Australian to take charge of Edinburgh's debt-ridden festival

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The Independent Culture

The Edinburgh International Festival has turned to Australia to find a successor to its director, Sir Brian McMaster, who stands down in September after 15 years.

Jonathan Mills, a contemporary composer and formerly the artistic director of the Melbourne Arts Festival, was appointed yesterday to what should be one of the most prestigious posts in British arts. But his appointment comes just after the festival revealed it has gone £1m into the red after running up losses of £850,000 making six new productions last year.

Organisers hope to recoup the money from the transfer of shows. The director Peter Stein's acclaimed production of Blackbird, starring Jodhi May and Roger Allam, is already in London's West End, but only one other production has yet attracted a buyer.

To the alarm of some arts insiders, the Scottish Executive has washed its hands of the festival, despite the recommendation of a recent Cultural Commission in Scotland that it should provide extra funding to that traditionally provided by the Scottish Arts Council and Edinburgh City Council.

It is believed that several high-profile contenders for the post, including the director Pierre Audi, who founded London's Almeida theatre, and Graham Sheffield, artistic director of the Barbican Centre, London, withdrew their interest because of concerns over the funding and the short timetable for takeover.

But Mr Mills, 42, insisted yesterday that he was not deterred by these hurdles. The debts and the attitude of the Scottish Executive were "intimidating? Yes. An impediment? No," he said. "Maybe I'm a foolish optimist, but I think that if one goes to the Scottish Executive and the city council aware of the many competing calls on public funding and present these festivals as critical to the definition of Edinburgh and its credentials as a creative community ... one has a real chance of exciting these people about the opportunity."

Mr Mills, currently an academic at the University of Melbourne, said he was immediately tempted when this opportunity came up. "Edinburgh has been hugely influential in the shape that all sorts of multi-arts events around the world have taken," he said. "In a sense, I've done an Edinburgh festival, I've just done it in Melbourne. I've done something in a shape hugely influenced by the mere existence of this festival."

He added: "Following on from Brian McMaster will be both exciting and challenging. He has been here a long time." Without going into detail yet, Mr Mills said there might be areas of the arts which Sir Brian had not been interested in and which he might expand. There was scope, for example, to do more work in the visual arts, he said.

The festival was launched in 1947 with the aim of providing "a platform for the flowering of the human spirit". As it grew, so did shows outside of the official event into what is now known as the Fringe. The Edinburgh Festival now embraces half a dozen or so festivals including books and films.

Mr Mills said it was "a genius of a place" to hold a festival because "you can walk around it. It's perambulatory. And it's medieval and Georgian and bits of it are edgy." As a fair-skinned Australian of Scottish ancestry, he even praised the climate to which he was far better suited, he claimed, than the 42C heat of his current home in Melbourne during the summer months.

He moves to Scotland this October to join the clique of foreigners running British cultural institutions, including his fellow Australian Michael Lynch at the South Bank Centre in London.

In the meantime, the festival is appealing for donations to support this summer's programme, Sir Brian's last. "Please give generously; no contribution is too small or too large!" its website pleads.