Artists and audiences deserve better than Creative Scotland
Three years on from the crisis that devastated arts funding body Creative Scotland, Mark Brown, the Sunday Herald’s longstanding theatre critic, writes an impassioned open letter to the Scottish Government’s culture minister Fiona Hyslop MSP
Dear Ms Hyslop,
I have worked as a professional theatre critic in Scotland for more than 20 years (12 of them at this newspaper), and I have never known artists to be as despondent about the state of our arts funding body Creative Scotland as they are today.
Three years ago this very month CS was in crisis. More than 100 artists, including some of the biggest names in the Scottish arts, had signed an open letter expressing their dissatisfaction with the administration of CS chief executive Andrew Dixon. By early December Mr Dixon had announced his resignation.
Today, almost two-and-a-half years into the leadership of new chief exec Janet Archer, we should have witnessed a turnaround in CS. Its relations with artists and its communications with them, and with the general public, should have improved markedly. Faith should have been restored in CS’s decision making processes.
However, none of this is true. The reason for this is actually quite simple. The problem with CS was never merely one of personnel. Rather, successive Scottish Governments, including the administration of which you are a part, have got their arts funding strategy wrong.
When Creative Scotland was established in 2010, under the then minority SNP Government, it was quite clear, even in the new organisation’s name, that our politicians had signed up to a philistine, market-driven ideology of “creative industries”.
Our arts funding body was rebranded along the lines of the business-centred ethos of Tony Blair’s “Cool Britannia” experiment. Following his first election in 1997, Blair invited high profile artists into his oily embrace on the basis that they were good for British business.
CS springs from the same, murky stream. Take, for example, its recent “draft creative industries strategy” document, which is so full of ridiculous, market-obsessed jargon that it reads as if it was written by a semi-literate business studies undergraduate.
The document is aimed, CS tells me, not so much at all “creative industries” as at what it terms “sustainable creative businesses”. This, presumably, means the likes of firms of architects and computer games makers, who have a greater money making capacity than most mere artists.
I say “presumably”, because the terminology of the document is, typically for CS, ludicrously opaque.
The economic benefits of the arts to Scotland are obvious to everyone. However, acknowledging the value of the arts to the economy is one thing, making them a mere instrument of it is quite another.
The success of a business can be easily measured. One need only look at the balance sheet.
The success of a work of art is impossible to measure. Great art enhances us intellectually, emotionally, psychologically and, dare I say it, spiritually. Its impact upon human lives cannot be quantified by accountants.
We should never forget that Vincent van Gogh, many of whose works are now among the most expensive in the world, barely sold a painting during his own lifetime. Living in penury and dependent on his loving and indulgent brother, Theo, he was not what CS calls a marketable “micro business”. If Vincent had been required to seek support from CS, rather than his sibling, I suspect he would have cut his throat rather than his ear.
It is often said that the health of any society can be measured by the position of women within it. I would add to that a further observation: the maturity of any democracy can be measured in the degree of freedom the political system permits to artists.
By this I mean not just freedom from censorship, or even freedom from the well-intentioned (but misguided) demands of political correctness (why should artists carry a disproportionate burden of “social inclusion” where the politicians have so palpably failed?). I also mean freedom from the kind of processes employed by CS, which put the demands of bureaucracy and the market ahead of the requirements of art.
CS comes across as an organisation that is out of touch with artists and audiences. It appears to function, first-and-foremost, to justify its own existence.
If you wanted to be cynical you might say this is inevitable in a top-heavy organisation led by a chief exec on £115k, supported by nine board members earning between £55k and £90k (salaries that are beyond the wildest dreams of most artists in Scotland).
How else do you account for CS’s decision, this time last year, to refuse the application for stable support from Untitled Projects (UP), the theatre company led by the brilliant, award-winning director and designer Stewart Laing?
UP has created some of the most exciting theatre seen in Scotland in recent times, yet CS preferred to fund Rapture Theatre, a company whose output might be described as “variable” at best. The result of this, frankly, mind-boggling decision is that UP has been put into mothballs.
This judgement proved that CS is insufficiently aware of the terrain of Scottish theatre. New Edinburgh International Festival director Fergus Linehan’s invitation to UP to present its show Paul Bright’s Confessions Of A Justified Sinner during the 2015 Festival highlighted the absurdity of CS’s position.
So, what should be done about CS? Rip it up and start again, as Orange Juice sang in 1982.
As the Scottish Government/CS long list of “creative industries” (which includes the performing arts, the visual arts, music, architecture, computer games design and textiles) makes clear, CS has simply too many responsibilities. The architecture and design companies should be looked after by a separate design council, the artists by a new, streamlined arts council.
The latter should return arts funding in Scotland to first principles: i.e. listening to artists and audiences, quietly going about the business of promoting excellence and innovation in the Scottish arts.
The pro-market dogma of “creative industries” should be dumped, and the new arts council founded on a simple statement from Albert Einstein: “Not everything that can be counted counts, and not everything that counts can be counted.”
This open letter was originally published in the Sunday Herald on November 15, 2015
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© Mark Brown