Comment – The fate of The Forest will speak volumes about our “Capital of Culture.”

Posted on 18/08/2011 by


Yesterday this blog broke the news that the sale of Edinburgh University Settlement buildings, including the Bristo Place property occupied by The Forest Café, had fallen through – but that the administrators of the now defunct charity, Price Waterhouse Cooper would not reconsider the decision to ask the arts organisation to leave at the end of the month.

The Forest remain incredulous that Price Waterhouse Cooper would rather have an empty building than have reliable tenants who will continue to pay rent, and prevent the listed building from deteriorating. Their frustration that, despite the local and national media attention they have received in their campaign to buy the building, they still face being kicked out, is understandable. As Ryan Van Winkle, a founding member of the Forest collective, put it when I interviewed him last year, Edinburgh is an “inspiring capital, a capital of culture.” If they should be able to thrive and survive anywhere, it should be here.

And yet, it seems that, despite the revenue and prestige that the arts bring to the city, an organisation like The Forest is not really welcome in Edinburgh.

The Forest is a free arts space and gallery, with it’s own publishing house, record label, and recording studios, all very much of the home-made variety. A social enterprise, it recruits and trains volunteers to work in its kitchen, which provides affordable vegetarian food, and is the primary source of income for the organisation.

Since 2007 it has also operated as a successful, award winning free venue during the Edinburgh Festival, under the banner of “The Forest Fringe.” No-one has paid of see any of the dozens of shows that have been held there since this year’s Festival began – despite the fact, that if ever they needed to raise funds quickly, this was the time.

When I asked Ryan Van Winkle why they weren’t using the busy festival period to raise money for their campaign, he said that “they wanted to go out the way they came in.” The commitment to free arts, and their open door policy for artists wanting to try out their work, is truly radical, and at the same time, part of the reason they are in this predicament in the first place. They have also, over the years, rejected the idea of any kind of public subsidy, which they feared would come with conditions that would constrain and inhibit the activities they hold there, both artistic and political.

A somewhat anarchic organisation run and owned by a collective, rather than by a single owner or professional management body, they have been remarkably consistent over the years in their determination to maintain an open doors policy. Anyone can get involved in the Forest at whatever level – whether it be working in the kitchen, putting on a show or exhibition, or taking part in the running of the place. And although it is primarily an arts space and café, that has also meant saying yes to people that want to push the boundaries of art and politics.

They have often acted as a host for radical political campaigns, such as the anti-G8 protests in 2005, the anti-Nato protests in 2009, and last year’s Climate Camp, which targeted RBS. None of this has made them popular with Edinburgh City Council, or with Lothian and Borders Police. The Forest believe that this may have been a factor in the difficulty they have had over the years obtaining a licence to sell alcohol on the premises – something that would have helped enormously to make them financially self-sufficient. Certainly it means that they can expect little support from local politicians in their current predicament.

The reason that The Forest were able to thrive for so long in a city centre location was due to the patronage of the Edinburgh University Settlement, a venerable charity that had operated in the capital for over one hundred years, but which was rather ignominiously declared bankrupt last year.The leading to the immediate closure of a number of charities supported by EUS, such as Stepping Stones, a mental health and arts organisation working with vulnerable people. Last October, Price Waterhouse Cooper stepped in to administer the remaining EUS assets on behalf of it’s creditors, principally The Bank of Scotland and RBS.

Whilst The Forest did not receive any financial support from the EUS, they had enjoyed a low rent for the Bristo Place building – effectively a subsidy, which allowed them to remain in a prominent location, and survive on the income from the café alone.

This week, following news The Forest say that they have offered to pay an increased rent to PWC to stay in the building. They have also asked if they could be given time to buy the building. But Bruce Cartwright from PWC denies that they have offered to pay a commercial rent, and points out that, so far, they have not put in a formal offer for the building. In letters to the Forest, he points out that his duty is to secure the best deal for EUS creditors, and says that all parties who have expressed an interest in the building want it to be vacant.

Of course, there is the possibility that the Forest could re-emerge elsewhere in the city, using the money it has raised in the recent campaign – more than £30,000 – to refit a building, or even as a deposit to buy another building. But there is no guarantee that the people who have dedicated so much time and effort to making the place a success will continue to do so – or that another landlord will be as adventurous and sympathetic as Edinburgh University Settlement were.  

If the Forest does disappear from Edinburgh’s artistic scene, it will be the end of a dynamic and ground-breaking arts project. It will also send a strong and unwelcome message to anyone wishing to set up a grass-roots community arts organisation in the future.

It will suggest that arts organisations can only survive here if they are polished, politically safe, and respectable – that they need to rely on public subsidy, or be strongly orientated towards market forces, charging audiences whatever “the market will bear” – or at least charging them something. And people may start to conclude that, despite the amazing festivals, Edinburgh is more about capital than about culture.

Posted in: Arts, Edinburgh