Quis Custodiet…

Arts funders rarely get a good press.  But, just before Christmas, suddenly there was good news, with the announcement from the Scottish Government of a budget settlement for Creative Scotland which was far better than any of us had dared to hope for.  Then it all went horribly wrong, and for the last few weeks, Creative Scotland has been the subject of a perfect storm of bad news headlines. I’m not going to enter the heated debates about who won and who lost in the recent funding round, but there was one headline you might easily have overlooked, but which I think gets close to the heart of the matter.

‘Creative Scotland spent £150k to deliver cuts’ claimed The Herald, on 22nd February. Like many such headlines, it only told part of a complex story, which was that the funding body had had to spend £150,000 on hiring external assessors to help to process other grant schemes, while its own staff concentrated on the huge and demanding Regular Funding round.

Much of the recent controversy has been about how those Regular Funding decisions—which account for by far the largest part of Creative Scotland’s budget—had been made, with many claims of a lack of transparency.  On the other hand, ostensibly, Creative Scotland have been entirely open about their need to bring in this team of external assessors: they were recruited by open advertisement, and once appointed their names were listed in full on the Creative Scotland website, together with their artform specialisms. Except they weren’t–not in full.  I know at least one person—highly qualified, I must stress—who was called in to take on assessments, despite their name not being on the advertised list. Despite, in fact, them having their application to be an assessor turned down in the first place.

So, which is worse for the harried, hard-pressed applicant for arts funding?  To know that their efforts will be assessed, and decided on, by an internal panel of Creative Scotland officers, or to know (or perhaps find out later), that a crucial role was played by a paid, and possibly anonymous, external assessor, whom, in the small world of the arts in Scotland, they probably know, and might even be in competition with? Myself, I don’t find either option very attractive.

There used to be another way.  When I worked for the Scottish Arts Council in the 1990s all but the smallest funding decisions were devolved to genuinely independent (and unpaid) artform committees and panels. As a Visual Arts Officer I looked after both the Exhibitions, and the Artists’ Awards panels. The former was made up of experienced professionals in the field: curators, critics, art historians and gallery directors.  My role was to work with applicants to help them to make the best possible case to this independent panel, and at the same time, not to waste the panel members’ time by bringing forward too many applications that weren’t worthy of serious consideration. I used to consider that if the Panel approved more than 75% of applications, they weren’t scrutinising them closely enough, but if they approved fewer than 50%, then I was failing in my job to bring forward strong and interesting proposals.

Of course this system was far from perfect, and in a small country no such process could ever be truly objective.  And it could readily be charged that, in the role of gate-keeper, I could show favouritism–or its opposite.  But for me the very strength of the system lay in admitting it was imperfect: that any panel or ‘jury’ would bring their own knowledge and prejudices to the task, and that the crucial point was to ensure as open a process as possible, with appropriate checks and balances. And it was a process that could embrace innovation. In the days before ‘craft’ was part of SAC’s remit I was able to convince the Panel to fund an exhibition by the Scottish branch of the British Artist Blacksmiths Association, and also, many years before there was any link between arts funding and the ‘creative industries’, I argued successfully for funding for an exhibition by an association of illustrators.  Both exhibitions were great successes which toured widely.  Neither would have been funded under a rigid application of SAC’s then remit and priorities.

But gradually SAC became obsessed with the concept of objectivity, with measuring applications against a publicly stated set of standards and priorities.  The only problem with this apparently laudable aim is that, the more objective you want the process to appear, the more specific (and restrictive) you have to make the criteria against which applications will be measured.  This method may have reached its nadir in the recent Regular Funding round, where applicants had to match their artistic plans for the next three years against five of Creative Scotland’s ‘ambitions’ and four ‘cross-cutting’ themes. I imagine three-dimensional chess would be easier to master.

At some point down this road, the committee and panel system had been abandoned, and all decisions on funding were brought ‘in house’, to be made by SAC officers.  Looking back, I’m not sure now how far that decision was philosophical, or simply pragmatic, on the basis of cost (though remember that these external assessors were not paid!).  And that ‘in house’ model was the one which Creative Scotland inherited, albeit with a smaller staff team trying to deal with a steadily increasing number of applications.

Even before this current Regular Funding round, it sometimes seemed that the sheer burden of assessing applications was bringing Creative Scotland to a standstill.  When I left the SAC at the end of 1993, one CEO of an arts organisation was kind enough to say that he’d miss the ‘pastoral care’ I was able to offer the ‘clients’ with which I worked. That’s a concept that has not entirely disappeared within Creative Scotland, but for those officers who still try to offer such support, it can be a huge struggle to do so while balancing all their other responsibilities.

And that’s, perhaps, where it all went wrong this January. It’s not just that Creative Scotland officers could not spare the time from the Regular Funding process to meet with their clients, it’s that the very process itself demanded that they should keep a healthy distance from those clients, to ensure that the decisions which they were advising on would remain truly ‘objective’. ‘Only Connect’ said EM Forster, and, going forward, that is what I recommend as Creative Scotland’s new motto, and opening up the funding decision process beyond the tight circle of their own officers would be a crucial first step.

 

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