'It's mad that we have a really vibrant culture with nowhere to go after 1am' – Morvern Cunningham talks LeithLate16

Bigger and bolder than before, LeithLate is spreading its wings and making Edinburgh’s iconic area ever more culturally vital

‘I don't recall the term “gentrification” ever being associated with Leith back when we started in 2011,’ says Morvern Cunningham, founder and director of the Edinburgh port district’s annual arts festival LeithLate, ‘but it's something that’s bandied about all the time now, even in the local graffiti. A lot of the old man's pubs have been replaced with hipster bars and we have a massive new student population, but this is part of an ongoing regeneration in Leith since the 1980s and before: check Tim Chalk's Leith History mural for references to the influx of wine bars to the area, even back then.’

That Leith has its own character is undeniable, but it’s no longer the dangerous persona of Trainspotting legend (ironic, given that Danny Boyle’s sequel has recently been shot in the area). Leith still has its rough edges, but in addition to the changes Cunningham lists, it’s also the part of Edinburgh with the greatest amount of cultural capital. ‘The purpose of LeithLate has always been to celebrate the area’s creative community, and it continues to do that. I used to worry that the initial purpose of showcasing Leith's grassroots cultural spaces had fallen by the wayside, as we’ve lost places like The Old Ambulance Depot and Such & Such, but I'm heartened to see there’s been a resurgence in brand new art spaces such as The Creative Showroom and the Out of the Blue Leith Walk Studios.’

The festival’s format has changed over the years, from one night of music and art events up and down Leith Walk, to last year’s range of six distinct events spread out across the summer. This year, LeithLate is more traditionally ‘festival-shaped’, a long weekend of all-day events with 50 artists occupying 20 venues. ‘This is technically the biggest LeithLate has ever been,’ says Cunningham. ‘We have the results of a festival-twinning, a special artist commission, three site-specific installations and three invited, curated exhibitions all being showcased on the opening night.’

All this, and the LeithLate16 Afterparty (featuring Nice Church and Carbs playing the Hibernian Supporters Club); panel talks on subjects including Leith gentrification and the politics of public art; new tours of the area’s murals; an Art Mart at Out of the Blue and closing party of music and spoken word at Pilrig St Paul’s Church.

LeithLate is committed to finding new and unusual arts spaces without artificially stimulating the area by ignoring things which are already ongoing. There will be window installation pieces by digital artist Ian Gouldstone in Pat’s Chung Ying and secretive musician Kosmischer Läufer at Leith Athletics, while Rabiya Choudhry’s commissioned ‘LeithLate banknote’ results in 6000 notes being given out to encourage debate on creating the area’s own currency.

‘I think any neighbourhood could host this type of event, as long as there’s already creative activity taking place,’ says Cunningham. ‘I’d like to see LeithLate work with the other festivals and creative spaces that operate in the area to harness a stronger case for investment in Leith's cultural capital. I’d like to employ more people and introduce a residency programme where we invite international artists to make work here. And, of course, I'd like to see LeithLate have a secure financial future, which would have to be reliant on fundraising, Creative Scotland and beyond.’

More than most, it’s a festival which is tied to the diverse and changing area which created it. So what does she hope for from Leith itself? ‘Not to become too gentrified! For all the sections of the community to co-exist and be proud of where they live. Also, the Leith Creative research project I co-developed with Citizen Curator last year recommended there be a mid-sized multi-arts venue in Leith, which is something that I believe we really need and could have. I also think it needs a cool club with a 3am licence. It's mad that we have a really vibrant café, restaurant and bar culture with nowhere to go after 1am but Storries.’

LeithLate, various venues, Leith, Edinburgh, Thu 23–Sun 26 Jun.

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