Submission to the Culture Committee of the Scottish Parliament
I want to try to move past the immediate and even medium term impacts of the Virus on, in particular, the performing arts…to more prescriptive ideas about the way forward.
We are under no illusion that anyone can flick a switch between emergency lockdown and “back to normal.” There will be many stages of recovery, which I, like others, have explored elsewhere, each of which will make its own demands and present limited but tangible opportunities on practitioners which will need imaginative responses from management at the level of companies and well as fiscal support which will in turn demand the active participation of local and national government. What I want to argue here and now is that NONE of these stages of recovery, up until and including “the new normal” can realistically expect to subsist on the same administrative and fiscal basis as the industry did just a few weeks ago.
The funding and administrative structure that was put in place for Public Support of the Arts in the late 1940s still underlies the arrangements in place today. My argument is that “the public good” may not be best served in the future by the maintenance of that model. In brief, that paradigm was characterised, similarly to many other public services, by altering the financial means of support for already existing charitable trusts and local authorities. It may be that the broadest interests of the broadest audience and participation in artistic practice 70 years later is still best served by “institution centred” fiscal and administrative structures, but the position paper adopted by the Scottish Parliament in December 2019, well before the pandemic, already argues otherwise. The economic circumstances we will inherit from the coronavirus, over and above the necessary restrictions on audiences, practitioners and participants, especially in the performing arts while the pandemic is of live concern to industry and audiences alike, can only be glimpsed at present, but is likely to make demands upon practitioners that the current structures are ill equipped to fulfil.
In the current context of the pandemic, as well as in its aftermath, it seems self- evident to me that we need to arrive at a consensus NOW as to what public good the arts have served in the past, and could serve in the future in exchange for support through the immediate crisis first, and then in the new economic and social context which will emerge. Although the exact nature of this emergence may be conjectural, we know it’s going to be different, so we should at least contemplate the possibility that the economics and organisation of arts provision must be ready to think previously unthinkable thoughts, potentially painful ones about being different too.
It is my instinct that the system of delivery of both participation and consumption of the arts can be considerably rationalised if we are willing to sacrifice the managerial structures that were already creaking and straining…and failing to deliver for audiences and artists alike.
There have already been instances of new thinking ; that artists should be individually supported at different stages of their careers by an expanded system of residencies and bursaries in recognition of both their potential and actual contributions ; ( I would argue that recognition needs to be given too to contributions in the past and to the potential for mentoring and role modelling); that regional hubs rather than charitable trusts become the default funding and managerial base for arts activities in different geographical areas; that a properly funded touring network with an annual festival to select and fund tours of existing projects be founded in order to lead an expansion and extension of performance and participation with a specific focus on locales of social deprivation and geographical (and social) isolation; that an integrated arts strategy work in tandem with the health service, the education service, services for the physically and mentally challenged, social services for the elderly and other special needs groups.
There is no shortage of ideas around which a progressive set of values and practices might not be constructed. There is enormous scope for a strategically, nationally focussed arts strategy that can expand and integrate arts activity throughout Scottish life, and be projected outward to the world.
But can such an ambition co-exist with competing charitable trusts who are applying to a single money pot being the ultimate employers of staff? With those institutions competing with individuals as well as each other? Is a relationship with each and every theatre board (for example) to be built into conditions of funding for every project and every appointment? Or do we need to look at a much more directed model…of arts provision as a public good that can and must be argued about, given sets of priorities, set goals that are themselves going to be subject to debate?
The “arms length” relationship of government to arts provision is already a tangled and not entirely convincing web of relationships. Might it not be time to jettison pretense, and sometimes hypocrisy, along with an organizational model for the arts that emerged just after the Second World War? Might not the management of the course and the aftermath of the CoronaVirus crisis demand that we think fundamentally about what good we are…all over again?
I do not believe that the regional and social challenges of integrated arts participation is beyond the wit of a dedicated team of people to put together, repairing, for example, the anomaly of half of the cultural spend in Scotland being through untouchable and unreformable National Companies while the other half is more or less a free for all competition to see who is the best at ticking boxes on application forms.
The system was already broken. The model of the old Scottish Arts Council has been eroding in esteem and actuality for fifteen years or more. Lottery funding has more or less entirely taken over as a financial resource from direct taxation, and theatres (for example) make a lot bigger proportion of their income at the box office than they used to. (This being why it is the most successful theatres in box office terms that have been hardest hit by closure and are most challenged by the demands of social distancing). A managerial structure for the theatre, at least, that was already more or less moribund has been delivered a coup de grace. It seems to me to be an exercise in futility to attempt to breathe life into a corpse.
Much better to consider the needs of the population as a whole for a dynamic and participatory model of the arts at EVERY stage of recovery that can challenge the world as well as ourselves, and to consider those needs from the ground up. I suggest the establishment of a grown up and expert commission that can be entrusted with making hard choices, art form by art form, on the basis of a debated and agreed set of values. That in three to five years we look to have a New Deal for the arts in Scotland that is actively supported by the taxpayers and lottery players as well as the artists and audiences of Scotland not as an adjunct to the good life of the few, but of the richer, better life of the nation as a whole.
To effect a better future, or anything resembling one, we need to make a continuous public and political case for the performing arts as a public good. I do not believe we can do that unless we think, talk and act collectively as soon as is humanly possible.