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.