Does the departure of the head honcho of an outfit such as Creative Scotland herald a possibility of change, or is it more a case of “the king is dead, long live the complacent and unrepresentative bureaucracy”? As soon as Andrew Dixon stepped down from his position as Chief Executive last week, there were grumbles from long-term campaigners for change that one personnel shift was at best an empty gesture, at worse a deliberate diversion tactic. Well, call me a cockeyed optimist, but I tend to disagree. For one thing, Mr Dixon was in charge, had his name on the letterheads and was getting paid the big bucks (£125K, people, before bonuses, of which he got another nice one just for leaving!). When an endeavor for which you bear personal responsibility makes a succession of mighty bungles, fails to explain them to the constituency they affect, and responds to criticism with either petulance or whistling indifference, you should be taking the fall, even if your name wasn’t on every bad decision. That’s what being in charge means. For another thing, I’d posit that the personality and public persona of a chief executive does have sizable influence over workplace culture. I wasn’t absolutely sure about Mr Dixon’s course of action until I read his leaving statement – this bit of it, to be precise:
“I have been disappointed, given my track record, not to gain the respect and support of some of the more established voices in Scottish culture…”
Let’s unpick that. Without the “given my track record”, it might actually indicate regret or shame at having so conspicuously failed to gain the trust of cultural makers and opinion-makers. With the “given my track record”, it’s a repellent diva pout, and condescending to boot: how dare he assume that his critics, many of whom have just been asking him to speak openly about his decisions and answer a few questions, haven’t done their homework into his precious “track record”? Then there’s that bit about “the most established voices.” What does that mean, sir? That winning the PR-friendly support of the already famous was your prime directive all along? Or are you trying to instil the idea that you were brought down by some sinister cabal of spoiled poshos who pass the time in between Edinburgh Fringes plotting coups over chai lattes in the fashionable cafés of the Central Belt? All of the above, one suspects; what is certain is that with that one peevish, paranoid line Dixon drained his resignation of any nobility it might have had, and gave the impression of leaving in an ignoble strop over people not liking him enough.
Indulging for a moment the notion that it’s even appropriate (and not some kind of tall-poppy-festooned, anti-intellectual, success-averse reverse snobbery) to categorise people thus, Mr Dixon’s critics weren’t just “the more established voices in Scottish culture”. Certainly several established individuals were among Creative Scotland’s critics, and some of them used their prominence to draw press and public attention to the building concerns; but most of the 400-plus signatories to the open letter delivered to the organisation’s chair Sandy Crombie in October were up-and-coming artists, representatives of small companies and members of the public. How ironic and how apt that Mr Dixon only noticed his famous critics. It was, after all, under his leadership that Creative Scotland declared its intention to “find and cultivate celebrities” who could be “trained” to promote Scotland abroad.
It is to be fervently hoped that such craven, fame-fixated, short-termist guff stays far from the mind and mouth of whoever replaces Mr Dixon. A culture doesn’t alter overnight, and no-one would assume that Mr Dixon bore sole responsibility for either the mistakes or the fixing of them – but it’s striking that the statement that emerged from the Board meeting following his departure had a humility and openness that had been singularly lacking in the organisation’s external communication up to that point. For some of Creative Scotland’s critics, no amount of mea culpa and certainly no further bouts of pained “consultation” can cure a sick system; bureaucrats muscling in on the arts is inherently suspect and damaging. For others, in time of recession, the dispersal of public money to mere entertainers is a bourgeois anathema (we must assume that these secular Calvinists also raise their children without books or crayons).
Me, I’m not holding out for a perfect system, or for that long-overdue revolution that will oust the powerful and hand the reins to the people. A culture of unweaned artists dependent on government handouts is not a healthy thing (not that anyone who works in the arts in Scotland could possibly think we had ever had one of those). Government-funded engagement with, promotion of and support of the arts, based on judicious, trusting communication with artists and experts and structured to foster grassroots talent over time is a healthy thing. The Board statement, with its emphasis on listening, rethinking and clarifying, strikes me as a positive first step – because so much of this debate has been about the tone of Creative Scotland’s communication. What floored me during the controversy over the failure to include any women on the jury of this week’s Creative Scotland Awards was the abject state of the organisation’s communications policy. Creative Scotland seemed to have absorbed a Blairite, spin-doctored approach that said, in a panicked voice: IF IN DOUBT, OBFUSCATE, LIE, OR JUST DON’T ANSWER! Let us hope that attitude is the second casualty of this debacle, and that more openness points the way to a more effective structure for the future.