Tag Archive | Scottish Arts Council

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.


The 70s, Part 2: Coarse Acting

Marking forty years since my first paid job in the arts (Evening Times music critic), this is the second in an occasional series of retrospective (aka nostalgic) blogs, looking at ‘then and now’:

Dundee Rep, 1978

Dundee Rep, 1978

This month, September, it’s thirty years since I took up the post of Director at the Crawford Arts Centre in the University of St Andrews.  One of the peculiarities of St Andrews then (and probably now) was that it had a hugely active student drama scene, precisely because, it seemed, it did not have a Drama department.  Somehow student drama could be more inclusive if there was no division between those who were ‘doing’ drama and those who just wanted to tread the boards.  But the absence of a formal academic qualification hasn’t stopped many of those St Andrews students from going on to successful careers in the performing arts.  One, who also became a good friend, is Philip Howard, so there’s a pleasing circularity that this month also sees the start of his tenure as co-director of Dundee Rep.   Scotland being a very small country, I also have a link with Dundee Rep, but a much more humble one. Having acquired a provisional Equity card through my BBC contract (see Part 1 in this series), when that contract came to an end, I went to the Rep as an Assistant Stage Manager, in September 1977.

Dundee Repertory Theatre had been founded in 1939, and it had had an honourable and sometimes starry past. Cast lists from the 1960s included early appearances by the likes of Lynn Redgrave, James Bolam and Michael York, and Scottish actors of the calibre of Brian Cox and Hannah Gordon had started out there.  But in 1963 its home of almost 25 years had burned down, and the company had moved into temporary quarters in a disused church. Fourteen years later, I found them still there.

Wardrobe, Dundee Rep, 1978

Wardrobe, Dundee Rep, 1978

It’s hard to exaggerate the sheer squalor in which the company was working after existing for so long as theatrical refugees.  Fortunately I’ve still got the photographs I took at the time to remind me. Backstage was no more than a bare passage (christened the anus terribilis), the two communal dressing rooms were simply converted landings on the stairs to the gallery, and the only way to the control box was through the female dressing room and up through a hatch. Oh, and the only shower in the entire building was a single cold tap set at a height of six feet.  To cap it all, some years earlier a misguided Job Creation team had painted the entire theatre—foyer, auditorium and bar—in the same revolting shade of what I believe was technically called ‘thistle’ but looked like maroon on an off-day.

Dundee Rep, 2006

Dundee Rep, 2006

Since 1982 Dundee Rep has been housed in a handsome and well-equipped custom-built theatre, and in recent years it has rightly received considerable critical acclaim for the work it has achieved with the only fulltime company of actors based in a Scottish theatre. Just let that sink in: the only theatre which is able to employ the same company of actors, not just throughout a full season but also from season to season.  In the 70s, it was the norm to engage a company for at least a full season, with a few guests appearing for individual productions. And these were not small companies.  That season of 1977-78, Dundee Rep tackled, among other things, a full-scale Shakespeare (Taming of the Shrew) Rattigan’s The Winslow Boy, which needs a cast of nine, and Philip King’s hoary farce See How They Run, which needs eight.  All told, the theatre mounted ten new full productions that season, plus two late-night one-acters, all produced entirely in-house. Nowadays, the unique in-house Ensemble at Dundee mounts barely half that number of productions in a year, the rest of the season being made up with visiting companies.

However, with the thrilling experience of the Edinburgh Fringe only just behind me, I was in for a shock.  Like much in the Dundee of the 70s, the Rep seemed locked in a time warp.  In a year in which London audiences saw the premieres of Mike Leigh’s Abigail’s Party, David Edgar’s Destiny, and Mary O’Malley’s Once a Catholic, Dundee Rep was opening its season with Who was that Lady?, a Victorian musical.  It was not even a real Victorian musical, but a ghastly pastiche which was neither accurate enough to be interesting nor outrageous enough to be funny. But clearly someone felt that Dundee audiences had an insatiable appetite for such fare, for the season would end with an equally dubious recreation of a Victorian Music Hall programme.

Victorian Music Hall performers, Dundee Rep, 1978, including that excellent pianist John Scrimgeour

Victorian Music Hall performers, Dundee Rep, 1978, including that excellent pianist John Scrimgeour

It will be apparent that the productions at Dundee that season did not fill me with enthusiasm. Indeed, with hindsight, it’s hard to believe that the funding bodies, especially the Scottish Arts Council, tolerated such consistently low standards.  While some of the blame must lie with the near-slum conditions in which the company had to work, in the end the choice of programme, and the poor quality of many of the productions, can only be laid at the door of the Theatre Director.  This was Robert Robertson, who would later achieve some fame as the pathologist in the long-running Glasgow cop series Taggart.  He was very much an actor-manager of the old school, a big bearded man with a booming voice, slightly resembling—in character as well—James Robertson Justice in his most famous role as Sir Lancelot Spratt in the Doctor films.

Another facet of the Dundee company, which would now seem surprising, was how many of the actors were not Scottish. This particularly applied to guest artists, joining the company to take the lead for a single play.  The best production of the season—the work of a guest director—was Neil Simon’s The Gingerbread Lady, a sharp New York comedy which had recently been a West End hit for Elaine Stritch. In Dundee that part was taken by Carole Boyd, best known, then as now, as Lynda Snell in The Archers.  Carole gave a marvellous performance, and was a lovely actor to work with, but she is no more American than I am, and there must surely have been more than one Scottish actor around then who was equally capable of impersonating a New Yorker. But that rather summed up how Dundee Rep felt: aspiring to be a middle class theatre lifted from some English provincial town and dropped in the middle of largely working class Dundee. It seems somehow fitting that the largest single group booking of the season was from Dundee’s Dental Association.

Today, Alasdair Gray would probably label the choice of Philip, a Yorkshireman, to be co-Director of Dundee Rep as another example of a ‘Scotophobic appointment’.  But the theatre that Philip heads has opened with the Scottish premiere of David Greig’s epic Victoria, the Rep ensemble company members and associates are almost entirely Scottish, and the visiting programme is largely made up of interesting work by Scottish touring companies. Contrast that with the cultural cringe of the 70s Rep, under a Scottish director, and you’ll see that it’s not that simple.  This is not to say, though, that the approach is parochial: Philip’s first season includes Frank McGuiness’s version of Euripides’ Hecuba and the Christmas show will be an adaptation of Roald Dahl’s The BFG.

It’s an intriguing paradox: today’s Dundee Rep may not have the means to mount as many productions as its 70s predecessor, and it may be now the only Scottish theatre with a resident company but, at the Rep as at other theatres, standards are immeasurably higher (of audience comfort as well as of artistic achievement), and Scottish writers and performers are far more prominent.  Gains, it seems to me, far outweigh losses.

© Robert Livingston

Mind Your Language!

Matthew Arnold, author of 'Culture and Anarchy'

Matthew Arnold, author of ‘Culture and Anarchy’

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.

Twenty Years On


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