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Associate feature: Creative Scotland CEO Iain Munro on re-imagining the future of the creative sector

Associate feature: Creative Scotland CEO Iain Munro on re-imagining the future of the creative sector

Creative Scotland's CEO, Iain Munro, looks at the unprecedented challenges facing the cultural sector and how creative thinking can help imagine a new future

It’s been widely remarked, as Scotland and much of the world gets into the second month of the COVID-19 lockdown, that this desperate situation would be immeasurably harder were it not for the books, films, music and many other artforms helping us all get through our time in confinement. 

“I think what people tend to do is turn to culture to nourish their souls, particularly when times are dark. That’s what we’re seeing now,” says Iain Munro, the chief executive of Creative Scotland. 

And creative people and organisations are rising to the moment. With the necessarily strict social distancing measures putting an abrupt and open-ended hiatus on gatherings of all sorts, artists are turning their creative thinking towards finding ways to share their talents, interpret these strange times, and provide some fleeting solace, all while stuck at home.

Through social media and streaming services, festivals like the Wigtown Book Festival and Fèis Rois have transferred workshops and events online and the National Theatre of Scotland has announced Scenes for Survival, an alternative theatrical online programme involving theatres and projects all across Scotland. 

Dundee Rep and Scottish Dance Theatre community project 'Where are you, Dundee?'

People have also been turning to TV for escapism, with special programming like the BBC’s Culture in Quarantine season and new series like Scottish-made drama The Nest, which was supported by Screen Scotland Production Growth Funding. 

And as well as adjusting cultural work to fit our new normal, creative people have also been encouraging more participation in the arts. Luminate, the creative ageing organisation, has, for example, launched ‘Luminate@Home’, a twice-weekly arts activity session for older people that can be done from home or in a care home.

This and other initiatives have got people exploring their own talents, something Munro has been heartened to see as the head of Scotland’s development body for the arts, screen and creative industries. 

“We’ve got an underpinning philosophy at Creative Scotland, which is that everybody is creative and everybody has the right to a creative life,” he says. 

“Some people choose to engage in ways which are on their own terms - the books they read, the films they watch, the music they listen to and the pictures they paint, for example.

“But particularly in this lockdown situation, where the digital environment has become even more important, people are reaching out to connect with each other and across communities in so many different ways”. 

Ways, Munro thinks, that could have a lasting effect - perhaps with an impact on areas beyond the creative sector. 

“Culture and creativity have never been more important and I think ultimately it will bring about a reimagining of how fundamental they are to our everyday lives,” he says. 

Munro recognises that performers would still rather be on the stage and filmmakers would rather screen in cinemas. Many creative endeavours are simply better experienced in real life. 

While there is clearly a “hunger and a yearning”, Munro says, for audiences and creative people to physically get together again for a shared experience there is, for the time being, no certainty as to when it’ll be safe to do so. 

“The economy that operates within the cultural sector is a fragile one anyway"

The near-total shut down of the economy had an immediate and severe impact on creative people and organisations. Theatres, cinemas, venues, festivals, galleries and other cultural spaces saw a steep drop in audience footfall and disappearing income.

Freelance and self-employed people found overnight that months of work had been postponed or cancelled. 

“The speed and severity with which this whole crisis hit is scary and breathtaking,” Munro says. 

“Undoubtedly it has led to very serious personal and professional impacts on creative people and the work they do with communities right across Scotland.”

As well as being among the first hit by the economic implications of the public health response to coronavirus, creative organisations and people and the businesses that support them face long-term uncertainty. 

“The economy that operates within the cultural sector is a fragile one anyway. I think people make small amounts of money, relatively speaking, go a very, very long way and they do brilliant things with it but that does not make it right,” Munro reflects.

“The current situation has only served to expose the financial fragility and lack of resilience that exists in the sector.”

Even as the Scottish Government begins to tentatively discuss how the lockdown measures could be lifted, it is unclear how people will be able to physically engage with the cultural sector and its work.  

Scotland’s chief economist Gary Gillespie warned in the first post-lockdown ‘state of the economy’ report that “not all sectors will come back immediately, as external demand, consumer tastes, and business models will have changed significantly”.

This is something that Munro says Creative Scotland is all too aware of.

“The desire for people to get together will be there, but people will be cautious to get back together in an auditorium or a cinema, for example, in close proximity,” Munro says. 

“And that will only serve to perpetuate some of the financial challenges that exist for artists and organisations to operate in that environment. 

“Partly that’s what led us to move quickly to put in place a series of measures to help stabilise the situation and begin to safeguard the future of creative people and organisations,” Munro says.

The desire for people to get together will be there, but people will be cautious to get back together in an auditorium or a cinema

Creative Scotland has taken a range of decisions to help support creative individuals and organisations through the initial shock of the pandemic.

This includes dedicated bursaries for individuals and repurposed funds for projects and organisations who’ve taken a financial hit and are most immediately in need. 

But one of the first decisions taken, Munro says, was to reassure those already in receipt of support from Creative Scotland. 

“We very quickly upon lockdown moved to signal that we will be flexible over how people use those resources, whether they have to amend, re-schedule, or indeed cancel some of their plans because of COVID-19, that we would still honour the grant commitments in place,” he says. 

Creative Scotland then moved swiftly to launch the Bridging Bursaries, which were comprised of £3.5m in repurposed funds to support freelance and self-employed people working in the arts, creative industries, film and TV who are most in need at this time. 

The two bursaries are aimed particularly at those who are least likely to benefit from the UK Government Job Retention Scheme and Self Employment Income Support scheme.

Grants of between £500 and £2,500 are to help cover lost work and Creative Scotland takes pride in how easily accessible these are, involving only a quick online process.

In April, the scheme was expanded with a further £1m from the Scottish Government, matched by £1m from the Freelands Foundation.

Interest in the scheme has been very high, with over 2500 requests for £4.7 million to date, illustrating the precarious situation many creative people find themselves in.

Additionally, there’s a £7.5 million Open Funding: Sustaining Creative Development fund to support applicants to explore how best to sustain their practice and reimagine their work during this time. 

These initial moves to support the people who are at the heart of the sector, Munro says, were the right early decisions to make which he hopes goes some way to reduce the anxiety many people feel around the immediate situation. 

However, Munro recognises that whilst these are meaningful, they do not yet go far enough to address the increasingly evident challenges the sector is facing, both economic and in terms of the health, wellbeing and resilience of those who work across the sector.

And as well as contributing to the nation’s wellbeing, the creative sector is a significant employer and powerful contributor to the economy. As a whole it has nearly 16,000 creative businesses in it, employing around 87,000 people, and is generating £4.9bn net GVA for the Scottish economy.

Creative Scotland is therefore advocating to the Scottish Government and other partners on the need for sector-specific support to help it recover.

When we all talk about recovery, it’s not about recovery to the old world, it’s recovery with an eye to what the new world could be"

Beyond the pandemic, governments across the world are facing the prospect of a global economic crisis that will involve having to make decisions that could radically alter our societies.

Looking to this as-yet undefined future, Munro thinks creative people should have a leading role to help re-imagine what the future could look like. 

“On the one hand, I feel anxious for the future because of the financial fragility in the sector that had already been in existence before the COVID-19 lockdown,” he says. 

“But on the other hand I am hopeful from the point of view, to paraphrase a Bertolt Brecht quote, that in dark times there will still be singing.”

“I think what’s very clear is that when we all talk about recovery, it’s not about recovery to the old world, it’s recovery with an eye to what the new world could be. Those working in the creative sector should absolutely be at the heart of helping not just the creative sector itself, but society and the country at large understand what that new future might look like and work towards it. The sector will undoubtedly need further support to enable it to do that.” 

This piece was sponsored by Creative Scotland.

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