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.
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
Today is the day I mark, as Dylan Thomas might have put it, my 60th year to heaven, so it seems an appropriate time to resume this much neglected blog. As it happens, the exigencies of schedules mean that Judith and I have already celebrated my unbirthday last weekend, with a trip south that included the essential Pitlochry experience: seeing two different plays on the same day with the same cast.
Now I’m sure that for many people the name ‘Pitlochry Festival Theatre’ conjures up an image of a theatrical world that is self-consciously conservative, safe and bland. In the past, that could at times be true. Ten years ago we saw a production of WS Gilbert’s ‘Engaged’ at Pitlochry which nudged the audience so often that you’d have thought the director was Eric Idle in Python persona. It was as if the production was making a point that this play was creaky and old-fashioned, but wasn’t that fun? Particularly uncomfortable were the crassly caricatured portrayals of Gilbert’s already stereotyped Scottish characters.
On the face of it, our choice of plays last week might have served only to confirm that this historic impression was still valid. What could James Bridie and JM Barrie possibly offer contemporary audiences beyond a certain curiosity value, or a measure of nostalgia for the days of the ‘well-made’ play? That was, in fact, my reason for wanting to see them—how would they sit in the company of such modern equivalents, in the Pitlochry season, as Stephen Greenhorn’s classic ‘Passing Places’ or Liz Lochhead’s ‘Perfect Days’? The result was a very pleasant surprise—we found both plays thoroughly gripping from beginning to end, helped in no small measure by direction, and acting, which played them absolutely straight, with not a hint of a collusive wink to the audience. The humour in them was the humour put there by the writers, not a modern gloss by the director. Certainly, both productions were among the most satisfying theatrical experiences we’ve had in a long time.
In fact, Barrie’s ‘The Admirable Crichton’ has received almost uniform critical praise for both play and production, with several writers noting how it is a necessary corrective to the current culture of ‘Downton Abbey’ rose-tinted sentimentality. I’d only add that it’s nothing like the anodyne Kenneth More film version, and that it’s always good to be reminded of how acid and dark a writer Barrie could be. After all, one of his early novels, ‘Better Dead’, was based on the premise of bumping off prominent figures in society to make room for new blood. But I was surprised that many critics, while praising the production of ‘Mr Bolfry’, wrote the play itself off as outdated and with little to say to a contemporary audience. Really? This is a play, set during a war, which confronts the dualities of faith and reason, doubt and certainty, societal norms and individual freedoms. How can that not be resonant? One only needs to imagine a production in Tehran, Baghdad or Jerusalem to discard any idea of the play being irrelevant. But, even close to home, it seems that those metropolitan critics need to get out more, and discover more of the hold which the Free Church still has in some quarters of the Highlands and Islands, or, much more alarmingly, the current resurgence of extreme evangelism in some rural communities in Wales.
The last time—the only other time—I’d seen a James Bridie play was in 1976, when the Royal Lyceum staged ‘The Anatomist’, based on the Burke and Hare story. Now that was creaky, the whole production being built around Tom Fleming’s star turn as Dr Knox. But this production of ‘Mr Bolfry’ was a different matter altogether: a truly ensemble cast which could readily absorb Dougal Lee’s rip-roaring turn as the devilish Bolfry, an imaginative set, and a production which took great care in getting the period detail right, without swamping the play in nostalgia. A large matinee audience sat with intent concentration throughout, with barely a smothered cough, and not a snore, to be heard. Bridie delights in intellectual argument, but those arguments arise out of his individual characters, who are not simply mouthpieces for Bride himself. And the play comes to no easy conclusion—unlike the plays of some of Bridie’s more polemical modern day counterparts, such as David Hare—but ends, instead, like ‘The Admirable Crichton’, on an uneasily unresolved note, leaving the audience to come to their own conclusions.
This is the month of the second ‘Luminate’, set up by Creative Scotland to be Scotland’s ‘creative ageing festival’. I suppose, as I enter my seventh decade, I should be taking an interest in such an event, but the concept of ‘creative ageing’ is as abhorrent to me as SAGA holidays or adverts for stair lifts. In fact, I think there’s a paradox at work here. Even while an initiative like ‘Luminate’ is seeking to promote and showcase the ‘growing evidence of the importance of creative activities to our wellbeing as we age’, there’s widespread concern about ‘ageing’ audiences for the ‘mainstream’ arts. Well, it’s true that, even on the verge of 60, I was in the youngest 5% of the audience for those Pitlochry plays, but the important point is that they were very well attended. A mid-week matinee at the start of October was more than two-thirds full, while the evening performance was almost sold out. And, as I’ve implied, these large audiences were for plays that offered plenty to think and talk about afterwards. But you won’t find Pitlochry Festival Theatre in the ‘Luminate’ programme.
Anyway, I’ve a suspicion that the anxiety about ageing audiences is often misplaced. The following night we were at a sold-out performance in the Usher Hall by the RSNO, and the age range present was pretty well comprehensive, even in the more expensive stalls seats. Up in the Gallery, there were many young people. And this was for no lightweight programme with big name soloists. The orchestra’s own outstanding lead cellist played the Elgar Concerto superbly, and the second half was taken up with Bruckner’s mighty 7th Symphony. The same spread of ages then was evident at a truly exceptional concert the following evening in St Giles, given by the Vox Coelestis choir. Again, no obvious favourites in the highly imaginative programme.
I suppose I worry about fragmentation. About concentrating on the benefits for older people (or children, for that matter) of participating in the arts, when we ought to be shouting about how everyone can benefit from such participation. About implying that some kinds of participation are ‘better’ or more appropriate than others—taking part in a dance class rather than going to Pitlochry Festival Theatre, for example. Though to be fair, the Luminate programme is so broad church that you wonder about the criteria for inclusion. Once we start talking about ‘Arts for older people’, or ‘Arts for young people’, or for those with special needs, or from minority ethnic backgrounds, we both start to erect unnecessary barriers, and we imply a certain benign paternalism, a conferring of benefits ‘de haut en bas’ that makes me feel rather queasy. James Bridie, were he still around, could write a great play about it. After all, his son did go on to head up the Scottish Arts Council!
The haunting image of an Indian dancer, projected multiple times on to a length of woven tweed.
A packed audience straining to see the miniscule performances at a flea circus
Seventy children bringing back to life the memory of a 200 year old house through music and dance
An over-60s choir singing joyfully on a busy High Street
Scotland’s Makar reciting The Twa Corbies
One of the witches from ‘Macbeth’ delivering the ‘double double’ speech in the local Coop, as if it was a Nigella recipe
A magical digital panorama of toads creating new life.
These are just some of the haunting, moving, funny and downright bizarre experiences that I’ve had in the last two weeks.
In these difficult times it must take a degree of ambition and sheer nerve to embark on a new artistic venture, so it’s been gratifying to experience not one but two such new enterprises, within the same fortnight, and at opposite ends of the country.
Our first week of consultations towards a Cultural Strategy for the Scottish Borders happily coincided with the launch of the YES Festival —not a political statement, but a new festival for Yarrow, Ettrick and Selkirk–and then, just over a week later and back home in the north, I went along to the first Culture Day for Forres, Kinloch and Findhorn, which is itself intended to be the forerunner of a new Findhorn Bay Arts Festival to be held in a year’s time.
Despite the geographic distance, these two events had a lot in common. Though each centred on a Royal Burgh, the programmes of events in each also spread out to surrounding communities. Both transformed the town’s High Street with a range of exhibitions and pop-up events. Both involved a huge amount of community and voluntary participation, of all ages, but depended at their core on the enthusiasm and commitment of a few key individuals, and thorough, professional promotion, management and coordination. Both, as far as I could tell, seemed to be generating a lot of local interest and involvement, with sizeable audiences for most, if not all events.
The great thing about festivals and special days is that they’re so much more than the sum of their parts. Throw yourself into the experience, and you’ll quickly forget or ignore those bits that weren’t so good, but feel exhilarated by the sheer imagination, diversity, and surprise of everything else. And people will move mountains to make such an event work, in a way that can’t be sustained week on week, month on month, throughout the year.
But festivals are also like cake—very tasty, but you can’t live on that alone. Festivals thrive best when they’re rooted in a mulch of year-round activities. By a further happy coincidence, I’ve also in this fortnight been to the celebrations of the 15th anniversary of a very special means of delivering such year-round experiences, the Screen Machine Mobile Cinema. Setting up, and for many years managing, the mobile cinema operation is one of the things I’m proudest to have been associated with, though the lion’s share of the credit has to go to the two guys about to cut the birthday cake in this photo—the driver/operators Iain McColl and Neil MacDonald. Without their incredible dedication, and sheer love of the job, the Screen Machine would never have become the much-loved fixture it now is, in so many small communities across Scotland.
In a recent, by now notorious, speech to the Edinburgh Fringe, the English playwright Mark Ravenhill incited his audience not only to prepare for a possible future without public arts funding, but also, as artists, to in some respects feel freed up by not having to make the compromises that he believes are involved in accepting such funding. But where does that leave the wider community? One central factor that all these ventures have in common—the YES Festival, Culture Day, the Screen Machine—is funding from Creative Scotland, alongside a host of other funders and supporters, regional, national and international.
in these times of spending cuts and tightened family budgets, cultural junkies like me, for whom the value of such activities is self-evident, nonetheless need to make a strong case for the wider impact and benefit of such events and services. Benefits, that is, not only for those who take part in them, and for those who enjoy them, but also for those who only hear or read about them, and for those running businesses who might see some indirect benefit from them. Like, for example, the butcher in Forres who was delighted with Culture Day, because he always sells more meat when ‘there’s something happening in the High Street’.
Words are slippery things, especially in my world. When do you use art, or arts? What exactly is an artist? What does culture cover? What constitutes our heritage? What is a community, and who belongs to it? Where are the limits of creativity?
And it becomes worse when you start linking those words. What exactly are the creative industries? There are various definitions currently in circulation. What are community arts or voluntary arts, and are they the same thing? And what exactly is cultural heritage?
Add the words Scotland or Scottish into the mix and you’re really in trouble. I wonder how different Creative Scotland’s reception would have been if it had adopted a name that didn’t yoke those contentious terms together. The amount of ink spent on defining Scottish culture could probably fill Loch Ness, and as we near the referendum debate, it may be blood that gets spilled on the subject rather than just ink.
Consider some of the contortions we get into in trying to make these words and phrases work for us. The Act which set up Creative Scotland referred to it being the ‘lead cultural body’ for Scotland. Yet most definitions of culture would include heritage, and Creative Scotland has no remit whatsoever for heritage, not even a coordinating role such as, after much heated debate, it was given in the creative industries.
Officers of Creative Scotland gave a presentation on their funding schemes during Go North recently. They split their schemes into the three categories of arts, film and digital, and creative industries, and then split the last term into those areas of the creative industries which Creative Scotland actually funded, and those for which it only had an overview, such as architecture and design. There could not be a clearer demonstration of the extent to which Creative Scotland is not yet more than the sum of the disparate parts from which it was made. Those categories make no sense to an artist who uses film in their gallery-based practice, and works as, say, a film editor to pay the mortgage.
This confusion between ‘the arts’ and ‘the creative industries’ has direct and largely negative impacts in the actions of other public bodies. The economic development departments of Local Authorities can prioritise the creative industries at the same time as their education or community departments are cutting their arts budgets, in apparent ignorance of the fact that many, if not most, successful initiatives in the creative industries will have their origins in some form of arts funding, whether it be an arts school course, an arts centre, or a bursary scheme.
‘Sticks and Stones may break my bones but website comments pages will never harm me’. No matter how much we may tell ourselves that the deluded souls who append their angry online comments to stories on arts funding, don’t know whereof they fulminate, it still hurts. Why don’t the general public ‘get’ the value of the arts, after all the evidence that research has produced? Mostly, because they don’t speak the language.
You will have to take me on trust when I tell you that I had written this much of the blog before I thought to apply these arguments to Fiona Hyslop’s Talbot Rice lecture of June 5th. In this much commented-on speech of some 7000 words, the Cabinet Secretary used the term ‘culture and heritage’, or such close variations as ‘our culture and our heritage’, some 50 times. She used the term ‘arts’ just five times.
So, what kind of definition of culture is Ms Hyslop using, that does not include heritage? Certainly not one that, for instance, the European Commission would recognise. To compound the confusion, Ms Hyslop also used the phrases ‘culture and creativity’ and ‘cultural and creative industries’, suggesting that the creative industries are not culture, and that culture is not about creativity. I’m sure that wasn’t what she meant.
This is not mere nit-picking semantics. It suggests that we have developed a deep-seated embarrassment about using the term ‘arts’. I include myself in that ‘we’, having in recent years shifted my strapline for HI~Arts from an arts development agency to a cultural development agency, although that was intended to reflect our increasing engagement with the museums sector.
More than twenty years ago, when I was at the Scottish Arts Council, I, and Combined Arts Director John Murphy, had dinner with Shetland’s then Director of Education, and we had a revealing discussion about the culture/arts dichotomy. The Director of Education stated that, in Shetland, they were more comfortable with the inclusive notion of ‘culture’; John and I, on the other hand, wanted to stick with ‘arts’ because, at least, we could be clear about what we were talking about, and where our remit began and ended. As many people have commented, there is much that is positive and hopeful in Ms Hyslop’s speech, but that troubling imbalance between the terms ‘arts’ on the one hand, and ‘culture and heritage’ on the other, suggests that language may still be an obstacle to real consensus and progress.
And what, then, of the term ‘artist’? In the lexicon of arts bureaucrats such as myself, ‘artist’ means everyone who creates artistic stuff—musicians, writers, actors, theatre directors, dancers, and so on. People who paint and sculpt are visual artists. It’s a clumsy arrangement. But even within the visual arts the term ‘artist’ is a contested one. A couple of discussions that I’ve been involved in recently have suggested to me, indeed, that ‘artist’ has become a limiting term. On the one hand, art-lovers of a more conservative taste can’t understand why people like Damien Hirst or Martin Creed can be termed ‘artists’ at all. Pickling a shark or switching the lights on and off is not painting a picture. On the other hand, I heard one ‘artist’ decry the term as applied to himself, because it means that people expect him to make things when his work is much more about actions, connections, critical debate and challenging norms.
I think we need a new word. Not a different word, a new word. The term ‘scientist’ did not exist before it was deliberately coined in 1833. Before that, people had ‘done’ science all the way back to the Greeks and the Babylonians, but they were usually called something like ‘natural philosophers’ (or, sometimes, ‘alchemists’). But by the early 19th century the increasingly technical practice of people like Humphrey Davey and Michael Faraday demanded a term that would distinguish their experimental approach from those who just thought about how the world worked.
I’m not going to be rash enough to suggest a suitable neologism. But I suspect that inventing a truly new term would help to get us out of the confusion we’re now in, where arts, culture and creativity are bandied about, even in the one speech, with a reckless abandon that makes it very difficult for anyone to get any real traction on what’s actually being proposed. If we really want to change the minds of those philistines who spill their bile in online comments, we need to take the slipperiness out of our language. Otherwise, with apologies to Matthew Arnold, our approach to culture will remain anarchic.
Starting a new blog site, it seems appropriate to be a bit retrospective. Twenty years ago I applied for a two year contract with Highlands and Islands Enterprise, and HIE launched their new Arts Strategy, which would become the bible for my work in HI~Arts, for a lot longer than just two years.
It seems somehow symbolic, therefore, that this is also the 20th anniversary of the publication of the Charter for the Arts in Scotland. Partly because its author, Joyce MacMillan, has played such a significant role in the current debates around Creative Scotland, and funding for the arts in general in Scotland, and partly because of wider discussions about how such policies should be developed.
I was a fairly junior officer of the Scottish Arts Council at the time of the Charter’s creation, but I happened to be one of the SAC’s representatives at an initial meeting with English colleagues who were exploring the idea of an integrated, UK-wide approach to taking stock of the state of the arts. It was largely down to the initiative of the SAC’s then Director, Seona Reid, that what then evolved in Scotland was something very distinctive, and wholly separate from any comparable English exercise. For one thing, although ultimately entitled ‘The Charter for the Arts‘, the document was prepared by a steering group that included the heads, not just of the SAC but also of the Scottish Museums Council, and the Scottish Library and Information Council–a cross-sectoral grouping that seems hard to imagine today, when, from outside at least, such agencies seem less conencted than at any time in the succeeding twenty years.
And that word ‘Charter’ also has some odd resonances in our current situation, where we have moved from an ‘arms length’ body established by a Royal ‘Charter’ (SAC) to a ‘non-departmental public body’ (Creative Scotland) subject to ‘ministerial guidance’.
But for me the strongest resonance is with the model that’s being much debated at the moment, of Iceland’s ‘crowd-sourced’ new constitution. The Charter for the Arts used every means available, at that time, to ‘crowd-source’ its contents and recommendations. Without email, Facebook, or online forums, the traditional methods–of public meetings, sectoral consultations, invited written submissions, and formal interviews–were deployed exhaustively across all sectors and the length and breadth of the land. I was at several of those meetings which were, almost without exception, very well attended, and often quite contentious and disputatious, as much among those taking part as with the public bodies.
The outcome was a dauntingly large body of material which officers within the agencies were then charged with distilling and summarising, and then all of it, the summaries and the original material, were handed over to Joyce as a well-informed, but wholly independent, author, to pull together into a coherent document for the widest possible public consumption. Amazingly, second hand copies are still for sale on Amazon.
Inevitably, not everyone was going to agree with, or endorse, everything that the Charter contained, but its strength was precisely that it was a personal view, not some anonymous and bureaucratic document. It was also a lot more readable and jargon-free than its successors in the succeeding two decades–the National Strategy for the Arts in Scotland, rushed through after Devolution, and the later, utterly indigestible, report of the Cultural Commission, the document that led, ultimately, to the establishment of Creative Scotland.
But, above all, the Charter actually made a difference. Perhaps the most significant change in the culture of the Scottish Arts Council was the new focus on support for the traditional arts, something which has had a profound positive impact on the nation’s cultural life and identity ever since. It can’t be entirely unrelated that Celtic Connections was launched the following year, or that it so quickly became a major fixture in the cultural calendar. The Charter recognised a zeitgeist when it saw one, and the SAC had the sense to act accordingly.
Those two documents, the Charter for the Arts, and the HIE Arts Strategy (itself a product of intense consultation and multiple drafts) combined realism and optimism in a way that both won them widespread endorsement, but also made them practical working tools, and, inadvertently, laid solid foundations for when, just a couple of years later, the National Lottery arrived and opened up a spectrum of new funding opportunities. The cultural infrastructure of the Highlands and Islands would be transformed by Lottery funding, but I don’t believe there would have been anything like the impact on the area, if those two strategic documents hadn’t already been in place.
So, where are we to look for the inspirational initiatives that will shape the next two decades? If crowd-sourcing is the best way to gather the raw material, who’s going to take the lead? Which agency, group, network, has the confidence, and the respect, to drive such a process? I wish I knew.
Robert Livingston, May 2013