Summing up the Sessions

By Pat Kane

It was quite a tour, travelling to eight widely distant towns and cities of Scotland, setting up in grand venues and low ceilings, new build and old town, nestled in housing schemes and perched on island promontories – to meet, in a concentrated burst, the kind of people I’ve mostly ever wanted to spend my time with: artists, creatives, troublemakers and mark-makers, and those who enable, support and enjoy them.

And once there, to find myself facilitating a genuinely open space of reform in an important public institution – with all attending bearing the responsibility to seize the moment, under the most public and freely-mediated of conditions. From all sides, we heard concrete plans, evocative language, instructive tales, critical concepts, undervalued histories and experiences.

What we did is all up here, on the bountiful Net: a considerable mentation on the purpose and direction of the support of cultural and creative activity in Scotland – something to be mined and utilised in the future, as we all have the time to spare. I hope the process we started builds and builds. And that “open” is a door that never, to be honest, needs to be locked shut again.

However, I would like to take the blogger’s and facilitator’s right to attempt a summary of the CSOpen process. This will be shaped and selected no doubt by my own predilections and commitments – though I will try to feel the whole of the material. Regard this as one final, showboating riff at the end of a long, furrow-browed but rewarding session.

For me, one of the obvious findings from the CSOpen sessions is that the language, and thus the policy, around the distribution and usage of Creative Scotland’s resources must change. The greatest and most common anxiety was that a “financialised” and “corporatised” language – “investment”, “value/outcome” and “strategic commissioning”, rather than, say, “funding”, “quality/excellence” and “artistic support” – had become too dominant in the operations of Creative Scotland.

Independently and separately from several of the speakers, with a considerable positive response from the hundreds attending the sessions, the analysis was offered that an ill-considered (or lazily adopted) “creative industries” paradigm had gripped both the preparation stages for, and the early years of, Creative Scotland.

The absurdity that CS, in exercising its responsibility for “arts, screen and creative industries”, might be responsible for every one of the activities in that third term, was regularly and widely noted. (The standard 1997 DCMS definition includes advertising, art and antiques, design, designer fashion, software/electronic publishing, digital/entertainment media and architecture – areas hardly or ever touched by CS, which mostly deals with the CI categories of publishing, film/video/photography and music/visual/performing arts).

There was one consistently expressed worry from most participants. How could the classic DCMS definition of creative industries – “those industries which have their origin in individual creativity, skill and talent and which have a potential for wealth and job creation through the generation and exploitation of intellectual property” – ever happily sit within the same decision-process that deals with “non-public-facing”, “experimental” or tradition-based artists in fine arts, literature, film or music?

Let alone accept and support, in good faith, the “creative disloyalty”, (Richard Holloway’s still-resonant words) which might motivate artworks that question or trouble the basic goals of “wealth”, “job creation”, and the “exploitation of intellectual property” in the first place?

David Hume

“Truth springs from argument amongst friends” – David Hume

Yet what might have threatened to be an all-too-predictable gulf between “art for art’s sake, money for god’s sake” – and one that several voices from the floor warned about – turned out to be, in retrospect, a much more constructive and fertile discussion. “Truth springs from arguments amongst friends”, as Dumfries-based sculptor Matt Baker inspiringly quoted from David Hume. Some fascinating ideas emerged from exchanges in a room over a few hours between those self-identifying as “arts”, and those as “creative industries”.

But before outlining them, what should be briefly noted is the way the process and experience of the “sessions” themselves are themselves a model for the kind of organisational changes Creative Scotland needs to consider for itself (and maybe other public organisations too).

These were properly resourced, yet freely-attended conversations (within the limits of each venue); conducted widely across the country’s geography, with the content and value of each sessions properly honored, recorded and disseminated. For friends to argue (and the truth to spring forth), “friendly” conditions – meaning convivial spaces, evident mutual respect, and open-ended dialogue – must exist to begin with.

I am a commercial musician and writer, whose creative life has always involved grappling with technology, aesthetics/values and market conditions. So for me, one of the most fascinating strains in the CSOpen dialogue between “arts”, “screen” and “creative industries” was how the impact of “the digital and internet revolution” pointed to new ways of thinking about old cultural-policy conundrums.

  • The massive “convergence” of media across screens, devices and networks was a huge commercial opportunity – but in order to be original, interactive content creators needed the kinds of zones for non-market experimentation that the more conventional arts get from their public support. How could we build those?
  • Those alive to the contributory nature of much networked culture and behaviour – whether crowd-creation, or crowd-funding – reached out to traditional companies and artists, hoping to share tips about community or motivation. What new kinds of collective art could be made?
  • Films were now being viewed everywhere – mobile device, HDTV, laptop, on pay-per-view and open web – and not just in commercial “theatrical release” (its commercial strictures too high a bar for most Scottish filmmakers to get over). Could a new justification for an “arts” approach to film-funding be derived from this new “convergent” age. Where (in May Miles Thomas’ words) “all films are equal”, on a myriad of screens? And where supporting a film culture for variety and impact would produce more fertile results, in terms of films made, than a hard-nosed “return-on-investment” model?

These ideas resonated in the rooms of CSOpen, bringing forth their own refinements and responses (in the best Humean spirit). There were, both from attendees and speakers, some strong voices in favour of CS’s strategy around the promotion of arts and culture to audiences – for example, its ability to curate and sponsor events and competitions which provide a public platform for Scottish artists, creators and creative communities (Tartan Week, Creative Scots awards, Creative Places, the SAY Awards, the various Fèis or Gaelic Arts organisations).

Yet in my assessment, these voices were surpassed by a deep and consistent scepticism about Creative Scotland itself becoming too much the “news” in these kinds of activities, rather than the news being the artists and creatives they should be supporting. Connected to this was another charge; that the often arcane funding categories of CS’s recent years, and the even more labyrinthine and jargon-laden forms that came with them, were in some degree driven by pressure from the Scottish Government, wanting to demonstrate that arts and culture could produce “outcomes” contributory to national indicators of progress or prosperity.

This bureaucratic anxiety bespoke a corrosion of Creative Scotland’s “trust” (a huge word in the lexicon of these events) in what artists might decide for themselves was a proper “outcome” or “impact” of their art – which itself might be universal, inimitable or unmeasurable by the usual “indicators”.

So a regular call was for simplicity in the organisation’s discourse around funding and support: a clear recognition of, and respect for, what artists wanted to do with their artforms and institutions, by their own lights and energies. And an official language which recognised that reality – the autonomy and ultimate self-direction of artists and creatives.

So yes, CSOpen expresses a strong majority resistance (though not total, and with many subtleties) to a market-friendly language for arts – indeed, the polar opposite to the Coalition minister Maria Miller’s injunction that “art is a commodity”. But I would claim, on another register, that there was a broad, rich and sophisticated yearning for a new framework and vocabulary, by which the “social” and “civic” value of arts could be developed and extended.

Maria Miller

Maria Miller – Secretary of State for Culture,
Media and Sport.

Certainly, terms like “networks”, “local” and “ecology” were used as readily as terms like “project” or “sector” or “organisation”. David Greig the playwright tweeted eloquently during the process that “permaculture” might well be the best metaphor for how a national arts organisation related to its artists: “Work with what you’ve got, minimal intervention, encourage interlinked systems, create conditions where the whole begins to look after itself.”

David Greig's tweet

David Greig’s tweet

From as far afield as Eigg and Dumfries, and given voice from Inverness to Edinburgh, the importance of respecting and fostering peer-to-peer structures of artists and creatives, and finding some way for their expertise and experience to have an increased input into funding decisions, was stressed in every session. This took various forms – from as lofty as a few paid positions for working artists on the Creative Scotland board, to as local as CS semi-voluntary representatives in most counties in Scotland.

But it certainly seemed from these sessions as if many artists and creatives were willing to countenance an increase in their involvement in the administration and strategy of arts policy and resources – if that policy and resource was truly responsive to actual and existing arts practice.

An element of this desire for participation in the structures of arts funding and support was expressed in a frustrated way, as a regular railing against the Creative Scotland Board. It was clear to many that the secretive, corporate process involved in selecting a new CEO for Creative Scotland was in a different universe to the discursive, exploratory space of the Open Sessions. And a regularly expressed worry was that the messages and mood captured by CSOpen might not be properly taken into account by either the selection process, or the new Chief Executive her- or himself.

Macro-level strains on public budgets of all kinds, and the shadow of Moray Council’s cancellation of all arts funding, hung over many conversations in CSOpen. Another regular call was for a new and distinct public role of Creative Scotland. It should become an informed and confident national advocate for the value and worth of the arts, on their own terms; and taking that argument to politicians and managers who might regard it as an “easy” or “soft” target for cuts.

This is a quite different role from a Creative Scotland that, as many noted, seemed at times confused about the idea of the “arms-length principle” between government and arts policy. The organisation got caught up in all manner of thematised Scottish Government “celebrations” of national culture. This confused curation with nation-branding; the self-confidence and diverse strength of Scottish arts should not be regarded as an automatic resource for cultural diplomacy and “brand Scotland”.

Related to this was another regular call for CS to up its research game, and help provide strong intellectual, historical and factual arguments for the value of the arts to society. Yet as many of those bloggers, tweeters and salon organisers whose activism impelled the Creative Scotland “stushie” in the first place regularly said – often speaking within the sessions themselves – this research had to be diverse, supporting critical perspectives as well as more conventional social-economic accounts.

On a personal note, one of the glories of the last year, and something leant on heavily by CSOpen, is the strong, internet-enabled “democratic intellect” around cultural policy (and beyond) that clearly thrives in our artistic communities. How these thinker-practitioners feed their insight and wisdom into CS’s operations requires some complex considerations.

Perhaps we could reimagine the “civic” dimension of support for publishing. There are arguments abroad (and I’ve made them) that journalism – a safeguard of democracy under threat, as its business model collapses – is a “public good” that may need new kinds of public support. Couldn’t independent cultural critique also fall within that argument? Or, would it necessarily then lose its real independence?

And in this pre-Independence-referendum moment, it was inevitable that an open discussion about the purpose, operation and direction of a major public institution in Scotland would touch on wider, more political and structural issues. Our debates encompassed more, much more, than “just knowing what to do and getting on with it”, as one Edinburgh attendee bluntly requested.

Yet while there was one plebiscite taken during CSOpen – a majority decision that Open Sessions should happen again, next year! – it would be accurate to say that most of the political energies expressed here fell short of any explicit constitutional position, and occupied a more fruitful ground around core issues. The troubling deficiencies in our practice of democracy in Scotland; the legacy (and out-datedness) of “neo-liberal” language and analysis, particularly as it relates to the value of culture and the arts; the need to nurture local traditions, grass-roots activity and non-urban communities; and finally, the ambition for artists and creatives to participate in our great societal debates about “sustainability”, “prosperity”, “success”, “wellbeing”, even a “living wage”, drawing on the particularity of their own practice & experience.

No matter what happens at the more momentous levels of self-determination and autonomy, for me CSOpen was a heartening experience. This is what it might be like to live in a small country where power amends and corrects itself when it’s gone in the wrong direction – and does so according to the strength and persistence of an informed, committed discussion between peers and equals. The political theorists call it, rather beautifully, “concertation”. It’s the great promise of living here: that we can face each other open, argue as friends, and then take the next well-founded, collective step.

Of course, let’s see – and please, in any case, keep watching in the meantime. But I now declare the Creative Scotland Open Sessions closed…for necessary repairs, as it were. The doors should be open again, though, soon enough.

**Addendum: this blog was written days before Fiona Hyslop MSP, the Scottish Government’s Cabinet Secretary for Culture and External Affairs, made her speech at the annual David Talbot Rice Memorial Lecture on 5 June, 2013. So much to say about it – and more than happy to, in the comment box below. But suffice to say for now, that it’s nice to see that a minister and her team reads widely, deeply – and openly – in the Scottish blogosphere… Let the conversation continue, and deepen!**