Great fringe benefits - but for whom?

Developers have big plans for Edinburgh's thriving Bongo Club - they want to close it down and turn the art space into a £75m hotel complex. It's bad news for the city that fostered the very concept of the artistic fringe.
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It's home to Edinburgh's funkiest, most cosmopolitan venue, not only during the Fringe but throughout the year. The current programme there ranges from Gambian kora music to the cream of local bands, Earl Okin to big beat, South African township dance to Chicago's Fringe First-winning mini-dramatists, the Neo-Futurists. Not to mention the nightly cornucopia of cabaret, the quirky neo-tribal artwork, the Thai food served into the small hours, and great margaritas.

It's home to Edinburgh's funkiest, most cosmopolitan venue, not only during the Fringe but throughout the year. The current programme there ranges from Gambian kora music to the cream of local bands, Earl Okin to big beat, South African township dance to Chicago's Fringe First-winning mini-dramatists, the Neo-Futurists. Not to mention the nightly cornucopia of cabaret, the quirky neo-tribal artwork, the Thai food served into the small hours, and great margaritas.

It's also home to a complex of 31 studios, workshops, offices and rehearsal rooms, in turn housing an informal community of around 100 artists, working across and between a vast array of different disciplines: painters, sculptors, musicians, Web designers, costume designers, photographers, animators, dancers, doll-makers and more.

Run by a wholly independent, self-funding management collective which also stages its own in-house events, organises classes (from life-drawing to capoeira) and carries out a range of community and outreach projects, it generates a turnover of approximately £500,000 a year, providing around 50 jobs - not counting the various small businesses mentioned above.

Or is this ferment of creativity and enterprise just some kind of illusion? For according to the developers who've bought the site, when they unveiled their plans last month for its transformation into a £75m hotel, office and residential complex, the building where it's all taking place is currently "disused" and "derelict". And under the proposed scheme, it's also due for demolition.

Nobody would claim that the old New Street bus depot, occupied by the Out of the Blue organisation and its performance/gallery space, the Bongo Club, since 1996, is an edifice of any architectural merit. In the hands of its current tenants, however, this unpromising space has become a dynamic focal point for individuals and ideas, communication and collaboration, which last year welcomed 40,000 through its doors, the majority on low incomes, and including many who wouldn't dream of setting foot in a conventional arts centre or gallery.

To pick just one example, Out of the Blue is currently running a Year of the Artist project, in partnership with a local charity for the young homeless. Those taking part have recently been given accommodation, usually an empty council flat; now they're getting a crash course in "Junk Art".

"Even though they've got somewhere to live, they don't have much money or the skills to make it feel like home," explains Suzie Merrall, one of the centre's small team of full-time multi-taskers. "The workshops look at what you can make out of so-called junk to decorate your own space, how to renovate furniture, all the things you can do with stuff that gets chucked away - Womble Workshops, we're calling them.

"At the end of the project, the plan is to have an exhibition in the gallery.Because the workshops are running on through the Festival, as well, the people doing them are getting to come and see all the shows, hang out in the café, and they've just been getting totally into it all."

As an instance of making the arts more accessible and relevant, of social inclusion, and of building links between different communities, this could hardly be bettered.

The secret of Out of the Blue's success is, on one level, very simple. It arises from the fact of having so many creatively minded types under one roof, and providing spaces where they can get together, be it socially or collaboratively. "It's about encouraging connections, and being open to new possibilities," Merrall says. "That's why we'd never look for revenue funding. If you get a grant, you also get tied into a remit; the money has to be earmarked for certain things, which means you can't be responsive to things as they happen."

By way of example, she cites a swiftly organised benefit concert last year at the 3,000-seater Edinburgh Playhouse, co-promoted by Out of the Blue, which raised £15,000 for Kosovan refugees. "We just couldn't have done that if we were tied to any kind of standard funding structure, but because of how we work, not only could we decide to do it, but through all our contacts with musicians and so on, we could put together a strong programme."

The one key thing Out of the Blue does need, by way of economic support, is an affordable home - not an easy thing to secure right now in Edinburgh, currently the UK's fastest-growing city economy. Certainly not where they are at present, in a run-down corner of the Old Town that's long been ripe for development, all the more so now for being a stone's throw from the new Scottish Parliament site.

Despite repeated representations to the site's owners, New Street Partners, no provision has thus far been made for Out of the Blue's continued existence within the redevelopment plans, which talk of establishing a "cultural quarter" in the area, but specify only a 120-seater theatre/cinema by way of actual infrastructure. Given the developers' aforementioned attempt to deny Out of the Blue's current existence, no one is particularly optimistic about a change of heart, though all are determined to keep pushing their case.

In other words, Edinburgh, the city that fostered the very concept of the artistic "fringe", is probably about to lose yet another of the increasingly few spaces which keep that do-it-yourself spirit of invention and adventure alive. Café Graffiti closed its doors last year, the Spiegeltent is currently conspicuous by its absence, priced out by the local council's rent demand, and this could well be the Bongo Club's last Festival, at least in its current home.

Although Out of the Blue is confident of finding another building, or buildings, eventually, the chances of securing another city-centre location unaided seem remote, given prevailing rents, and so far no concrete offers of support have been forthcoming from the council.

But if Edinburgh wants to preserve the health of its cultural economy, and sustain an indigenous, year-round bedrock of artistic activity and experimentation rather than simply shipping it in each August, it cannot afford to keep letting commercial imperatives strangle local creativity at its grass-roots.

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