The Canary in the Coal Mine, from Our Man in Lamancha (Scot. Bords: la.mank.ka)
Forgive me Creative Scotland; I don’t think I will be able to make any of your open sessions where I have the opportunity to “help inform the future operational and policy direction of Creative Scotland”. Lets just say I’m too snowed under at the moment as a freelancer trying to make a precarious living in the arts to attend another consultation day for free.
You see, last year for example, I was invited to take part in one of your consultative days for a particular strategy, because as you said, you’d ‘like to tap into [my] brains and seek [my] expert view.” I asked if my time might be worth anything, a fee, or as least a per diem, and was told that “the velocity at which we’re working at the moment means we simply can’t put the admin in place to facilitate this”. When I asked then if I could get back the twenty quid for the train fare, I suspected the answer I might get. I didn’t even get an answer.
Indeed over the past decade, I have contributed to various days, consultations and debates on the future of the arts in Scotland, always, or at least usually, patiently making the same point, through asking the same question: “Why should we publicly fund the arts”. Perhaps I hope if we can crack that one, if we can articulate the fundamental principle, then the rest will follow in its slipstream… So no offence, but I don’t want to take time out from my week and come and answer your questions – I want you to answer my question…
In all the debate, the chatter and the indignation and implosion over the past year, the Year of Creative Scotland, this single principle has remained unanswered, unarticulated and unformed. In fact, it was for this that I believe the chief executive went – not for the boobs and the gaffes, but ultimately because Creative Scotland under his leadership actually destabilised and weakened the very sector it is there to support, and secondly as an organisation it did not defend that sector.
The SNP, shortly after coming to government, in 2008, in a fit of managerialist streamlining and efficiency created the Single Overarching Purpose: “to focus government and public services on creating a more successful country, with opportunities for all of Scotland to flourish, through increasing sustainable economic growth” In doing so all public services including the arts were to be brought together under this purpose. The underlying rationale was of course, given the SNP raison d’etre, that if all public spending could be directed to creating a more successful country, then the populace might be more willing to go for independence when the question was eventually posed to them further down the line. Fair enough, it’s their government, they have the mandate.
“A successful country”, “opportunities for all of Scotland to flourish” – laudable aims but the emphasis on “sustainable economic growth” as being the route to doing so has resultantly impacted on the public services (one of which is of course Creative Scotland). This has caused consternation from a range of sectors in society that the world view that economic growth is the sole way to ensure that Scotland flourishes is too narrow. Economic growth is one way, but not the only way to ensure a country ‘flourishes’, and indeed just because there is economic growth, doesn’t mean ALL Scotland is flourishing.
In all the debate around Creative Scotland last year, the Scottish Government did it’s best to keep its head down. As Stramash Arts incisively points out on his/her blog: During the course of the Creative Scotland saga there were a number of occasions where Fiona Hyslop invoked the arms length principle to explain why she would not intervene directly in the management and running of Creative Scotland…
It’s important that we acknowledge this shift because it marks a complete reversal of the arms length principle, as it was originally understood. In effect we now have a culture in which politicians are only too happy to issue directions as to what sort of work should be produced (through initiatives such as the Year of Creative Scotland, Year of Natural Scotland and some elements of the now defunct plans for strategic commissioning), but who rapidly invoke the arms length defence when it comes to addressing issues of policy or management competence.
Accountability? No, the last thing the SNP wanted was for their competency to be called to question – their whole pitch for government (and independence) is based on proving themselves a credible and competent government, a safe pair of hands, and in fact Creative Scotland is a core plank of that building of Scotland PLC. So when the preverbial flak was flying, when #CSstushie was in full flight, when artists were calling into question not just the organization but the underlying ideology, the government decided it was best not to be associated with the stink. It would be fairer to describe the arms length approach as hands off.
There is a school of thought that Andrew Dixon was a fall guy – that in effect he was only doing what the Single Overarching Purpose and the government set out – namely to use the arts to contribute to economic growth – hence the talk of investments, the relentless ‘good news’ approach, the increasing festivalisation of our publically funded culture which ultimately aims to produce work which promotes Scotland the Brand and contributes to increasing tourism spend.
And in fact, this frustration with being the labeled the bad guy and carrying the can led to him quixotically tilting at the windmills of Scottish culture in his resignation: “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”. So why hadn’t he gained the respect and support of the cultural sector? It was the top down approach of Creative Scotland that artists didn’t like, and then revolted against.
“Routinely, we see ill-conceived decision-making; unclear language, lack of empathy and regard for Scottish culture. We observe an organisation with a confused and intrusive management style married to a corporate ethos that seems designed to set artist against artist and company against company in the search for resources.”
In fact, whilst the artists’ letter centred on matters of style and communication, one of the most telling and incredible things to come out, came from the Board’s own ensuing inquiry into the organization which they presided over;
There was an almost universal belief among the staff that a gulf had opened between the activities of some members of the senior management team and those of the rest of the staff. This impacted on the ability of staff members to articulate the organisation’s goals and led to their feeling undervalued and underutilised.
“An almost universal belief”: Using Creative Scotland’s own managerial standards, here was a organisation, a public organisation, in which this view festered and grew amongst it staff – what internal processes and supervision, or lack of, could lead to such a damming condemnation of an organization from it’s own staff. Who was responsible? …
“The Board has corporate responsibility for ensuring that Creative Scotland fulfils the aims and objectives set by the Scottish Ministers; for promoting the efficient use of staff and other resources, in accordance with the principles of Best Value and for establishing the overall strategic direction for Creative Scotland.” (See Creative Scotland National Lottery Annual report here)
…The fact is that the central government grant to the arts is going down. The money from the Lottery post Olympics is going up. This wasn’t a problem according to Creative Scotland’s pragmatic, managerial position as the total investment in the sector was after all going up overall. QED, the garden was rosy.
However, there has been much discussion about how Lottery funding cannot replace central funding and has to be “additional”. What Creative Scotland did was accept the sleight of hand necessary and sought the best way to pass this fix on to the sector. Hence the cut to the 42 flexibly funded organizations, who were told that their core costs would now come from the Lottery monies in the future. In doing so Creative Scotland made the central critical error. Effectively, rather than arguing for the necessity of core public funding in order to maintain a sustainable cultural infrastructure, Creative Scotland tacitly supported the position that these organisation would get their core funding from the Lottery, that ergo the arts are additional, and that it doesn’t matter where the money is coming from. At present, looking (as they do) at the spreadsheet, the monies seem fine but the desire to shift arts organizations to the Lottery critically undermines both the sector in the long term and indeed the whole rationale for why we should publically fund the arts in the first place.
Creative Scotland’s role is to research, support and advocate up on behalf of the sector – not research and advocate down to the sector. Creative Scotland need to be separate and talk back to government, and they need to position themselves to protect the sector. That’s how they will get the support of artists and the broader cultural sector.
So lets ask again, “Why should we publicly fund the arts?” Is it to be a sort of creative bank, investing in development with one eye to envisaging future return? Or is that not what the banks are for? Or, is the purpose of publically funding the arts to fund the very thing that the market cannot provide – to fund work that is uncommercial, unexpected, that is unsponsorable, work that may, or indeed may not, be critical. That not’s to argue for the avant garde, but rather to seek to secure the space for a public culture and discourse that is democratic and free. Free from external interference, whether that patron is public or private. Creative Scotland could not (and did not) articulate this and therefore could not (and did not) defend this – that is why those bolshy artists rejected their programme out of hand. They trust their instincts.
In fact this rejection is I believe a canary in the coal mine for the SNP. Increasingly the SNP wish to manage their way to independence, which is of course counter-intuititive.
The best way to foster independence is to foster independents. To trust those below you, to trust that your own instinctive nature will in the long run pay off, to trust that what comes might not be what you want but is democratic – and for that you need foster the space for someone else’s debate.
In Scotland battle lines are increasingly drawn between the two camps in the independence referendum debate – the Yes Scotland camp and the Better Together camp – in an increasingly rancorous and unedifying discussion of where the future of the country lies, raging on both the highly partisan pages of the traditional media and the similarly securely held timelines of social media. Neither will ever give any ground. Neither will waste an opportunity to cast a stone.
The national debate is of course not about do we want one thing, or the other polar opposite. Life is not like the debating chamber of the Parliament – it is somewhat more forgiving, more considered, more diverse and more understanding of others. The coming year is too important to be left to the politicians- there is an urgent need for non-partisan discussion from civic Scotland and it’s artists and writers are ideally placed for that. That is what they do, it’s their bread and butter. For the debate to be fruitful it needs to be what do we want our society to be, not who wins.
And so in lieu of attending and in the spirit of new beginnings happening at Creative Scotland I propose three exercises for their away days:
1. That we in the cultural sector discuss and articulate why we should publicly fund the arts?
2. That we move to designate next year, The Year of Independent Scotland – and artists and writers can write about/do what the hell they wish to, rather than proposing something that fits someone else agenda.
3. That we think under a new flag – one without baggage, one that allows us to jettison dumb identity politics and partisan positions – one that allows a public space for the population, the artists and the writers to coalesce and contribute positively to the future of this nation., no matter what the outcome of the referendum, to dream the impossible dreams.
And for those of us who question just what it is that artists can contribute – I offer up this Cautionary Note from Lewis Grassic Gibbon from the frontispiece of the third novel from his A Scots Quair tiology, Grey Granite from 1934.
The Duncairn’ of this novel was originally called ‘Dundon’. Unfortunately, several English journals in pre-publication notices of the book described my imaginary city as Dundee, two Scottish sheets identified it as Aberdeen, and at least one American newspaper went considerably astray and stated that it was Edinburgh – faintly disguised.
Instead, it is merely the city which the inhabitants of the Mearns (not foreseeing my requirements in completing my trology) have hitherto failed to build.
L. G. G.