Fear, Loathing and Gentrifying Paradise
In the wake of the latest Creative Scotland funding debacle, Neil Cooper looks at the background and history to arts cuts and venue closures. This is part of Edinburgh and wider Scotland’s Jekyll and Hyde attitude to culture. This is an extract from Scotland 2021 (you can buy it here) from 2016 – our collection of essays on what our policy priorities should be for the next five years? Scotland 2021 edited by Simon Barrow and Mike Small (Paperback) (ISBN: 9780993294235).
On April 27th 2016, eight days before the May 2016 Scottish Parliament Election, I went along to a Cultural Hustings which had been organised by the Scottish Artists Union at Out of the Blue in Edinburgh. The Scottish Artists Union is a visual artists lobbying body set up like other trade unions such as Equity and the Musicians Union to protect the employment rights of its members, particularly where issues of professional fees are concerned.
Out of the Blue is a community-based arts trust based in an old army drill hall in Leith. It is a mixture of studios, exhibition and meeting spaces and offices for small arts organisations. There is a cafe there too, and there’s music sometimes as well, though nothing too late or too loud, because it’s in a residential area. A promenade production of the stage adaptation of Irvine Welsh’s novel, Trainspotting, was on there as well, which was produced by a young unfunded theatre company called In-Yer-Face Theatre.
Out of the Blue originally began in 1994 as a shop-front gallery space in Blackfriars Street, just off the High Street, which later moved down the road to an old bus depot on New Street, where an initiative that connected artists studios to a music and club venue became better known as the Bongo Club. When City of Edinburgh Council decided to sell the New Street site to developers, the Bongo and Out of the Blue were forced to find new homes. While the Bongo moved into the University of Edinburgh’s old Moray House student union, Out of the Blue took over the old army drill hall where it is now based, and where the cultural hustings took place.
The Bongo, meanwhile, was eventually forced to move again after the University of Edinburgh decided to convert the old Moray House site into offices. The Bongo moved into a space beneath Central Library which had been christened the Underbelly after Edinburgh-based site-specific theatre company Grid Iron produced a promenade show about food and sex called Gargantua there in 1998. Despite naming the venue, Grid Iron are not connected with Underbelly Productions, the London-based arts company who take over the space in August during the Edinburgh Festival Fringe, when the Bongo Club temporarily moves out.
Meanwhile in New Street, the old bus depot that housed the original Bongo Club and Out of the Blue was flattened by developers to build something called Caltongate. A wave of public protest did nothing to prevent the development, while assorted financial crashes conspired to leave a gap site in New Street for more than a decade.
When new developers came on board and the project now branded as New Waverley picked up the pieces, further public protest was again ignored, both by City of Edinburgh Council’s planning department, and by the developers themselves. Somewhere along the way, a salve to culture was given by way of granting the Hidden Door pop-up festival access to house the 2014 festival in the old arches that had lain derelict and unoccupied on Market Street for years prior to development.
In a newspaper interview in April 2015, the convener of CEC’s Planning Committee described the site of the development’s former use as ‘a bus station’. He made no mention of its decade long tenure as the Bongo Club. Whether ideologically calculated or blissful ignorance, the statement was telling of a civic ignorance about Edinburgh’s year-round arts landscape.
At time of writing, a bunch of what are described as artisan retail outlets have opened up in the now cleaned-up arches. It’s all being housed under the collective name of The Arches. Which, given that the Glasgow arts venue and club also called The Arches was forced to close down in 2015 after Police Scotland recommended that Glasgow Licensing Board revoke the late license that brought in the venue’s main revenue stream, is accidentally but deeply ironic.
But at the Cultural Hustings at Out of the Blue, it’s unlikely that any of the six candidates on a panel hosted by Jim Tough were aware of much if any of this. This is understandable, because unless you live on Leith’s doorstep and are keeping an eye on this kind of stuff, these things tend to get wiped out of history along with the bricks and mortar that made it. Jim Tough might know some of it. He’s Executive Director of the Saltire Society, and used to be Combined Arts Director and then later Chief Executive at the Scottish Arts Council, Scotland’s arts funding body that was given a glossy make-over and transformed into Creative Scotland.
As dysfunctional as the SAC could be sometimes, Jim Tough was one of the better things about it. Prior to working at the SAC, he established WHALE (Wester Hailes Arts for Leisure and Education), and probably knows more about arts access and all the other things being discussed at the Cultural Hustings than anyone else in the room combined, party reps included.
The Cultural Hustings featured representatives from six parties; Conservative, Labour, Lib Dem, SNP, Green and Rise. Tough read out a message from the local UKIP candidate regarding their thoughts on culture, which advocated the positive aspects of a night in the pub. No arguments there. Each representative then introduced themselves by outlining their own policies on arts and culture, before they took four pre-arranged questions from SAU members.
These introductions focused on access, cultural strategy, the state of Creative Scotland, the importance of art in people’s everyday lives, the potential for arts funding increases, and notions of aspects of the arts being ring-fenced off for an elite. In response, the four questions raised issues of whether public galleries which charge admission fees are elitist, the fact that most artists lived below the poverty line, the creation of trusts to run public art spaces, and thoughts of furthering Scotland’s links with Europe.
I’ll leave the reader to work out which party talked about what, and what their respective responses were to the four questions, although the full evening has been storified by the SAU on Twitter, complete with on-the-spot caricatures by cartoonist Terry Anderson.
Given the time restraints, no further questions could be taken from the floor. While this was a shame, given the format it was understandable, although it meant that things never really let rip beyond respective party lines.
There were two questions I wanted to ask at the cultural hustings. While it may be unfair to the party reps to ask those questions here, now they’ve no right to reply, I’ll ask them anyway, with a few thoughts of my own thrown in for still slightly unfair measure.
The two questions I would have asked the six political party representatives at the Cultural Hustings hosted by the Scottish Artists Union at Out of the Blue in Edinburgh on April 27th are:-
What are your views on the Agent of Change principle?
How do you intend to prevent property developers using grassroots arts and culture as a short-cut to gentrification?
These are really the same question, and relate to the opening pre-amble as much as what follows.
It’s important that an event like the SAU’s Cultural Hustings was held in Out of the Blue, which is a pillar of how arts and culture develops from a community-based grassroots. It was significant too that we were in Leith, an area which the political establishment and the moneyed establishment are starting to realise is, was, and always has been a place where art and culture thrives.
This can be seen in events such as the annual Leith Late festival, which each year hosts a now thriving array of arts happenings in bars, shops and church halls in the neighbourhood. There are independent artspaces such as Rhubaba, situated in an old warehouse on Arthur Street, and the Embassy, in a room beneath a yoga centre off Broughton Street. There is new music venue, Leith Depot, housed in what until recently was regarded as the worst pub in the city, and grassroots drama in the Village Pub Theatre.
The Biscuit Factory is a magnificently dilapidated space that houses exhibitions, events and club nights, and which in the morning smells like the early days of the Arches (Glasgow version). There is also the ongoing rebirth of Leith Theatre, a long neglected venue that once housed international theatre during Edinburgh International Festival as well as touring main-stage bands. All of these are within walking distance of Out of the Blue. There is Leith Dockers Club, immortalised on film in the Dean Cavanagh and Irvine Welsh scripted TV movie, Wedding Belles. And there is Pilrig Church, where DIY music promoters Tracer Trails used to run an annual mini festival called Retreat!, and where spoken-word night Neu! Reekie! holds its annual Burns Supper.
This is all great, but also within a stone’s throw from here are four supermarkets owned by multinational companies, and which exist a few blocks from each other, pricing local businesses out to the extent that at least one corner shop has recently closed, unable to compete. After being brutalised once in the 1960s, Leith Street is about to undergo a second wave of renewal by way of a hotel development. Those behind its design rather fancifully style it as ‘The Ribbon’, though it is is better known locally as ‘The Turd.’
Expensive student flats are being built on every patch of land going, while the community in Lorne Street is being forcibly evicted by a charity who are about to flog what used to be homes but is now mere real restate off to the highest bidder. Edinburgh Football Club social club, up by the Playhouse, where post-punk venue the Nite Club used to be, is about to be converted into flats. This is the case even though it exists above long-standing club bar, Planet, and even though CEC’s Environmental Health department expressed reservations to City of Edinburgh Council’s Planning Committee who granted the move that there may be issues with noise, vibrations and odour from below.
All of which, in one magnificent messy boulevard of broken dreams, sums up, not just Edinburgh’s Jekyll and Hyde relationship with art, whereby the city’s artistic institutions and high-profile festivals up town act as a cover for the far more interesting things that feed them from the shadows of Leith and elsewhere. It also shows how the naked greed of property developers, hoteliers and supermarket chains will use all that great grassroots artistic activity that exists on our own doorstep as a shortcut to gentrification.
All of this, of course, is very, very local. I know this because the Culture Minister, Fiona Hyslop – who, in the spirit of full disclosure, unsurprisingly represented the SNP at the cultural hustings, and was the only person on the panel who had any realistic hope of being elected – quite correctly told me so on social media. This was after I asked her if anything could be done about the fact that the site of the Picture House, the former cinema turned music venue before it was sold off to Watford-based pub chain, JD Wetherspoon, was being converted into a 900 capacity superpub.
Planning permission was granted by City of Edinburgh Council’s Planning Committee Development Management Sub Committe on a six to four vote. This was despite a petition from more than 13,000 local constituents objecting to the move, and despite four members of the fifteen-strong committee being absent, while one member abstained. At time of writing this in May 2016, what was once the Picture House, the Caley Palais and legendary arts venue Cafe Graffiti has been boarded up, with no visible signs of work, since December 2013.
But, given Ms Hyslop’s response to my tweet, when does local cease to be local and become something of national import? This is another question I would have liked to have asked the panel at the hustings, because on the rare occasion that CEC Planning Committee do make a sensible decision and adhere to local democracy, it suddenly becomes a national issue.
This has happened twice in Edinburgh recently. The first was when developers were granted permission on appeal to bulldoze away a restaurant in the Canonmills district so they could build flats. This was despite a high-profile public campaign against the project which resulted in the developers proposals being unanimously rejected by CEC. An appeal by the developer saw the decision overturned by the Scottish Government.
The second and still ongoing incident concerns the long-running saga of the old Royal High School, in which developers and hoteliers proposal to convert the shamefully neglected building into an upmarket hotel was again rejected by CEC planning officials. A counter proposal by St Mary’s Music School to take it over as their new premises that would include a 300-seat concert hall, has also been lobbied. Those behind the long-standing hotel bid have since appealed the decision against them, with a decision coming, again, not from local officials, but from the Scottish Government.
Both incidents are key to how local democracy and local arts and culture can be undermined by wealthy developers who can afford to hire expensive lawyers to take on both a cash-strapped local authority and grassroots initiatives, neither of whom have the financial resources to fight back.
Now that the Scottish Government has set a precedent of over-ruling local decisions and making them national in such a high-profile and undemocratic manner, maybe they should go further. How about looking at the nationally imposed laws on public entertainment licenses, which in 2012 saw the absurd situation of a community group in the Highlands and Islands almost forced to pay a three figure sum to host an Easter egg and spoon race and bonnet competition? This happened because a particular local authority interpreted it as something that was okay because the Scottish Government legislation as written seemed to suggest that?
All of which, in various ways, is related to the Agent of Change principle, which, if implemented, could be the single biggest protector of grassroots arts and culture across Scotland in a way that demonstrates the seemingly contrary relationship between the local and the national in a positive, progressive light.
The Agent of Change principle is an initiative already implemented in Australia that is designed to protect small clubs and music venues in a way that puts them on an equal footing with developers. As it stands, if a developer puts up flats next to an existing venue, and the new residents complain about any noise from a venue which may have existed for several decades, the venue managers are presumed to be the bad guys, and the onus is on them to implement what might well be expensive sound-proofing on top of the regular sound-proofing they already have in place. In extreme cases, licenses can be threatened and venues closed.
The Agent of Change, on the other hand, says that, if a venue is an area first, then it is the developer’s responsibility to provide sound-proofing, while, conversely, if a new venue opens close to residential property, then it is quite rightly the venue’s responsibility to provide sound-proofing. Again, this is protecting the local from big business, whichever side of the fence that business may be on.
At the Out of the Blue hustings, only the Conservative representative on the panel mentioned Agent of Change, although apparently a few days earlier at another hustings that took place at the Wide Days music industry conference it understandably became something of a feature. At that hustings, apparently the Conservative, Green and Rise representatives came out strongly in favour of Agent of Change. Given the common sense of such a move, I hope Labour and SNP are in favour of protecting a grassroots musical culture they pay lip service to, and not supporting the developers who would destroy it.
There are other things a new progressive government should look to. As some of the candidates at the hustings advocated, a universal basic income should be introduced, not just for artists, but for everyone. This not only prevents the stigma of poverty, but opens up possibilities for those beyond a class who can already afford the breathing space to explore artistic endeavours of their own if they so choose to.
That will require a major cultural shift, and with that shift, there needs to be an end to top down thinking and a recognition that cultural strategies, cultural quarters and the managerialist invention of the creative industries are social engineering by any other name. While issues of access, inclusion and diversity in the arts are vital, attempting to define what art people should make or see is at best patronising, both to artists and audiences.
Cultural strategies were not responsible for the work of Robert Burns, Walter Scott, Irvine Welsh, J.K. Rowling or Ian Rankin. Nor can any cultural strategy take the credit for the work of Rebel Inc, Neu! Reekie!, Rally & Broad and the flourishing new wave of spoken-word nights that proliferate in Edinburgh and beyond. Nor were Bill Forsyth, Lynne Ramsay and Andrea Arnold part of any cultural strategy.
Edwin Morgan, Liz Lochhead and now Jackie Kay may have all been worthy Makars, but they were and remain artists of their own making first and foremost. As do Alasdair Gray, James Kelman, Janice Galloway and a new generation of fiction writers who followed in their wake. Rachel Maclean may be representing Scotland in the Venice Bienale, and Young Fathers may be playing the Edinburgh International Festival, but they became they artists they are out of something that has bugger all to do with cultural strategies. Artists make art, plain and simple. Bureaucrats strategise and categorise them at their peril.
Cultural strategies can’t even take credit for the Glasgow Miracle, a superstitiously loaded rabbit’s foot of a phrase which would rather put faith in some unspecified invisible force than the unique set of social, political, cultural and geographical circumstances that made all the Glasgow-based artists that cultural strategies have never been responsible for so world-beatingly successful.
No-one told Jim Haynes, Richard Demarco and all the others to start the Traverse Theatre, and no-one told Andy Arnold to start-up the Arches. To be regarding the latter, if Glasgow hadn’t been European City of Culture in 1990, it might never have happened, even though the Arches had never been part of any official plans.
The sad closure of the Arches, one of the world’s greatest venues for young performers to develop their work, is social engineering of the worst possible kind. It is a damning indictment too of an ideology-led decision which decrees that forms of culture seen by some as a threat will be shut down, no questions asked. The same thing happened when Glasgow’s city fathers banned punk gigs in the 1970s, and when the Criminal Justice Act in the 1990s attempted to outlaw club culture. All any of those incidents succeeded in doing was to politicise those involved in those scenes and help make them savvier to institutional interference.
The notion of cultural quarters, meanwhile, is a dishonest and dead-eyed phrase designed to make property developers money. Cultural quarters are short-termist pursuits that gentrify areas once pumping with messy freeform energy before those developers rip the heart out of them even as they remain happy to trade on those areas’ glorious unlegislated pasts. See New York, Berlin, London and beyond.
As for the Creative Industries, as the phrase itself points to, the idea of putting two seemingly contrary words together and forcing them to mean something looks clever, but think about it for a minute and it isn’t really. Yet there is a generation of arts bureaucrats out there who went on expensive management training courses and came out believing they were leaders who are evangelical about such guff.
Listen to any arts bureaucrat giving evidence at Holyrood about, say, the ongoing inability to support a film industry which has been trying to get backing for a permanent film studio to be built for decades now, and while individual words might sound impressive, strung together in such a way they are rendered as meaningless as the word ‘Creative’ itself has become.
It’s like ‘Centres of Excellence’ and ‘Emerging Artist.’ They mean well, these big, buzzy, soundbitey phrases that are there, initially at least, to try to justify flagship arts buildings with a sweep of triumphalism in the former, or to empower those taking baby steps as artists in the latter. In the end, however, these phrases become as reductive as the ideologies they sprang from.
And so to Creative Scotland, which almost imploded in 2012 following an artists revolt in response to what appeared to be an organisation more interested in itself rather than the artists and organisations it was there to serve. The language used was the sort of managerialist twaddle outlined above, while those in charge appeared to believe they were curators or producers rather than the administrators they were. The pictures of the CS team at the Cannes Film festival as artists earning below the minimum wage struggled to fill in incomprehensible funding application forms didn’t help much either.
Creative Scotland have really tried since the organisation’s then CEO was ushered out of Waverleygate, the former post office where arty types used to cash their dole cheques in what used to be regarded by many as an Arts Council grant by stealth, but converted into a hot-desking state-of-art paradise. CS brought in a new CEO and brought the artistic community back onside when a palace coup had been brewing. They said they’d changed the language they used, brought in apparently simpler application forms and introduced an open funding stream alongside regularly funded organisations. Which sounded great.
Except that barely a day went by throughout 2014 and much of 2015 when I didn’t stumble on a conversation with artists or else receive unsolicited email and phone calls from artists or those working in established arts organisations who weren’t tearing their hair out trying to wade through one of the new forms. No-one knew who was making decisions. Artists were being turned down for applications with standard letters, and only when those artists appealed did they sometimes discover that the funding stream they’d been advised to go through wasn’t relevant to them. Still, at least no-one was telling them what art they should be making anymore, even if things still resembled the BBC-based mock-documentary sit-com, W1A.
Don’t get me wrong. Creative Scotland has a lot of fine people working for it who are dedicated to the cause more than the likes of me have probably given them credit for in the past. I know of at least one member of CS staff who I regard as a visionary. Unfortunately they are not in charge of the organisation. Nor, I suspect, would they want to be. But until those who are in charge are more open about who is making funding decisions and why, suspicions that they are operating with the same top-down managerialist philosophy as the old regime will remain.
CS recently announced a list of forty-three ‘independent Peer Reviewers.’ Drawn from a open call , these forty-three artists and arts professionals have been appointed by CS to ‘help in the work to deliver an Artistic and Creative Review Framework will advise them on funding decisions.’ At first glance, beyond the lingering managerialist gobbledegook, this looks like a good move, something akin to the SAC’s old panels of assessors drawn from the arts community. And they are all fine names, the new CS 43.
What perhaps isn’t clear is how much influence they will have, and how readily their advice may be ignored as faceless mandarins make their own decisions beyond what may well be little more than a 43 person wall of pseudo-democracy ring-fencing a closed room of unaccountability beyond. And if publicly funded artists need to be accountable, so do publicly funded arts bureaucrats.
I fully appreciate that the 3% funding cut that the Scottish Government has imposed on Creative Scotland when the arts budget should really be doubled makes it difficult to operate effectively. But then, CS cutting regularly funded organisations annual budgets – however difficult that decision may have been for whoever made it – isn’t a good look either.
But beyond funding bodies, if arts and culture are to become central to people’s lives, and not seen as the play-things of the rich, as more enlightened politicians say is the case, they need to experience it from an early age.
At a recent conference on the Declaration of Human Rights act in Glasgow, I was invited to sit on the panel looking at Article 27 of the Declaration, The Right to Participate in Cultural Life. While this gets to the nub of issues of access and diversity, it was acknowledged from the off that ‘Cultural Life’ is such a broad term that it can’t really be pinned down as one particular thing, and that’s fine.
I found myself talking about the Pavilion, Glasgow’s great popular theatre, which, unfunded and largely unsung, packs in the sorts of working class audiences that most subsidised theatres would kill for. It is in the Pavilion, which styles itself as ‘Scotland’s National Theatre of Variety’, and other venues like it, where something akin to a hidden audience take part in a form of culture that isn’t written about in the broadsheets, but which counts just as much.
It is a culture that comes from spit and sawdust social clubs and cabaret that existed long before the pub chains moved in, and which still exist, just about. Once upon a time such places were as key to providing a central base for a local community as church halls were. They are the sorts of spaces too – the Leith Dockers Clubs and the Pilrig Churches – that a younger generation of performers and audiences are returning to beyond the purpose-built but often soulless centres of excellence mentioned earlier.
At the Declaration conference, I also found myself talking about Biffa Bacon, who is one of my favourite characters in adult comic, Viz. Biffa Bacon is a potty-mouthed pastiche of Bully Beef, who terrorised less physically endowed and more bookish looking kids in the pages of DC Thomson’s comic, The Dandy, where his main adversary, Chips, invariably outsmarted his nemesis.
While similar scenarios ensue in Viz, the Biffa Bacon strip has increasingly focused on it’s hero’s relationship with his parents, who take bullying their son to surreal and grotesque heights. There have been moments, however, when, left to his own devices, Biffa has simpered over the simple beauty of a flower, or, in one strip, sat on the sofa attempting to read a book.
Both incidents of solitary reflection have ended abruptly after Biffa’s parents burst through the door and, on spotting such deviant behaviour, thrash him several inches beyond his cartoon life on the grounds of being a ‘dorty great heem-a-sexual’ or something equally colourful. Where Biffa could be a back-street auto-didact discovering the joys of art and literature, he ends up brutalised, semi-literate and chock-full of hand-me-down aggression bordering on the murderous.
This is where education comes into play at its most broadest. If one library is closed, if one school can no longer afford theatre trips or music tuition, if one school can no longer bring visiting writers into enlighten students, all because of local authority cuts which have been implemented by Holyrood, the Scottish Government will have failed themselves, the country’s artistic community, and, crucially, future generations of Scottish citizens who might remain as resistant to art and culture as Biffa Bacon’s mum and dad..
Beyond all this, I would urge all those on the panel at the Cultural Hustings as well as all their colleagues, whether in or out of parliament, to do just one simple but very important thing. Get out more. Failing that, at least try to widen your cultural frame of reference. 7:84’s production of John McGrath’s The Cheviot, The Stag and the Black, Black Oil was a theatrical landmark when it first appeared in 1973, and it remains important, as Dundee Rep’s 2015/16 revival has shown.
But quite a lot has happened since then, both in theatre and in other artforms. John Byrne’s The Slab Boys, the National Theatre of Scotland’s productions of Black Watch and Our Ladies of Perpetual Succour, and less obvious but equally thrilling work like This Restless House, Zinnie Harris’ epic reimagining of Aeschyles’ Oresteia, seen recently at the Citizens Theatre in Glasgow.
Contrary to popular belief, the working classes can cope with difficult work as well as the stuff that goes on at the Pavilion. The Citizens is a prime example of this. Back in the 1960s and 1970s, the Gorbals-based theatre was taking Goethe, Schiller and Noel Coward to the masses in a way that has continued under the theatre’s current regime.
All of that is as vital and as important as anything 7:84 did, but go and see Mary Poppins as well. It may not be produced in Scotland, but the touring production the best piece of commercial theatre you’re ever likely to see, and anyone who claims to be or has aspirations to be radical in art or life can learn tons from it. And stop saying opera is elitist. It’s not. Those ridiculously circular arguments about what constitutes high or low art were put out to grass a long time ago, and reviving them is a step back into the dark ages.
Opera is for everyone. Remember Pavarotti in the 1990 World Cup? The tickets are probably cheaper than a football match too. Oh, and art for art’s sake is just fine, thanks. Not all the time, because different artists have different concerns at different points in time depending what is or isn’t going on in the world, and a one size fits all approach just won’t work. And that’s okay too, because no art or artist in any field comes fully formed, and for every work of international genius that defines a moment, it’s usually taken years of unsung experiment to get there. It’s a bit like the early days of a better nation, really. Nobody really knows what they’re doing until they get there.
I’m not sure any of this provides answers to the two questions I would liked to have asked the six political party representatives on the panel at the SAU’s Cultural Hustings at Out of the Blue, but the big tumble of thoughts and feelings they’ve opened up for me at least are indicative of how arts and culture needs to be developed, nurtured and preserved by the incoming Holyrood administration. Because unless the Scottish Government start saying no to property tycoons and starts protecting the grassroots local culture from those who would price it out of existence, then that culture is being strangled at birth. So let’s not gentrify the rough-shod paradise that exists in Leith and other places where culture thrives of its own volition.
The early days of a better nation are already here. Why bulldoze them away?
- Photo credit Eoin Carey for John Brown’s ‘Stuffland’