In a recent speech, Fiona Hyslop strongly emphasised the importance the Scottish Government places on culture. She said: “This Government already accepts and values the wider social and economic benefits that culture brings to individuals, to communities and to the nation as a whole, but this is not the reason why we support, fund and treasure the arts; we do this because our culture sits at the heart of who we are. We do this because our culture and the arts are fundamental to our quality of life.”
Sitting down with Holyrood, Hyslop said the cultural scene in Scotland is strong and vibrant, and it’s the Scottish Government’s job “to support the conditions to allow great art to flourish”.
She added: “There are really exciting things going on right now. We provide the conditions for artistic performance to flourish and also the infrastructure. To give a couple of examples, the Theatre Royal is currently getting a revamp, with funding from the Scottish Government. Also, the Royal Scottish National Orchestra (RSNO) have for many years been using the Henry Wood Halls for rehearsal space and I was delighted to be able to help support them in their move to a brand new space at the Royal Concert Hall in Glasgow.”
Hyslop said the past 12 months have also seen the introduction of ‘Time to Shine’, Scotland’s first youth arts strategy.
She continued: “We’ve managed to produce Scotland’s first arts strategy for young people. Complementing and supporting that, we’re investing in what we’re calling youth hubs, which will be resource spaces across Scotland to support young people in particular so they have somewhere to go. This is part of the youth arts strategy. It’s been very successful and other countries are interested in what we’re doing. For example, I was in Denmark, visiting their cultural department and they’re interested in ‘Time to Shine’.
“On the heritage side of things, a major step forward was the publication of the Historic Environment Scotland Bill. We are also going forward with our first ever heritage strategy for Scotland. That’s something for Scotland, of Scotland – we’ve managed to bring all the different agencies together. George Reid conducted a review of the National Trust for Scotland in 2010, and one of the things he said was we needed an overarching strategy and that’s something as Cabinet Secretary I’ve helped to deliver.”
According to the Cabinet Secretary, the Commonwealth Games have produced an important opportunity for culture.
She said: “As far back as January, Celtic Connections, supported by the Scottish Government, brought together artists from India and Australia. Culture 2014 has been on the go for a long time, and now we’re in the Games period, it’s become Festival 2014. Around the Games there will be great sporting triumphs and achievements but we also want to welcome people to Scotland, not just to showcase our own arts and culture but to embrace the Commonwealth.
“A lot of our activity is about celebrating the Commonwealth, with the Commonwealth. For example, we are now showing Generation, which is a retrospective of the past 25 years of contemporary art in Scotland and it is not an understatement to say that Scotland is world leading in this area. Generation is the work of 100 artists, showing across exhibition spaces across Scotland. There are very few countries in the world who could have such a retrospective of that quality and it is a major achievement.
“One of the highlights of the year for me was when the baton came to my hometown on the second day of the tour. Actor Tam Dean Burn was going around Scotland reading all of Julia Donaldson’s books to children and I got to read with him when the baton came to Linlithgow Palace.”
With so much going on in Scotland over the past 12 months, one of the challenges for Hyslop and her team has been ensuring co-operation and partnership working takes place across government portfolios and beyond.
She said: “I’ve been pleased to work with Shona Robison in relation to the Games and the Ryder Cup, and Fergus Ewing about Homecoming to ensure that the range of events can be connected and the experience shared. I’m also particularly pleased Culture 2014 has brought together the cultural festivals and institutions in Glasgow and Edinburgh. That is going to be a really good legacy going forward. The mutual support across Scotland is growing, between festivals, institutions or councils.
“I’ve also finally managed to bring together all the culture conveners from local authorities across Scotland. While councils care very deeply about culture, there wasn’t a mechanism which existed to bring together all the culture and heritage conveners to share experiences. That’s now happened and we’ve had a number of meetings over the past year.”
In terms of the external affairs side of her brief, Hyslop has spent the year travelling the world and making connections with different international governments.
She added: “I was very pleased to meet with the French culture minister and sign a statement of intent with the French government on taking forward culture and heritage co-operation. We also have good relations in terms of looking at energy opportunities with the French. We also published our Nordic-Baltic Statement, again with a bigger focus on what we can learn from and how we can work together with these countries. A stand-out event was the Arctic Conference which we hosted and I spoke at in Glasgow. We got together very senior people from Norway, Finland and other countries to look at how we can best use European funding.
“We’re building relationships on very practical issues and a lot of it is around energy. Part of what we do in the external affairs portfolio is to help build the relationships which can then be followed through by our other ministers. Scotland Week was our most successful to date, with over 1,000 jobs announced.”
As the independence referendum gets closer, the focus has shifted to what might happen in September and beyond. In a recent speech, Hyslop said a survey undertaken for Creative Scotland found 92 per cent of respondents agreed with the proposition – ‘I believe it is right that there should be public funding of arts and cultural activities in Scotland’.
She continued: “A similar survey, carried out for Arts Council England, the question was asked: ‘As you may know, some arts and culture in England are funded by the taxes we all pay. To what extent do you support or oppose this public funding of arts and culture’. Only 56 per cent expressed support.
“I am encouraged to think the approach we have taken to the funding of culture does seem to strike a chord with the people of Scotland and so reflects their views – though I do recognise the questions were put slightly differently. Another interesting aspect of the survey for Creative Scotland was the evidence of interest in creativity and culture. Forty-six per cent of those surveyed expressed an interest in participating more in active creativity. I do think participation is a vital topic. As I was critical of a speech by the previous Culture Secretary, let me take the opportunity to praise one that the current Culture Secretary, Sajid Javid, recently gave. There he talked about how he has come comparatively late in life to culture and made the point rather well that classical music, opera and ballet were rare leisure activities amongst the community that he grew up in and, as he was too polite to add, but I am not, we should not hold that community responsible for low levels of attendance and participation. It is our collective responsibility to ensure that everyone has the opportunity to participate, to enjoy and benefit from the rich cultural offer of our nation.
“The years since devolution have seen this nation grow in stature and confidence, and this is also true of our cultural sector. We have now reached another crucial turning point in our history, and whatever the outcome on the 18th of September, we have an unprecedented opportunity now for debate, for critical and creative thinking and ultimately for change – for what more creative act could there be than the opportunity to create an independent nation?
“We have an unprecedented opportunity here to ask ourselves and each other what we want the cultural landscape to look like in Scotland; what could we change, how could we build on what we have to strengthen the infrastructure and better nurture our talent? Scotland already makes an impact on the world stage, but for the future we need to ask ourselves, what more can we do to promote work from Scotland both at home and abroad, and what more can we do to broaden international engagement with our arts and culture?
“I don’t need to tell you that culture in Scotland is already largely devolved, so many of the opportunities to look at what we do and how we do it are already in our gift.
“But we all know cultural life cannot be divorced from the wider life of a country and its people.”