Online events have saved Scottish culture this year and now look here to stay – Brian Ferguson

It was a clear but bitingly cold afternoon at the Royal Botanic Garden in Edinburgh as I joined the queue lining up outside its gates for entry to its annual Christmas light show.

More than 5.5 million have watched the two films Janey Godley has made for the National Theatre of Scotland this year.
More than 5.5 million have watched the two films Janey Godley has made for the National Theatre of Scotland this year.

There were plenty reasons to be thankful, over and above the opportunity to visit one of the city’s truly world-class attractions after dark.

The event was one of the few to survive the pandemic this festive season, it was a rare opportunity to leave the house in the evening and the storms of the previous few days had miraculously cleared.

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Looking across the city centre from the garden, it was remarkable to think that virtually every other form of entertainment was still shut down, nine months since the closure of venues and live events.

Yet in Edinburgh, and indeed across Scotland, musicians, actors and other performers are creating new work, either behind closed doors or in the great outdoors.

Plays, pantomimes, concerts, book talks, poetry readings, films, TV shows and awards ceremonies are all being made this month. Some are being live-streamed, others will be going out over the festive season and, in the case of movies, some may take more than a year to see the light of day.

All this is the culmination of a year when almost every sector in the Scottish cultural world was thrown into turmoil almost overnight, has spent months reinventing itself and is now viewing the prospect of what 2021 may bring with understandable bewilderment and uncertainty, but also with some optimism that brighter days lie ahead.

The launch of the UK’s mass vaccination programme is undoubtedly the shot in the arm that the Scottish arts world has been waiting for.

Ian Rankin was among the authors who took part in virtual events and signing sessions at this year's Edinburgh International Book Festival.

But given the uncertainty over how long it will take to roll out the vaccine, it seems likely that it will be many, many months before live events return to any kind of normality.

And given that social-distancing restrictions and strict hygiene measures are expected to heavily impact on the viability of events, it seems all but inevitable that they will have to rely on the broadcasting and streaming of events for the foreseeable future.

In fact, it is almost impossible to imagine everything returning to the way it was nine months ago, given how quickly artists, event organisers and performing arts companies have embraced new technology and found new audiences online.

Will book festivals really be reluctant to stream their most popular events in future?

Will the National Theatre of Scotland focus mainly on live performances in 2021 and beyond given that nearly 15 million people around the world watched its online plays?

Can festivals really justify paying performers to fly across the world for a one-off performance in future when they could collaborate on film?

The boundaries between art forms have completely blurred this year particularly in regard to filmmaking. One of the key lessons of this year is that anyone can learn to do it.

But the most important questions for any arts organisation still have to be resolved. What will audiences be willing to pay for what they watch online – and will they return to live events in the numbers they used to in the pre-pandemic era.

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