festival,” he said. Re-stagings of the festival’s most iconic works could include 15th-century play Everyman –which has seen several contemporary adaptations – he claimed. It was the first play to be performed as part of what would later become known as the Edinburgh Fringe at Dunfermline Abbey in 1947.
“I was educated about Europe by the festivals,” added Demarco. “Now the UK seems to be allying itself with everyone except Europe. I am still extremely concerned that we could see a hard Brexit. Brexit is going to create its own equivalent of the Iron Curtain.” During the sixties and seventies, he put on shows by artists from Romania, Italy, France, Poland and West Germany, usually due to European funding he had managed to secure. He mourned the fact that they were separated from artists living in the East.
Since the early 1990s, his work has mainly been directed through the Demarco European Art Foundation. In 2018 the National Gallery of Scotland confirmed it would house his extensive archive – which includes materials from Edinburgh festivals stretching back through the decades – in a new National Collections Facility on the waterfront in Granton.
Demarco was born in west Edinburgh in 1930 to an Irish mother and an Italian father and considers himself a European Scot. On January 31 he took part in a Deveron Projects “Brexit Day” event in Huntly, Aberdeenshire, in which a weeping willow was planted as “a sign for both hope and sorrow” .
However, he is scathing about the commercialisation of the current state of Edinburgh festivals, claiming that the international festival has been marginalised while the Fringe has been allowed to turn the city centre into “a theme park” where local residents are no longer able to live or work. Concerns about over-tourism in the city have been raised increasingly in recent years.
“I’m so disgusted to find there is no evidence of the main [international] festival except in a tiny area of the city,” he said. “The [Princess Street] gardens are a complete mess. Edinburgh is managing to look like Blackpool.”
He claimed that problems were further compounded by the fact that most shows were on tour and could be seen in other cities across the world. “We need to make it special again,” he said. “I would love for Edinburgh to become a place of artistic pilgrimage.”
Both festival directors and senior politicians have warned that Brexit may have significant effects on the Edinburgh festivals. Last month MSP Gordon MacDonald wrote to culture secretary Nicky Morgan, calling on her to “safeguard international performers’ access”, while last August Culture Secretary Fiona Hyslop called on the UK Government to take part in a summit in Edinburgh on visas for international festivals.
In the same month, Edinburgh International Festival director Fergus Linehan reported increasing numbers of artists were asking to be paid in dollars and euros instead of sterling because of Brexit uncertainty. He previously raised fears that a No-Deal Brexit would be “disastrous” for the festival.