The Creative Scotland stramash has been needlessly politicised

Written by Dani Garavelli on 20 February 2018 in Comment

Dani Garavelli on the concerns about the direction of arts quango Creative Scotland

The Creative Scotland row – specifically, its now-reversed decision to cut the long-term funding of two children’s theatre companies and two theatre companies working with people with learning disabilities – gave unionist commentators an opportunity to reprise their favourite conspiracy theory: that the arts here have been absorbed into the “nationalist project”.

Admittedly, Culture Secretary Fiona Hyslop helped legitimise those claims when, at the first public consultation on the Scottish Government’s culture strategy, she said: “Artists don’t have to be close to government, they just have to have a common understanding of what the country wants.” 

This statement is clumsy and open to sinister interpretation. At best, it suggests artists should buy into a shared vision when the greatest creativity comes from a clash of opposing ideas. At worst, it presents arts as propaganda – an effective means for the SNP to communicate its message to the masses.

Of course, Hyslop may have meant something quite different; she may have been talking about the need for artists to be aware of their audience; to ensure there is a demand for the work they produce; and that it is as accessible to as many people as possible.

None of this, however, had much to do with what happened with Creative Scotland. If anything, the decision to cut long-term funding to Catherine Wheels and Visible Fictions (the children’s theatre companies) and Lung Ha and Birds of Paradise (the theatre companies that work with people with learning disabilities) –  all ventures which fit with the Scottish Government’s perceived social inclusion agenda – was evidence of the quango’s independence.

And though the SNP was no doubt peeved that, having stepped in with an extra £6.6m to offset diminishing UK Lottery money, Creative Scotland managed to turn its funding decision into a bad news story, it was a public clamour that forced the body into a U-turn; just as a public clamour/ Labour MSPs forced a U-turn on a Scottish Government’s decision to cut the funding for the Scottish Sports Association.

If Creative Scotland thought children and people with disabilities were easy targets, it was  mistaken. The backlash that followed was so intense, two highly-respected board members, Ruth Wishart and Professor Maggie Kinloch, resigned and, at an emergency meeting of remaining members, the long-term funding of all four groups plus Baroque ensemble, Dunedin Consort, was restored.

Of course, funding decisions are, by their nature, controversial.

There will always be winners and losers and a tension between maintaining support for established groups and the need to foster new talent (in total, 20 groups lost long-term funding, while 19 gained it). There may be nostalgia for the halcyon days of the Scottish Arts Council, but 20 years ago its director, Seona Reid, was under fire over the decision to cut Wildcat’s grant.

All the same, the recent fiasco has exposed something troubling at the heart of Creative Scotland: a disconnect between the bureaucrats and the artistic community it is supposed to nurture; between the clarity the quango demands from those seeking funding and the clarity it gives to artists who are trying to navigate its labyrinthine processes.

How, other than a failure of communication and empathy, can one explain the way a prospective £2m touring fund – the talks on which had been kept under wraps – was dangled in front of some of the affected groups as a possible means of survival after the bad news had already been delivered?

It seems that, despite the campaign to address Creative Scotland’s “ill-conceived decision-making, unclear language [and] lack of regard for Scottish culture” which led to the resignation of chief executive Andrew Dixon in 2012, its problems are unresolved.

In particular, there seems to be a lack of understanding about the impact financial uncertainty has on the ability to function. How can companies budget or plan future programmes on the basis of an application to a pot of money that doesn’t yet exist?

Connected to this are concerns over how much money is spent on the quango itself; current chief executive Janet Archer earns a six-figure salary. Most theatre actors, even successful ones, earn less than the average wage.

That gap between top and bottom earners extends into the arts community itself; some of the more established theatre companies have highly-paid directors and a large number of office staff, but only a handful of actors in each production.

There is plenty of dynamic thinking that could be tapped into. Last year, on the eve of a  workshop on the culture strategy, poet Harry Giles published a list of ideas in Bella Caledonia.

Giles pointed out the many structural issues that combined to create an arts community  dominated “by middle class white people”, including low pay and a funding application process that is intimidating to anyone outside the system.

Among the suggestions proferred were arts executive pay at funded companies to be capped at a 3:1 ratio to that of the lowest-paid worker and a 50:50 ratio between funding for professional and community arts projects.  

At the very least, you would hope this latest stramash would force Creative Scotland to rethink the way it treats artists, viewing them not as commodities to be invested in or dispensed with on a whim, but as central to the vibrancy and success of our nation.

Better still, however, would be if it prompted a radical overhaul of the way we fund arts in  Scotland. Instead of the controversy functioning as a vehicle for tired portrayals of the country’s “creatives” as SNP lackeys, it should be a springboard to fresh ideas about how to make our arts scene more viable, diverse and artist-focused.

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