Opinion: Creative Scotland funding announcement has caused outrage

The world of Scottish theatre is outraged at Creative Scotland and here’s why…

Mark Brown argues it’s time for a radical overhaul of arts funding policy

Birds of Paradise
Birds of Paradise theatre company is to lose its funding. Photo: Colin Mearns

Another funding announcement by arts financing quango Creative Scotland (CS), another general outcry. Although specific decisions within Thursday’s announcement of its three-year funding grants seem baffling, even outrageous, the fact that CS has put itself at the centre of another national controversy is depressingly predictable.

CS seems to enjoy being flagrantly contentious. So much so that one playwright suggested to me this week that the handsome remuneration for CS’s senior management team (which ranges from £55,000 to £120,000) might be “flak money”.

And flak there has certainly been over the last few days. In particular, Scotland’s theatre artists (I have yet to hear a single voice in CS’s defence) are outraged that two leading children’s theatre companies (Visible Fictions and the world class Catherine Wheels) and major disabled theatre groups (Birds of Paradise and Lung Ha’s) have been shoved out into the fiscal cold. One might add to that unique street and site-specific theatre company Mischief La-Bas, who have been rewarded for their brilliant, critically acclaimed recent show Nursery Crymes by having their financial support removed.

Leading theatremaker Cora Bissett speaks for many when she expresses herself “disgusted and appalled by the short sightedness” of CS’s latest funding decisions. “If what they are doing is trying to ‘meet the strategic needs of the sector’,” she continues, “I’d really like to know what the hell those needs are.”

I’ve heard it suggested this week that CS might have “something up its sleeve”, a possible “sugaring of the pill” for at least some of the excellent companies who have been stripped of their cash. Even if that turns out to be the case, it would not invalidate the criticisms of the quango. In fact, it would reinforce the perception of CS as an organisation that takes a perverse pleasure in its power to play with the livelihoods of people working in the arts.

CS’s defenders, if such there are, might argue that the allocating of public funds to arts organisations is always going to involve winners and losers. Arts funding is, they might say, an inherently controversial business.

However, the rights and wrongs of specific funding resolutions aside, it should be obvious to anyone concerned with the arts in Scotland that it doesn’t have to be like this. Arts funding does not have to be what I call “an annual carousel of cheers and tears”.

Creative Scotland’s senior management do not have to appear like a bunch of overpaid, self-important bureaucrats who wouldn’t know a coherent arts funding strategy if it knocked on their door wearing a fuschia pink frock and singing “coherent arts funding strategies are here again”.

Of course, we need an organisation, at “arms-length” from government, that takes responsibility for the allocation of public funding of the arts. However, the current alternative to direct political control, namely, a quango led by the “great and the good” (disproportionately, if one takes a glance at the personnel on the CS board, private sector management types and “consultants”), has proved time and again not to be fit for purpose. CS’s relations and communications with artists are extremely poor. As an organisation, it appears to be arrogant and unaccountable.

The very fact that CS is so often in the headlines is proof of its failure. A successful arts funding quango would be one that was little known to the public, because it would be quietly going about its business, running a light-touch funding regime and working closely with artists.

What would this mean in practice? Firstly, it would mean that artistic excellence, rather than CS’s opaque, ever-shifting “strategic priorities”, would be to the fore.

This is not at odds with a commitment to the much-vaunted “social inclusion” agenda. As a working-class teenager, having the opportunity to see top class productions of Shakespeare and Beckett did far more to engage me in the theatre than any well-intentioned, social realist attempts to “show me myself on stage”.

A genuinely responsive Creative Scotland would have permanently open channels of communication with artists, so that perceived problems in the artistic output could be addressed, rather than suddenly punished when funding decisions are announced. It would be able to offer both stability to the best, established artists and opportunities to emerging artistic talent.

The late theatre director and actor Kenny Ireland used to advocate “endowment funding”, whereby established, high-quality artistic companies (such as, I would suggest, Catherine Wheels) would be given a block grant big enough for them to live off the interest. This would not be indefinite, of course, but certainly more permanent, and more stabilising, than the current three-year model.

Such ideas would, I’m sure, be dismissed as unaffordable and/or impractical by CS and the Scottish Government. However, with a concerted political will, there is no reason why our arts funding quango cannot be brought much closer to artists. We need, and urgently, a funding body which will introduce strategies that are coherent, consistent and responsive to the needs of artists and audiences alike.

Mark Brown is the Sunday Herald’s theatre critic

This article was originally published in the Sunday Herald on January 28, 2018


© Mark Brown


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