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Boiling a Frog

(C) 2010 J. Ronald Lee

You know how it goes, even if only because you’ve read the Christopher Brookmyre novel of the same title.  You put the frog in a pan of cold water and raise the temperature very slowly.  The frog doesn’t notice till it’s too late. Of course, in reality, the frog would notice, and jump out in plenty of time. But that doesn’t stop this being a useful metaphor for those of us who ignore potentially calamitous circumstances until they’re about to overwhelm us, whether that be personal debt, or climate change.

In my version of the metaphor, the frogs are all of us in Scotland who care about culture, and especially the arts, and the gradually warming water around us is the state of funding for the cultural sector as a whole.  I would say the temperature has probably reached about 90° C and is still rising.

Of course, every now and then an isolated example of something under threat hits the media, and campaigns are mounted: to keep a gallery or a library open, to stop a Council withdrawing free instrumental tuition in schools. But these are just the outliers, the big chunks of ice breaking off the continental ice shelf that everyone notices. I’m concerned with something much more insidious.

For instance, in this time of cultural glut during the Edinburgh Festivals, it’s easy to forget just what the situation can be in Scotland’s capital for much of the rest of the year.  Let’s take some examples:

  • The Traverse Theatre sitting empty for sometimes weeks at a time, when it used to have new productions running on a monthly basis.
  • The Fruitmarket Gallery mounting just four exhibitions a year, where not so long ago it used to present eight per annum.
  • Anything up to three floors of the City Art Centre sitting empty at any one time; the current exhibition, and the one which will follow it, are each running for six months, and only feature work from the City’s own collections.

If we move across to Glasgow:

  • The Gallery of Modern Art has exhibitions that run for anything up to a year at a time. In a wonderful piece of irony, one current exhibition, by artist Marlie Mul, consists precisely of the absence of an exhibition: the gallery concerned will simply sit empty for six months. There could be no more pointed statement about the parlous circumstances we’re in.
  • Scotland’s finest suite of exhibition spaces, the MacLellan Galleries, has not been open to the public for years.
  • Kelvingrove has, admittedly, had great success with its current Frank Quitely exhibition, but there’s nothing on their website to say what will succeed it when it closes in a few weeks’ time.
  • The CCA does rather better than the Fruitmarket, presenting six exhibitions a year, but when I worked in its predecessor, the Third Eye, in the 1980s, we mounted at least ten a year.
  • The Citizens Theatre, once considered the most exciting Rep theatre in Europe, is mounting only one wholly new main-stage, in-house production between now and the pantomime.

Of course, these are major cities which still have a range of exciting and stimulating cultural experiences to offer residents and visitors, while a huge percentage of the Scottish population has, for example, no access of any kind to the visual arts, nor much access, it has to be said, to any other kind of funded arts either.  And it is the funded aspects of culture that I’m concerned about.  These are, to borrow a phrase from the Voluntary Arts organisation, Our Cultural Commons, paid for from our taxes.  And like the agricultural commons of two centuries ago, they’re being taken away from us.

This is not new.  We can’t just blame it on one political party, whether it be the Tories or the SNP. Back at the end of the last Millennium, I did an exercise whereby I compared the latest Scottish Arts Council annual report with one from a decade previously.  Over those ten years, the 1990s, the same 14 organisations accounted for the bulk of grant aid (this was before the ‘national’ companies were funded directly from the Scottish Government), but the difference was that the number of productions, performances and exhibitions they presented had shrunk enormously, by anything up to 30%, and audiences had consequently reduced by a similar amount. We frogs were put in that pan of cold water a long time ago.

So, now, the ‘conversation’ has begun which will lead us towards a new Scottish Culture Strategy, and the Culture Secretary launched the process with a speech in which she stated: As the Scottish Government, we believe that culture lies at the heart of Scotland’s future. Back in 2003 the then First Minister Jack McConnell, said something similarly bold in his famous St Andrews Day speech.  But little was then done, to turn down the heat under the pan.

My contribution, therefore, to this ongoing ‘conversation’ will be to use this blog to record any examples I come across of the temperature of the water being raised another fraction of a degree.  Some of these examples might seem quite trivial, but everything’s connected.  Here’s the first.

The Royal Botanic Gardens of Edinburgh has come under sustained attack for its decision to close Inverleith House as a gallery of contemporary art, after more than 50 years of continuous use.  I haven’t been able to get too outraged by this decision.  After all, as I’ve noted above, Edinburgh is not short of exhibition spaces, many of them currently under used, while the Botanic Gardens themselves are a unique facility and resource for the city, and bring me joy every time I visit them.  Last Monday, so glorious was the weather that I suggested that Judith and I enjoy a stroll round the Botanic Gardens before going for something to eat, only to find that the Gardens now close at 6.00 every night, even at the height of summer and during the Edinburgh Festival. So, now, anyone who works normal office hours has no chance to enjoy the Botanics on a weekday.  I don’t live in Edinburgh, so this state of affairs might have existed for some years now, without my noticing.  But I do feel it’s another little slice of Our Cultural Commons that has been taken away from us, as, in case you hadn’t realized, RBGE is a Non-Departmental Public Body, directly funded by the Scottish Government.

© Robert Livingston