2007 - 2022

Provocations for a Culture Strategy

For reasons opaque to me, I’ve been invited to a Scottish Government workshop on Culture Strategy next week. I’m not quite sure what will happen there, but it’s given me an occasion to write down some thoughts on how the arts are and could be funded. What follows are some poorly-thought-through provocations for arts funding policy. Some of them may very well be bad. I’d very much like yours. I’m conscious that I’ve probably been invited to this workshop as a representative of the bolshie grassroots, the messy fringe, and to that end I’d like to take to the room some of the voices that aren’t but should be there. If you’ve got suggestions for a Scottish culture strategy, tell me them and I’ll try to bring them up.


1) Most artists I know cannot make a living wage from their work. The younger they are, the more likely they are to be indebted, precariously-employed, and private renters, unable to access the social and economic capital of previous generations. Whereas previous generations of artists were to some degree subsidised by unemployment and other benefits, these routes have been cut off to most. This has a knock-on effect on diversity, as racialised and other minoritised people are even less likely to access support for their work economically, and face other social barriers as well. The result is an arts scene dominated by middle- and upper-class white people, still, at all levels of production and management, but increasingly-so further up the hierarchy.

2) This means in turn that marginalised voices are tokenized and put into their own boxes: the queer artist is only able to get paid to make art about being queer, for example, or the organisation that does good accessibility work is shunted from the “Performance” panel to the “Diversity” panel (this happened to one of mine). Marginalised voices are more likely to have to rely on crowdfunding, self-exploitation, non-arts jobs and so on in order to make the work they want to make.

3) Publicly-funded arts do not command mass public support. We are luvvies. We are seen as an indulgence. Not enough people see the link between publicly-funded arts, community and education arts, and private sector arts (e.g. an actor in a West End musical may make most of their money in the public sector; a school poetry workshop is only possible thanks to a public support infrastructure). Some of the blame for this must lie in which arts are funded: arts enjoyed broadly by richer people, such as opera and ballet, get the most funding support, whereas arts enjoyed broadly by poorer people, such as hiphop and videogames, get the least public support and are expected to survive in the commercial sector alone. The result is that when public spending cuts come the arts are often the first to go and the worst punished.

4) Arts organisations are riven by multiple economic inequalities. The gap between the wage earned by the Artistic Director of a national theatre and that earned by an actor in that theatre is shameful. Those in administration and management have the most stable jobs and wages, while those actually making art have the least access to jobs and stability, with producers somewhere in the middle. That is, the arts model the inequalities of the wider employment sector, with executives consolidating their power, trickling up wages to the top, and exploiting the labour of those who actually make the commodity. This is also linked to and runs through the problems of points one and two, meaning that those marginalised by factors like disability and race are also hit by these inequalities.

5) There is no clear understanding of or approach to the gradients between “professional” and “amateur” arts. Far more people want to be involved in the arts than can currently find employment in the arts. Submitting your art to a wage-relation also destroys the pleasure of art for some. By necessity or choice, there is a large unpaid arts sector, from community drama groups to volunteer orchestras. This is a vital part of cultural life, but who has access to capital to support that culture is shaped by all the factors previously discussed: the more marginal your voice, the more likely your art will be seen as amateur and undeserving of support. It also creates a greyzone for all artists: as one moves from amateur to professional, because there is no formal apprenticeship (even arts qualifications usually do not lead to immediate employment), one takes on many free and underpaid gigs, and institutions are liable to exploit this to sell art and undercut wages. Support for “community” and “professional” arts is intertwined in fact but not in practice.

6) The ability to earn a living as an artist depends on a number of skills and capacities entirely unrelated to artistic ability, e.g. networking, application-writing, volunteering availability, interview technique, &c. These skills are also distributed along vectors of marginalisation, reinforcing social hierarchies. In particular, public funding is closed off to independent artists who cannot speak the language of funders and write a funding application; at present, support for them is mostly available through other freelance artists lending help. Meanwhile, full-time organisations often employ fundraising officers to help them access both public and private funds. The result, again, is that power and capital consolidate to themselves: it’s easier to get money if you have money, and the cycle continues.

7) In Scotland, and most of all in Edinburgh, the festival model dominates the arts. In this model, employment for artists and art for audiences is made available only seasonally in order to concentrate a marketing push. In some cases, festivals market themselves as an opportunity artists must pay to be part of. As a result, the precaritisation of the arts, and the ability of landlords and financiers to be parasitic on the labour of artists to the point of emptying it entirely of wages, is deepened, while the ability to create year-round arts institutions and community-embedded arts practice is weakened. Moreover, the arts become a special thing that happens in a specific place and time, rather than something threaded through life.

8) We don’t know what arts funding is for. Is it to support art that cannot survive in the commercial market?–To make the art that doesn’t sell? Is it to enure artists can make a living? Is it to diversify the cultural scene?–To enable anyone from any background to access any artform, as artist or audience? Is it to strengthen the sustainability and economic potential of the Creative Industries? –To invest for a greater return? Because these different and sometimes mutually-exclusive aims are muddled together, we have a muddled and directionless approach to arts funding.


1) Artists’ unions to negotiate pay rates with funding bodies, and funding bodies to refuse funding to any organisation which does not meet those rates at every level.

2) Arts executive pay for funded organisations to be capped at a 3:1 ratio to that of the lowest-paid worker (including maintenance staff).

3) For every administrator or producer employed by a funded organisation, an artist must also be given a full-time job making art. Alternatively, funded bodies must dedicate at least 50% of their annual budget directly to artists.

4) Professional and community arts to be managed by the same public agency, with a ratio of funding to be determined following research (but 50:50 seems like a good one to aim for to me). That is, for every £1 spend employing someone within a professional arts organisation (i.e. one that employs artists), £1 is given in to a community arts organisation (i.e. one that provides free/supercheap access to creative activities).

5) Funding bodies to have explicit policies to favour workers’ co-operatives, i.e. arts organisations which are owned and democratically-managed by their workers. At least, as an interim stage, funding bodies to support the development of workers’ co-operatives through training, starting with their own staff.

6) Artists’ unions to establish new closed shop venues and publishers, &c., or to negotiate with existing organisations to establish closed shops, where only union members can work and pay and benefits are fixed.

7) Funded organisations to meet robust diversity quotas for employees, artists and audiences or face defunding. Quotas should be in excess of demographic proportions..

8) Funding bodies to make at least a third of their funds small grants (£1-5k) directly available to artists, with ultra-low entry requirements and monitoring. The “failure” of many of these grants to be accepted and celebrated.

9) Governments to invest in rent-free housing available to artists on application with ultra-low entry requirements.

10) Government-backed arts apprenticeships established, whereby one works at subsidised wages for 1-3 years learning acting or marketing with a guaranteed job at the end of it.

11) Any funding officer in a publicly-funded organisation is seconded for 25% of their time to an organisation any freelance artist can access to help write their funding applications.

12) Arts organisations and non-governmental funders to have an explicit policy of campaigning for unemployment, disability and other social benefits, in recognitionn that these are a crucial form of arts subsidy.

13) No festivals.


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Comments (28)

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  1. Bram Gieben says:

    My suggestion – a limit for how much funding can go to professional artists from the same body. IMO the job of funders should be to find, nurture and develop new talent – not to support established artists whose business acumen is lacking, but who speak funding-ese and know people strategically placed within the arts. In particular, all funding remaining unspent in a fiscal year, whether held by organisations or funders, should be directed towards artists who have not received grants at all.

  2. jack elliot says:

    This was discussed a few months ago on Bella Caledonia

    where there was a passioned demand for crowd-funding


    With the collapse in governing from Westminster


    Is it now a view for private rather than public

    to produce art to consume and enjoy all

    For us here in Scotland


  3. jack elliot says:

    This was discussed a few months ago on Bella Caledonia

    where there was a passioned demand for crowd-funding


    With the collapse in governing from Westminster

    Is it now a view for private rather than public

    to produce art to consume and enjoy all

    For us here in Scotland

  4. L says:

    so who is running the workshop and writing the strategy? is it really Scot Gov or are they hiring consultants on vast fees to do it for them?

    1. Marcia Blaine says:

      It’s always consultants. You should know that by now.

  5. Alf Baird says:

    Scottish culture is not just about artists in Scotland, culture is about all of us Scots, what we do and how we do it. “a Scottish culture strategy” must have at its core the Scots language. Without the Scots language there can be no Scots culture. The Scots language is what makes the Scots culture distinctive, unique, and language is the most essential element of any culture. Like any other self-respecting nation, we should teach reading and writing of the Scots language to oor bairns an aw fowk, but we don’t; we haud fowk doon, we oppress them and discriminate agin thaim wha spik Scots. One barrier to change, ‘freedom of speech’ even, is that many across Scotland’s elites who determine such high level strategies are themselves unable to speak Scots, far less write and read in Scots; in other words, our elites are not qualified to lead Scotland’s institutions given they cannot properly communicate with the majority of Scots. In the absence of any significant Scots language initiative (e.g. a Scots Language Act), I would suggest the elites running this workshop change its title to “An Anglo-Scottish culture strategy”, which is what it is, and what it will inevitably be.

    1. Alf Baird says:

      Par for the course among Scottish quangos, several of the elites on the high level strategy side of Creative Scotland seem to be ex English Arts Council etc folk. So, ideally qualified to pontificate on Scottish culture then?!? http://www.creativescotland.com/who-we-are/our-people/senior-leadership-team

      Clearly us Scots are juist no guid eneuch tae dae oor ain Scots cultur strategi, ye ken. We need fowk that ken whit thair daein, tae keep us aw richt. E’en tho thay canna spik Scots sae weel thairsells.

  6. GraemeMcCormick says:

    There are various occupations which are poorly paid especially in the cultural, religious, research and sports areas.

    Surely the way forward is to provide a Citizens income of say £10,000 per annum which allows everyone at least to have enough to live on?

    For our society to benefit everyone must have an opportunity to be inspired and release the talent in them. Some achieve that through formal education but others only release it if at all later in life.

    Reducing the pressure of coping with existence would help and enrich us all.

    The Scottish government has the power to introduce a Citizens income now without charging penalty rates of tax. Annual Ground Rent provides the source.

    On another aspect of cultural policy it has been regrettable that political considerations have failed to fund existing Organisations with wide experience and abilities to develop and inspire many people. As an example why did Strathclyde RegionalCouncil decide to create a music school at DouglasAcademy when the combined musical strength and partnership between Paisley Abbey and Paisley Grammar School was a tradition of excellence and innovation which released the talents of thousands of folk down the years from all sorts of backgrounds.

    1. Crubag says:

      £10k per adult per year would cost about £49.6 billion – which is about the same as the entire government (national and local) in Scotland. I don’t see how annual ground rent would make a difference here.

  7. Mathew says:

    Good ideas, particularly 2) and 3).

    1. Alf Baird says:

      Whits wrang wi fower? (Note how every single word is in Scots).

      1. Mathew says:

        Not sure why you’re moaning at me Alf? Not my elite workshop.

        1. Alf Baird says:

          Apologies Mathew – I’m just excited about the prospects for Scots language, more especially once the Scots Language Minister and Cabinet Secr for Scots Culture discovers there is one.

    2. Marcia Blaine says:

      I like the idea of low-entry application process, what we’ve always had has been arcane and absurd; pages and pages on business plans and accounts and whether you’re BME or not. Seems the whole set up is geared to a metropolitan elite good at form filling and this explains they many individuals who get grants time and time again for field trips and conferences. I am sure many ‘friends’ will be at the strategy event. And I don’t suppose the event with its breakouts and plenaries and networking drinkies will be webcast for us in the boonies. Maddening.

  8. Fay Kennedy says:

    You’re always on the richt path Alf, for it has to be the language the mither tongue and there’s none better.

  9. Crubag says:

    Some interesting ideas, but I don’t see the guarantee of a job being a goer – it doesn’t happen in any other sector.

    For those producing art, and wanting to be paid for it, then there is only private buyers (giving people what they want) or government (giving the state what it wants).

    I think there will always be a tension between the art that individual artists want to produce and what the customers want to consume.

  10. Redgauntlet says:

    My suggestions for the cultural revival of Scotland would be the rigorous teaching at school of, say,…

    – Japanese Noh theatre
    – 1960’s New Wave Film Movements, particularly the French
    – Italian Renaissance painting
    – The 19th century Russian novel
    – German Philosophy including and up to Wittgenstein
    – Montaigne, Shakespeare and Cervantes.

    And then, just sit back let the rest happen…

    1. Marcia Blaine says:

      And Giotto, he is my favourite!

      1. Redgauntlet says:

        Giotto? Of course, why not, Marcia. And I failed to mention music, which is the most amazing art of all….

        My point, I guess, is that it is hard to separate culture from education.

        Obviously, Harry Giles is right about capping salaries for arts administrators. It’s a scandal.

        The thing is, Harry, I don’t think that will ever happen. It’s not government’s way of thinking. You’re banging your head against a wall, man.

        What’s more, I think they invite people like Harry Giles to legitimize their own conservative and bureaucracy-driven arts policy.

        There is as much or more interest in creating bureaucrats than there is in creating art and artists in the Scottish government – or any government under neo-liberal capitalism. It’s not a Machiavellian Plan, of course.

        Personally, I think the best thing to do is just ignore Creative Scotland entirely.

        In any case, as a Scot resident in Europe / Brexit bargaining chip, I’m not eligible for any funding from Creative Scotland. See how it’s not really about promoting the arts?

        If Robert Louis Stevenson was alive and writing today, CS would tell him was illegible for funding, cause he doesn’t live in Scotland. And the person doing the telling would probably be English, Australian, American…because our arts administrators tend to be. Bizarre? Slightly.

        Arts funding is about other factors and considerations. Political stuff.

        Good luck, Harry. Make sure to tell us how it goes…

    2. Alf Baird says:

      Nothing wrong with learning about other cultures and what makes them distinctive, i.e. especially their languages. Therefore, “My suggestions for the cultural revival of Scotland would be the rigorous teaching at school of, say,…” the Scots language!

      Withoot thon Scots langage thair isnae ony Scottish cultur, juist an Anglicised fauseheid.

      1. Redgauntlet says:

        Alf, I sympathize with you to an extent, but why don’t you do something about it? Why not go and start a Scots Language group or something like that? Go out into the community and get active on the Scots Language.

        The only way the Scottish Govt will implement a Scots Language policy is if there is a groundswell of support for it. There isn’t just now among the people of Scotland. Go and make it happen, Alf. Why not?

        1. Alf Baird says:

          The way I see it, RG, is that there are many, many people paid a hell of a lot of public money who should be delivering all that a Scots Language Act would entail. It starts with a FM, and a Cabinet Secretary for Culture no less, and her Language Minister. It extends to education ministers, and their officials. And then there are the endless public quangos, including Creative Scotland and the BBC, and the largely bourgeois Gaelic lobby who have pulled the public cash machine for ‘Scots’ indigenous language up behind them. Then there are the schools, hundreds and hundreds of them, and the thousands of language teachers (in English, Spanish, French, German, Mandarin, Gaelic etc – but nae Scots), and the EIS, who insist that all teachers in Scotland must have Higher English, yet have no interest in putting Scots on the curriculum, aside from oor wee bit Burns each January. And then there are the universities in Scotland, some 19 of them, and not one willing to offer a Degree in Scots Language, nor any FE college. No, it is not for me to do the work of hundreds or perhaps even thousands of well paid senior public servants and employees, who choose to ignore the Scots language. All I can do is remind all of them of their neglect, and about the massive cultural renewal and invigorating opportunity that is being missed, which in my view translates into the infamous cringe, and ultimately helps explain why many Scots lack even sufficient confidence in their own nationhood, and vote No.

          1. Redgauntlet says:

            Alf, you’re not going to do anything for Scots by going on about it endlessly below the line. How do you say, “like a broken record” in Scots? Write something above the line about it, eh?

  11. Marcia Blaine says:

    I’d be really interested to see the invitee-only guestlist prepared by the Scottish Government culture department for the ‘gaitherin’ next week. I hope it will not be the usual cronies and funding junkies that these events inevitably tend to attract. Ask the same old questions, get the same old replies and nothing changes.

    1. Redgauntlet says:

      It will be the same as always, and you know it Marcia.

      Such events are obligatory for government, they can’t not convene them, but to expect anything to come from them – after a certain age; I mean we’ve all fallen for such meetings at one time or other – is a sign of naivety / mental infirmity. It is to misunderstand their function and purpose.

      What do governments do? They make policy and create bureaucracy.
      What do artists do? Artists make art (or try to and fail to) and loathe bureaucracy with all their hearts .

      What do these worlds have in common? Nothing.

      Art administrators are not bad people. They are just very different people to the the way most artists are. I used to get angry about it. I don’t anymore. It’s not their fault. They just think differently to us.

      Anyway, “art happens” as Whistler McNeil said…

      My suggestion for Harry, is that he proposes the Edinburgh Festival be suspended for one year and the entire budget be split between low income art community groups / refugees in Scotland.

      That would be ethical. And interesting. What might come out of that?

      1. Marcia Blaine says:

        Such cynicism! If that’s the case why not scale down the bureacracy and have artists apply for funding on a lottery basis? Why, arts organisations would drop like ninepins.

        1. Redgauntlet says:

          Exactly! There is a kind of Greater Law of Bureaucratic Thermodynamics at work, a process which escapes everybody, and which nobody is going to change, because it is in nobody’s interest to change anything fundamental.

          And there are just some things you just can’t do. Harry talks about capping arts administrators salaries. But if Harry goes the website of the Scottish Govt, and goes to the jobs section, he will see that any job with the Scottish govt comes with a pay grading, okay? That is just how it works.

          These guys are public functionaries. When you talk to somebody at CS, you are talking to a Civil Servant. Once you get that into your head, everything becomes clear and you realize it’s better to just ignore them.

          Imagine you were a farmer talking to somebody from the Dept of Agriculture? What would you expect but bureaucracy, absurd rules, and deaf ears? Fill in this form, fill in that form, you can do X you can’t do y…

          Harry Giles is like a farmer going to an open day held by the Dept of Agriculture….

        2. Redgauntlet says:

          Harry is off next week to discuss ways of boosting the output and quality of Scottish beef. Or dairy produce. That is the mindset of the people he is going to be in the room with.

          He might meet a couple of other fellow-feeling farmers who are there too, I guess. And, everything is material (or potential material).

          “A country needs a National Literature like it needs an army or a navy” (Juan Benet)

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