Edinburgh’s Arts Community Up In Arms As One Of Its Favorite Venues Is Put Up For Sale

Senior figures in the arts have warned that Edinburgh faces a cultural crisis after it emerged that one of the city’s most famous venues, Summerhall, has been put up for sale.

Summerhall, housed in the city’s former veterinary school, has earned a reputation as one of the UK’s most innovative and critically acclaimed venues since it was set up 12 years ago by a wealthy benefactor, Robert McDowell.

The complex of galleries, theatres and a cinema has featured acts such as the Russian arts collective Pussy Riot, the legendary Chic guitarist Nile Rodgers and a late-night “pop dungeon” hosted by Charlotte Church. It is one of the city’s most cherished festival fringe venues.

Summerhall outbuildings. Photograph: Murdo MacLeod/The Guardian

To the shock of its artists and users, it emerged earlier this month that the family trust which owns and heavily subsidises Summerhall, Oesselman Estates, has put it on the market after McDowell’s brothers decided its losses could not be sustained.

The property firm marketing the sprawling site, which includes a pub and brewery, a gin distillery and a technology incubator which nurtured travel portal SkyScanner, as “a rare opportunity” to buy “a thriving mixed-use investment with extensive refurbishment and redevelopment potential”.

Now home to 110 tenants paying £1.1m a year in rent, the 130,000 square foot site includes the Edwardian-era veterinary school complete with its dissection theatres and laboratories, a church and a seven-storey modernist block which houses tech startups.

A hallway space at Summerhall. Photograph: Murdo MacLeod/The Guardian

Karine Polwart, the award-winning folk singer, said Summerhall is of “unparalleled importance” and warned of “cultural vandalism” if it was sold for luxury flats or student accommodation when she signed a protest petition backed by nearly 13,000 people.

Local people have signed the petition too, including Bruce Menzies, who was born in 1938 on Summerhall Square next door. As a child, he saw one of Edinburgh zoo’s most famous residents, Sally the elephant, taken in to the then Royal Dick veterinary school for treatment.

The decision to sell Summerhall exposed a rift between McDowell and his brothers, who jointly control the Isle of Man-based family trust and outvoted him earlier this year.

In an interview with the Guardian by email, McDowell said: “My brothers haven’t seen the transformative effect of a venue like Summerhall on the psyche of a city, because they don’t live here, so I can understand that the loss of it doesn’t feel as perilous to them as it does to me and many others.

“We are second only to London’s Barbican in visitor numbers, but we host far more shows, events, and performances. We exist to honour the founding principle of the first Edinburgh festivals, never more needed than now, ‘to heal the wounds of war through the languages of the arts’.”

Summerhall’s Anatomy theatre space. Photograph: Murdo MacLeod/The Guardian

The sale has triggered calls for government intervention or a community bid using Scotland’s significant property buyout laws. McDowell and Sam Gough, chief executive of Summerhall’s management company, hope the future buyer will agree to preserve Summerhall’s arts component.

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McDowell, who worked closely with the visionary German artist Joseph Beuys, said there were no clear answers yet to how that could be done. “I think principles, moral ethics, and an example to the world are all important.

“It would be wonderful if buyers emerge genuinely committed to the arts and our contribution to the city and beyond, not property speculators seeking a quick turn.”

Summerhall is also home to the galleries and archive of the foundation set up by Richard Demarco, the artist and impresario who co-founded the city’s Traverse theatre. Demarco, another collaborator with Beuys, said Summerhall “represents the freedom that great artists need, to tell the truth”.

The Meadows Gallery in Summerhall. Photograph: Murdo MacLeod/The Guardian

David Greig, the playwright and director of the Royal Lyceum theatre, said the sale exposed a far wider crisis for independent arts, highlighting a shortage of wealthy patrons and the unwillingness of cash-strapped governments to fully fund the arts.

A number of Scottish venues, including several independent cinemas, have shut recently. Venues were struggling to weather soaring energy costs and inflation, he said, while winning back cash-conscious audiences after the Covid pandemic.

“Summerhall is the heart of the fringe now,” giving space to experimental and early-career artists, he said. “Every culture needs these kinds of spaces. They become a beehive. We ought to have two or three in Edinburgh; two or three in Glasgow. We don’t. We just have Summerhall.”

This article was amended on 3 June 2024. Nile Rodgers is Chic’s guitarist, not bassist as an earlier version said.

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