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Creative Scotland. Let’s start again.


Opinion

Editor Robert Peacock with a personal view about the current Creative Scotland debate.

Image of Creative Scotland. Let’s start again.

Creative Scotland has done a salvage mission again. It made some bad funding decisions. The artistic world piled on. It backed down, reversed the decisions, and suddenly all is well. Normal service is resumed.

Well, no. Quite obviously, that isn’t the case. Everyone knows this back-tracking is a short-term reputational fix that doesn’t address a long-term malaise in our nation’s arts administration.

But in all the hoo-ha, no-one has really put their finger on what that malaise is. Everyone acts like awful decisions are all that’s wrong here. Bad decisions are the symptom, yes, but no-one’s done a proper diagnosis of the cause. And as for the cure, there’s only vague blandishments about things being “artist-led”, as if putting the inmates in charge of the prison will solve everything.

Let’s just look at the state we’ve got ourselves into.

Our nation’s artists spend their time hoop-jumping, second-guessing, cap-in-handing, fire-fighting, many things but making art.

Our nation’s administrators are constantly defending, prevaricating, self-justifying, weasel-wording, and not even doing any of it very well.

And the nation at large? The people this is ultimately all for? Well, go out in the street and find out what they think of all this furore. They know nothing of it. For all the talk of people power getting Creative Scotland to turn its decision round, the actual people care a lot less than we’d like to believe. If Alexander Armstrong asked the contestants to name a Scottish RFO, there’d be a lot of Pointless answers. Let’s not kid ourselves that the general public know their Visible Fictions from their Dunedin Consort (no disrespect meant to those companies).

The subsidised arts sector is a gated community complaining about its communal service staff while the real world carries on outside. Its controversies (such as this) have become divorced from the real business of making art for the nation. We now act as if the funding process is what matters. Like the only thing that can be done is to dole out cash to arts organisations and squabble about who gets what, like there’s no better scenario that can be imagined.

That’s not the artists’ fault. They’ve been cultured into this behaviour. Don’t rock the boat while the cash is flowing, stomp your feet when it stops.

But what’s it all for, this funding machinery? It doesn’t exist for its own sake. We make like Creative Scotland is there to implement some unpleasant, unalterable task. In all this talk of portfolio and dialogue and lessons and listening, there’s no sense of higher, positive purpose. Lest we forget, Creative Scotland is supposed to actually help the arts.

And parallel to this, thanks to the Scottish Government, we’re having Scotland’s Culture Conversation. Or at least, someone somewhere is. Who knows who’s really contributed to it? Most of us didn’t get the invite. My fleeting interaction with it was in my day job in palliative care not in my capacity as editor of an arts website. Go figure!

A Culture Strategy For Scotland looks set to keep the same worn out cogs turning. They shout out “consultation”, oblivious to the fact that 99% of the Scottish population switch off right there. Consultation is not what’s needed. Consultation lends itself to the people who have time and self interest to respond, to those with the institutional or personal confidence to speak up at public fora, to those who have two hours on a Tuesday afternoon to attend their local “conversation” – i.e. the organisations already in the system. Consultation gets you answers you can predict from the beginning. And true to form we get a flurry of talk about “emerging themes” and “gatekeepers” and suchlike. Conference-speak from people who dwell in this stuff.

Stop asking other people to come to you with the answers. The answers are there in plain sight. Spend less time at festival openings, ribbon cutting and putting logos on things, more time at Sneaky Pete’s on a Tuesday evening, or at a Leith Dockers local history play, or the basement of Monkey Barrel, anywhere where art survives at the margins, struggling on without the benevolent hand from above. Then you will get a sense of what we’re dealing with. That’s your public engagement. That’s your “culture conversation”.

But our administrators never give the impression they understand the arts eco-system, top-to-bottom. Take our humble Wee Review website for instance. We’re volunteers, all of us, contributing to the arts in our spare time. We do 1000 reviews a year. We’re giving free, independent assessments of many of the things Creative Scotland fund. We’re a (minor) part of the lifeblood of the world’s biggest arts festival. They can’t even be bothered to follow us on Twitter. The last time I contacted them was to advertise for new writers on their opportunities page. I got computer-says-no and a lecture about the scandal of unpaid work in the arts. Me, the unpaid editor of a voluntary arts website was being told I was part of the problem by someone on a Waverley Gate salary. I wasn’t even asking for money and they still got it hilariously wrong.

Somehow, we’ve buried the joyous public benefits of state support for the arts in layers of ugly managerialism and wonk-speak.

Someone needs to sit down and, from first principles, re-establish what we need a central arts body to do. Until we do that, everything is just tinkering.

The basics of arts subsidy are not hard:

– Every locale above a certain size needs an arts venue.

– There needs to be places for artists to hone themselves – rehearsal space, studio, somewhere accessible and affordable, with low barriers to entry.

– There needs to be a certain number of world-class artists or organisations to show off Scotland to the world and represent the pinnacle of their artform.

– There needs to be a certain number of artists and organisations that are pushing their artform in new or interesting directions.

– Everything else, more-or-less, needs to be financially self-sustaining.

That’s your basic structure. Then you help every artist or potential artist, whoever they are, wherever they are and whatever their chosen artform is to find their natural level within this structure. And you leave them to get on with it, instead of getting them to fulfil other agendas.

It’s back of the fag packet stuff, but this, or something like it, must be the basis of what we want a central arts body doing. It’s uncontroversial. It’s the sort of thing that makes sense to the rest of the country who – and I must emphasise this again – don’t care about this current furore.

And it’s not happening. From that fag packet stuff, we see not only how wrong Creative Scotland has gone with these recent decisions, but how things keep going wrong.

Does the system work whoever you are? Well, no, not if Creative Scotland is going to cut disability arts, and not if you’re working class.

Does it work wherever you are? Well, no, not if you’re in Ayr, for example, and the Gaiety gets stiffed.

Does it work whatever your chosen artform is? Well, no, not if you’re a stand-up comic or a DJ or any of the other things our central body deign not to be art.

Rediscover the basics in this way and it enables you to say, “we’re funding this because it’s needed” or “we’re funding this because it’s good” – simple, understandable concepts. We can debate what is “needed” or “good” – and what the typical arts administrator thinks is “needed” and “good” is very different from what the general public thinks – but at least these are meaningful debates we can all join in. At least we’re not stuck discussing process.

Not once have I heard Creative Scotland defend its decisions in this way, it’s always with reference to its precious “criteria”. If they had come out at the time of The Glasgow Effect controversy and said, “we’re funding this because she’s brilliant” they’d’ve taken a lot less flak. Instead it was (I paraphrase), “This application was assessed against the criteria set out in the guidance document under section… zzzzzzz….”

Get back to basics and then if the sad time comes when funders have to pull the plug, it at least seems coherent. “I’m sorry Ayr Gaiety, we just don’t have the money to support venues in towns of this size and location any more” works better for venue and public than… well, whatever it is they did wrong, because no-one seems to know.

That is your malaise with our arts funding set-up – we’ve built process upon process, so we can no longer detect a basic sense of mission. The cure is right there too – restate in simple terms, not policy-speak, what a subsidised arts sector is for. And that involves some serious wiping clean of the slate.

Because unless you can say why you’re funding one thing not another, unless you can join the dots between hip-hop and opera, comedy and concertos within the same eco-system, unless you can tell a talented kid from Ardrossan or Muirhouse or Torry how they can grow up to play the SECC or Usher Hall or His Majesty’s Theatre, and how the nation will help them do that, you don’t have an arts strategy, you have a self-replicating admin function that keeps middle-class people in jobs.

/ @peaky76


Robert is the Managing Editor of The Wee Review and has been writing for the site since early 2014. Previously, he was manager of the Yorkshire arts website, digyorkshire. He pays bills by working for a palliative care charity and lives in Edinburgh.

Comments

10 Responses to Creative Scotland. Let’s start again.

  1. Monika Alff says:

    Hi Robert, don’t know if you remember me… Wrote a few reviews from Stirling for TV Bomb (prefer new name), then moved and did some art in Alloa and stopped writing , currently swanning around the world doing bits of art but following what’s happening in Scotland and will be returning soon….
    Anyway…just wanting to say that I think this a brilliant, short and to the point analysis of the situation for the arts in Scotland. Should be widely publicised (and of course acted on)

    • Robert Peacock says:

      Hi Monika. Yes of course I remember you. Thanks for your comments and you’d be welcome back to write for us anytime.

  2. Jimbob Tanktop says:

    The only thing that can sustain an artist is an audience. This is the core of Scotland’s cultural ennui. There is simply no audience. Performance has to be subsidised because it’s expensive to stage and the audience is minuscule. Writers scrabble for grants because the chances of them earning enough from words alone are so remote they’d be better off spending their time studying the form of racehorses and trying to back a winner once in a while.

    The sole function of any arts quango should be to build an audience, to open people’s minds to the possibility of something new or different. To let people know what is out there. They do not do that. They bestow regular funding to the same old places who cast the same old faces and if they don’t it will create a minor furore in the press and they’ll cave anyway because their decisions lack any conviction, let alone strategy. They must have spent months deliberating who got what but after an awkward interview with Janice Forsythe, found millions in a week to save face. It’s policy on the hoof, an annual £100 million jamboree for an industry that puts on shows where half the tiny audience are already each another’s facebook friends. The reassuringly placid and reliably docile aunties, uncles and faithers are repeatedly commissioned on the tacit understanding they won’t cause any controversy because angry work is dangerous and might end up being criticised on Radio Scotland or in a withering Scotsman column.

    The people outside, the ones who are involuntarily paying for this imbroglio, have just had their European citizenship stripped from them; experienced the independence referendum of 2014 with another on the way and they have endured a decade’s worth of austerity with all of its implicit privation, humiliation and dehumanisation but don’t expect to see that reflected anywhere. That’s not what the middle classes want to see on stage or on the page of a nice, safe wee book, written usually by somebody who paid thousands of pounds to fund their masters in creative writing. And therein lies the problem with Creative Scotland, in Scottish culture generally. It’s made by and for the middle classes. It’s aimed purely at the suburbs of Bearsden, Morningside, Broughty Ferry and Rubislaw. It is a direct subsidy from the poor to the comfortable. It is cultural quantitative easing.

    Most people’s primary source of modern culture, where an audience can be informed of all that’s going on in their locale and to see a reflection of their lives, remains television. Except for viewers in Scotland, where we have a state broadcaster, which seems to be run by people who have speed read ‘The Idiots Guide To Scottish Culture’ but who obviously skipped the chapter headed ‘kailyard.’ Meanwhile, STV somehow continues to call itself a television channel despite not having made any shows that required a script for more than a decade. On searching for its content on YouTube I noted it has fewer hits than someone trying to make their cat laugh. Unfortunately, this is all we have and they remain the two most popular TV channels in Scotland. It should be easy for either or both to make a decent, weekly, cultural TV show that doesn’t involve splurging half the budget on flying someone up from London to tell us what’s good. Creative Scotland could fund it if needs be. Theatre audiences and literary output grew enormously in the 1980s and 90s and that was due, in no small part to STV shows such as NB and Scottish Books. The BBC tried with Ex:S but seemed to lose interest because BBC Scotland doesn’t do interest.

    Another way audience numbers were driven was through newspapers, but as their circulation has now plummeted with their content hidden behind paywalls, pop-ups and odious rage-for-pay columnists, that’s not a viable option. There is, however, this new thing called the internet, which has spawned such excellent websites as The Wee Review. Without wishing to blow smoke up your proverbial, CS or some perceptive investor could do a lot worse than sling you some money to create a fully interactive, content-driven portal for Scotland’s cultural output. A go-to place, with listings, reviews, trailers, interviews, content and an international reach, to help place Scotland in a world context. If I had the money, I’d give it to you myself, because I find The Wee Review enormously impressive, especially given what you’ve achieved on no budget whatsoever.

    The second key to driving audiences is to ask why there is not a wider variety to choose from. To answer that, we have to ask where much of arts’ money goes and there’s an answer; landlords. The biggest expenditure to nascent productions, galleries or artists trying to create, is the cost of rent. If you want to hire a publicly funded theatre, the cost is prohibitive, ridiculously so. A cynic might suggest it was to deter the unfunded. If companies can’t afford it they’re told to apply for funding; in short, the system working for itself. If you want to bypass that and hire a private space, you have to pay the market rate and with that in mind, you need to be aware of two statistics. Since 1980, wages have increased 400% but property prices have risen by 1200%. This obviously impacts on rehearsals and venue hire. Most artists are priced out of earning a living from their work by huge barriers to entry. Those who take the risk have to set lethally high ticket prices in an attempt to recover costs and still not manage to pay anyone. In trying once, the losses deter them from trying again. They have zero chance of building an audience.

    Creative Scotland and local councils could make spaces available for a low cost. Edinburgh manages to conjure hundreds of excellent performing spaces every year from classrooms, offices, shipping containers and double-decker buses. The make-do spirit of the fringe is infinitely preferable to building plush, palatial venues. For comparison, the Scottish Book Trust annually bestows grants to ten or so unpublished writers. The £2000 grants are given to actual artists, remember, and that’s a good thing. In recent years, they’ve provided a fillip to Graeme Macrae Burnett and Gail Honeyman, both of whom have since achieved enormous, international success. However, £2000 is about one one-hundredth of a percent of the £19.4 million Glasgow’s Citizens Theatre is currently spending on its own refurbishment in a clear attempt to make itself look like a Volvo dealership from 1995.

    In short, too much money on administrators, too much money on buildings, next to no money for actual artists or art. A future which promises to continue serving the shrinking ghetto of middle-class tepidness with an outcome of dull art serving the few and taxpayers’ money enriching landlords.

    The only alternative is to grow the audience, and if that’s successful, artists can sustain themselves without recourse to a faceless bureaucracy whose primary ambition seems to be self-preservation.

    • Robert Peacock says:

      Thanks for the long and detailed reply, Jimbob, and for your very kind words about the site. I wish our comments system was better formatted for a bit of to-and-fro about what you say. (Must add to to-do list!) I agree whole-heartedly with what you say about audience building. I’m not sure many in the arts sector fully grasp how little interest the public have in things they see as valuable. What you say about television also strikes a chord. In fact when I started writing this piece I had a bit about what most people’s experience of “culture” is – television, yes, and I also included blockbuster films, a summer music festival and maybe a musical or big TV comedian. Our current cultural policy goes nowhere near any of that. That’s not necessarily an argument for what some would see as dumbed-down art but it is something that needs grappling with.

  3. Sorry, I gave up reading this about a third of the way in. I don’t know all the ins and outs of either the creative industry in Scotland or Creative Scotland’s funding criteria but I do know they added some more funding to an already extensive last, I believe by moving funds from another area. At some point later on in this article do you come up with some creative solutions to the problem. How would you have distributed the funding? Sorry for not joking in, I do tire of the incessant hindsightdul criticism that the media seem to be dishing out these days. It’s avout time somebody started a new Media platform called ‘Solutions’. Thank you Sandy

    • Robert Peacock says:

      My solutions were in the bit of the article you didn’t read, Sandy. They were: re-establish the basics and work from there. How I would distribute the funding isn’t relevant. I was explicitly trying to move away from discussing process and individual funding decisions to looking again at the principles of what a central arts body should be doing.

  4. Hugh Kerr says:

    Good stuff Rob I have been critical of Creative Scotland ever since it was dragged into existence ( it took about 3 years!) and made its first mistake by appointing an Englishman who cheerfully admitted he knew nothing about the arts in Scotland! So he called in the consultants at a cost £250,000 who told him to set up an internal market and get all the companies to compete against each other on a project basis for their grants! The whole of Scottish arts refused to participate and he was sacked at a cost of £250,000 that’s £500,000 that could have been spent on the arts in Scotland!
    Next they had another consultation which I took part in and suggested that they appoint someone who knew about the arts in Scotland maybe even a Scot! I was attacked as being racist by some of the Arts apparatchiks many of whom are English! So they appointed an English ballet dancer Janet Archer who knew so little about Scotland they kept her away from the press for 6 months so she could learn! At her first press conference she was asked what she was going to do about the Byre Theatre ( closed because its grant had been cut by her predecessor!) she said “ I’m afraid I don’t know where that is”! However the bold Janet has boosted money to dance by over a million pounds ( did I mention she was a dancer!) whilst creating havoc around her! Is it time to send her homewards to think again or to sack the whole board of Creative Scotland?!

  5. Anne Roberts says:

    Excellent piece. Just hope they’re bloody listening……

  6. Gail Gyi says:

    Creative Scotland (CS) gave the biggest production company in the World, Netflix and it 2 cohorts Anonymous & Sigma £1,000,000 towards the production of the film “Outlaw King,” whilst pushing aside Scottish acting agents who were gathered in a room and told they didn’t have the software the company wanted used on the production, so they had given the work to an English agency Key Casting. Years in the planning and nobody bothered to ask or tell us agents what was conveniently expected until the 11th hour. When CS contribute to anything it is written in their own regulations that Scots companies should be given every opportunity to tender for work. An imaginary level playing field is meant to exist. CS the arms length government QUANGO has defacated on its own people for long enough by use of middle class administrators who repeatedly fail in their ability to organise the proverbial piss up in a brewery, yet remain in post. I myself am pursuing Creative Scotland’s discrimatory approach to this particular decision through the Equality and Human Rights Commision and the European Court of Justice (before we leave) So this latest debacle of very much respected board members resigning (Ruth Wishart & Maggie Kinloch) due to ill conceived, comical, discrimatory funding decisions is just “another brick in the wall”, hopefully it will accelerate the demise of CS. PS. Creative Wales & Creative England do attract negative headlines but I can assure you they are infinitesimal compared to the avalanche of negativity continually generated by CS, go figure! I guess we’ll just swan along then till the next debacle which shouldn’t be that long in coming!

  7. philip rainford says:

    Thankyou for articulating what many of us have been saying for years.

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