BY Tom Jeffreys in Interviews | 10 AUG 23

Kim McAleese on Edinburgh Art Festival’s Collaborative Spirit

Tom Jeffreys speaks with the festival director ahead of her first edition in charge of the programme

BY Tom Jeffreys in Interviews | 10 AUG 23

Edinburgh’s relationship with its own famous festivals has become increasingly fraught, with funding ever tighter for local arts institutions yet seemingly unlimited for the private companies profiting disproportionately from, in particular, the Edinburgh Fringe. In 2022, for example, the closure of Edinburgh’s much-loved Filmhouse cinema was followed by Chancellor Jeremy Hunt’s announcement of £7 million for the Fringe’s unnecessary new ‘hub’ building. In The Skinny, creative producer Morvern Cunningham likened the city’s cultural ecology to ‘an ailing coral reef – bright and colourful on the outside, but grey and brittle at its core.’

The same year, Edinburgh Art Festival announced its new director: Kim McAleese, previously programme director at Grand Union, Birmingham. Upon her appointment, McAleese asked: ‘What could a festival look like that is rooted here and connects to people in the city and is also balanced with a critical and nuanced global dialogue?’ I spoke to McAleese in July to ask the same question ahead of the festivals opening on 11 August. 

Tom Jeffreys With hundreds of thousands of visitors, Edinburgh Art Festival claims to be ‘the best attended annual visual art festival in the UK. How do you see the festival?

Kim McAleese It’s important to understand its origins. At the 2022 Magdalena Abakanowicz exhibition at Tate Modern I saw a photograph of Red Rope, a performance by the artist through the streets of Edinburgh. That was in 1972, when visual art was a key component of Edinburgh International Festival, but it gradually fell by the wayside. In 2004, the city’s galleries came together to found Edinburgh Art Festival as a way of celebrating the arts offering in the city. [Previous director] Sorcha Carey built up funding for a complementary commissions programme in public spaces, and what I’m now trying to do is politicize that.

For example, we’re working with Alberta Whittle on a new co-commission with National Galleries Scotland. She knew she wanted to locate the performance at Parliament Hall, part of the building that houses Scotland’s Supreme Courts, the ultimate authorities within Scottish law. The performance is a reconfiguration of Whittle’s film work, Lagareh – The Last Born [2022], which contains a lament for Sheku Bayoh, who died after being arrested by police in 2015. With the public inquiry into his death ongoing, Whittle wanted to situate something in this seat of legal power that speaks to Bayoh’s history, his family and the people that have suffered from police brutality. It’s a confrontational and emotional work – it’s important that we are making these issues visible through the programme.

Alberta Whittle Lagareh The Last Born
Alberta Whittle, Lagareh – The Last Born, 2022, film still. Courtesy: the artist and The Modern Institute/Toby Webster Ltd., Glasgow; photograph: Jaryd Niles-Morris

TJ Can you say more about this subject of rootedness, about making a festival that connects the local and global?

KM Edinburgh can be an intoxicating city. We’re trying to bring out the intangible narratives like the queer histories that have not always been well recorded. For example, we’re showing [frieze assistant editor] Sean Burns’ project Dorothy Towers [2022], which is very specifically about queer community and kinship in Birmingham. What does it mean to show that work in Edinburgh? Burns is working with various organisations in the city, including Lothian Health Services Archive, to exhibit different ephemera and bring Edinburgh-specific materials into the space.

We’ve also initiated several co-commissions. One is Nat Raha’s performance, epistolary (on carceral islands) [2023], co-commissioned with TULCA Festival in Galway, which will address the colonial development of island prisons via a triangulation of sites: Bass Rock in the Firth of Forth; Spike Island, Ireland; and the Andaman Islands in the Bay of Bengal.

The festival has grown out of collaboration between Edinburgh’s cultural institutions, so an integral part of my work is about relationships with our partners. That includes galleries and museums, but also the many community partners we work with, like the Community Wellbeing Collective or Lavender Menace Queer Books Archive. Those relationships can be small-scale, they can build over time, and that’s where I see a space for change. It’s not just about the public moment of the festival, as important as that is – it’s also about finding ways of working together hopefully for years to come. It’s the kind of work that doesn’t always get the attention it deserves. It takes place outwith festival time and I want to do more with that.

Lindsey Mendick Sh_tfaced 2023 installation view
Lindsey Mendick, ‘SH*TFACED, 2023, installation view. Courtesy: Edinburgh Art Festival and Jupiter Artland; photograph: John Mckenzie 

TJ You’ve changed the festival’s start date from the last week of July to the second week in August, and reduced the length from a full month to just over two weeks.

KM When I joined last year it felt like there was an event every single day. When we got to the end of the festival, I could just see how exhausted everyone was. I didn’t think it was sustainable for our small team to be delivering that volume of programming over an entire month. The rationale is also to have focussed weekend events with a burst of energy, and also to be more aligned with Edinburgh’s other festivals.

Sean Burns Dorothy Towers
Sean Burns, Dorothy Towers, 2022, film still. Courtesy: the artist and Edinburgh Art Festival 

TJ You’ve previously spoken of ‘the festival’s continuing commitment to support structures’. Can you elaborate?

KM One long-running example is Platform, a showcase for four artists based in Scotland. This year, we had so many incredible applications and the four we’re showing – Aqsa Arif, Crystal Bennes, Rudy Kanhye and Richard Maguire – are really strong, critical in their thinking and ambitious. There is not enough support for early career artists here, so for that to be a core part of our programme is vital.

Governance is also important to me. At Grand Union and with Household Collective, I always looked to interrogate the ethics and principles of organizations, building upon the work of people who have come before and doing so in an open and collaborative way.

I think what I bring to the festival is a strange web of different experiences and people who are trying to do things in different ways. So we might draw upon the work of activist groups or housing co-operatives to inform our approach to collective decision-making. Art collective Haven for Artists will be over from Beirut for three weeks, and I hope we can learn from their approach to organizing. I’m also looking at things like contracts and access riders, so that whoever we work with is given space to discuss their individual needs in a transparent way. I’m trying to implement these shifts because I think the art world at large needs to shift.

Edinburgh Art Festival will be on view from 11­27 August at various venues across the city.

Main image: Visitors view Céline Condorelli's show, After Work’, during the opening of Edinburgh Art Festival 2022. Courtesy: Edinburgh Art Festival; photograph: Sally Jubb

Tom Jeffreys is a writer based in Edinburgh. He is the author of two books: The White Birch: A Russian Reflection (Little, Brown, 2021) and Signal Failure: London to Birmingham, HS2 on foot (Influx Press, 2017).