Pat Kane’s Aberdeen Blog

The Lemon Tree in Aberdeen

The Lemon Tree in Aberdeen

Our last Creative Scotland Open Session took place in Aberdeen’s The Lemon Tree venue. This is not just a long-standing crucible for great music and performance in the city. It’s also a place whose walls must contain at least one micro-layer of my own perspiration, as a result of the many kicking funk-soul gigs your doughty blogger has performed there over the last 20 odd years.

Strangely calming, then, to be in that room during daylight with a bunch of thoughtful aesthetes, bringing our deep and wide mutual exploration of the direction of arts policy in Scotland to a pause.

We’ve done well, I think, to invite as speakers some of the most penetrating and enlightening critics of CS, over its first two years of operation – hopefully in the spirit of the David Hume quote, cited by Matt Baker a few sessions back, that “truth comes from an argument between friends”. So it was a delight to actually meet the now de-anonymised David Morgan, a Scottish dramaturg based in Liverpool, whose blog Stramash Arts was an essential voice in 2012’s “stooshie”.

David’s presentation, like many of the critical voices we’ve curated, sought to put the specific complaints about CS’s past operation in a much wider systemic and political context. As much as being about arts policy and the distribution of public funds, the “stramash” around Creative Scotland held general lessons for how we do accountability, participation and information in Scottish public life.

David took us through a slideshow of 7 “exhibits” to prove this point. He began with the rocky outcrops of Iceland’s Thingvellir National Park – where the longest running parliamentary democracy in the world began, a place protected in perpetuity from any kind of development, and which should inspire a culture of open discussion of issues in Scottish life. “The big failing of Creative Scotland Mark One” was the alienation generated because artists and creative felt “there was no room for debate or dissent”.

He then asked a interestingly simple question: Why should we care about whether we have a free culture of dissent or not? The next exhibit was a two-fingered image of the US property developer Donald Trump (and a video – from the documentary You’ve Been Trumped – of local police doing the tycoon’s bidding, by manhandling protesters against his Aberdeen golf course).

Secondly Vitol’s Ian Taylor, a funder of the Better Together campaign in the Independence referendum, whose public record as a dealer with oil regimes and associated military figures was highlighted by the website National Collective, which organises artists and creatives for the Yes campaign.

David left the point implicit – but these are both examples of the high stakes involved in taking the right to publicly comment on, and protest against, powerful figures in Scottish life.

Third came Lord McCluskey, who chaired the McCluskey report on press regulation in Scotland. His attempt to bring blogs, tweets and other social media publications under the same regime as press papers, would have (in David’s view) ensured that his critical blog Stramash Arts wouldn’t exist – and thus would have rendered stillborn the protests against CS. Next, an image from an article in the Herald on how employment exit deals were gagging NHS whistle-blowers; after that, a picture of a protest march against the government’s anti-sectarian legislation, with its tight monitoring of blogs and social media.

And finally, an image of Janice Galloway, whose winners’ statement in the Scottish Book of the Year Award was subject to an editorial process which asked her to remove references to “a time of national funding haemorrhage in the arts” (the “nation” referred to was in dispute).

Janice Galloway

Janice Galloway

David’s general anxiety is that these are examples of trends towards “stifling criticsm, debate or free speech” in Scotland life – all of them stemming from a conflict of values that need to be surfaced. Creative Scotland has participated, to some degree, in this suppression of value conflicts. For example, would the Daily Record really have been chosen as the media partner of the Creative Scotland awards, suggested David, if consideration had been given to “the general tone of much of its arts coverage”.

His final exhibit – the proposed “Scottish World” attraction for Loch Fitty, drained in the service of open cast coal mining, designed by Charles Jencks, and the recipient of public funding for Large Public Art – has largely been overtaken by events: the applicant (Scottish Resources Group) cancelled the development and the award was withdrawn. But David’s point was that the very criteria for assessing such developments – “judged principally on the benefits they bring to economy or tourism” – was wrong.

“Whether we’re talking about a golf resort on the Menie Estate or whether we’re talking about a Loch that’s been re-shaped into a map of Scotland it all boils down to the same thing – a conception of our culture that frames the whole of Scotland as a theme park”, concluded David. What values should Creative Scotland, as an organisation, be standing for?

Our next speaker Fiona Robertson, director of the new music festival Sound based in Aberdeen, picked up from David’s anxiety about arts and culture in Scotland being deployed in a global marketing strategy that’s mostly about “golf, whisky and tartan”. The “excitement” of the arts in Scotland – already recognised globally, in no way parochial, self-confidence and thus capable of self-criticism, risk-taking from a place where failure isn’t fatal – had to be primary. The intrinsic value, rather than just economic value, should be recognised by politicians: and public funders should accept that new and innovative work “will never be self-sustaining”, and must find its most appropriate audience size. The regions must be supported as much as the Central Belt: and on a similar theme, the arts organisations of a small country like this should be relentlessly collaborating with each other. And instead of instrumental tuition being cut in schools, something like Sistema Scotland should be nationally rolled out.

Children attending Sistema Scotland in Stirling.

Children attending Sistema Scotland in Stirling. Photograph: Murdo Macleod

In terms of what CS had to do to respond, one of Fiona’s strong assertions was that arts education in Scotland was parlous, reducing the level of engagement and appreciation of boundary-pushing art among future audiences. CS had a strong advocacy role here with educators – as it also had with pushing the primary value of the arts to ministers and bureaucrats, and in brokering collaborations between companies.

Amidst now familiar pleas for more sectoral expertise in the grant-making panels, simpler language and applications forms, and less self-promotional “flim-flam”, Fiona made an interesting and striking point about CS being a “partner” organlsation, not just a “funder”. If you’re in a position to give someone money, you’re in a position of power over them. Fiona suggests that we study NGO thinking around “reducing” this power, “so that they can be partners on an equal basis as possible. Creative Scotland needs to look at ways of doing a similar thing with the organizations it funds”.

And one final and very specific plea from an Aberdonian: no more 10am meetings in the Edinburgh HQ, please!

Simon Thoumire, musician and founder of traditional music promoters Hands Up For Trad, took the Lemon Tree’s wee stage next. He described himself as “not really an academic or thinker – but I’m an ideas man, I like to make things happen”.

And he was generally supportive (from personal experience of the support given to his own organisation) of the way that Creative Scotland “backed and believed in ideas”. Though given that the formation of the organisation had brought both overall staff cuts, and a considerable increase in responsibilities (with screen and “creative industries” now part of its remit) Simon asked for some sympathy for CS staff operating under such conditions.

If its remit could be more tightly defined, Simon confessed to quite liking the financialised language of “investment” being used in funding. “To me, it means they believe in me – and yes, I think there could be a financial return too”. But funding titles could be better. For example, he had steered musicians to apply for “Quality Production” funds, in order to help their CDs get funded, during a difficult time in the music industry. “But why don’t you just say that’s what it’s for?”

Simon noted that CS’s Ideas Bank (now discontinued for 2013/14) still held promise as pathway for arts to propose “maverick” projects – ones which don’t clearly fit an existing strand, but which with mentoring and guidance might well sophisticate those strands further.

Hands Up For Trad was massively ambitious – running courses, award ceremonies and summer schools – but there could be a limit on ambition from the way partnership funding is constructed. 10% of project costs are required from the applicant before an application can be made – yet if that proportion is £40K, rather than £10K, it can be daunting. Could CS set up a “corporate” department whose service was to line-up sponsors and art projects, to help at this level?

Discussion, feedback and further ruminations

There was a strong urge to pick up the question of a deficit in arts education, flagged up by Fiona Robertson. The writer John Aberdein, in this context, wanted to stress the importance of an extended early play education, as the foundation for an appreciativeness of the arts later on. One voice urged us to remember older as well as younger generations in this: adult learning projects in Edinburgh, or the Northern Art Club, helped retired people who’d missed out on creativity in their earlier lives to catch up – and become an avid audience for the arts.

Mary Bourne added that this was a geographical question too – arts practitioners need to be in an area for arts education to have a point, and “in quite a lot of rural areas its hard to function as an arts professional”. Another voice suggested that we look at the Arts Council England’s idea of an arts award for young people who want to learn an artistic craft or skill.

On hand to answer some of these points were two CS executives  – Iain Munro, interim CEO, and Barclay Price, a CS board member and director of Arts & Business. Iain pointed out the “long, slow burn” of Creative Scotland’s initiatives in education – building networks, putting arts and creativity at the heart of the Curriculum for Excellence. £10m a year was already devoted to the Youth Music Initiative – but Iain asked us to watch out for the coming ten-year-long Youth Arts Strategy, which will ensure that any child’s entry point into arts expression will have access to an “escalator” of skills and training, if they want to take it further.

And on the question of other generations’ involvement in arts, Barclay Price respectfully suggested that the Luminate Festival addressed that pretty well – and was an example (not much praised in these Open Sessions, I’d have to honestly note) of Creative Scotland’s ability to “package things together”.

I See You Performance at Luminate Festival

I See You, Belgian Dance company Kabinet K perform a tender piece featuring three generations at Luminate Festival. Photo: I See You

A growing demand across the Open Sessions has been for CS to assume a much stronger research role, in terms of the effectiveness and impact of the arts, but way beyond any strictly economic measurement. Ashley Smith Hammond of Culture Sparks wanted much more research in the area of how artists and creatives could best interface with audiences  – “we all have lots of ideas on how we think it works but we need evidence to prove that things do work, that lives are made better”.

My own anxiety was that this kind of research might close things down for artists as much as open them up: we needed subtle rather than overly causal research. Ashley responded that it could help ask the questions “who are you here for? How can you make better connections with certain groups?” Could answering these questions generate a larger, citizenwide endorsement for the value of the arts? Alastair Evans from Creative Scotland again distanced himself from the purely economic case for the arts made by the UK Coalition government’s Maria Miller recently – “we also want to know about its impact socially and on communities”.

Yet as the saying goes, what gets valued gets measured – and David Morgan wanted to remind us about the trickiness of certain value-systems being applied to the arts. In particular, the notion of a practice being “added-value” – an innovation or novelty worthwhile because it brings new revenue and markets – had to be resisted in terms of artistic practice. How could “cultural value” (a concept also increasingly relevant in CSOpen) assert itself against a view that could easily see funding for the arts as a “net drain on the economy”?

Our entire political culture, continued David, can only understand or advocate in purely economic terms. “It’s a complete evacuation of moral authority – what about doing things just because it’s right?” Shakespeare – or at least the performances and productions of his works – did employ a lot of people, retorted Barclay Price - yet he felt that the Scottish Cabinet did understand a bigger, richer picture of the arts in comparison to England. “What do we actually call our history in Scotland?” asked Barclay. “It is the arts” – to which, a round of applause.

And what of making arts in Aberdeen itself? Eloidie Careme was surprised at how “monochromatic” the room was. “Am I in the right place? I expected to see more crazy styles. I’d like to see more openness in the creative industries up here”. The Tivoli Theatre’s Brian Hendry noted that Aberdeen may be the third largest city in Scotland, but in terms of culture it wasn’t even in the top five. Brian later highlighted the silliness of two Scottish cities an hour apart going for the same City of Culture award: shouldn’t CS orchestrate a more focused and time-separated bid, to give each city its shot?

Nikki Simpson from PPA (Professional Publishers Association) Scotland felt that it was “a shame that the economic benefits of culture were regarded as the big bad wolf – if Scotland is to be a hub for creativity then those activities do need to be sustainable.” But was she saying, like gamers and music operators in previous sessions, that the magazine sector had some innovative or avantgarde directions that it wanted CS to support? Nikki thought that the way Scottish magazines had to extend their brands into events might be a way to help – also that some higher-quality magazines might well benefit from a little bit of start-up money, especially in a local area.

For the last time in these sessions, we sent the group to their tables to answer the questions, “what’s the vision for Creative Scotland, and how do we practically get there?” The entire sheets are here  - but the regular waves of comment and detail that have pulsed through these answers from the first session are worth identifying, as some of them emerged here too:

  • A singular “vision” for Creative Scotland has not sat well with many in these sessions. Shouldn’t vision be the province of the artists they are supposed to support?
  • CS should boost its ability to fund and execute research that makes a strong case for arts funding, on its own and not just economic terms
  • In a harsh, challenging economic climate, CS should be willing to advocate and stand up for artists, against those – national and local administrations, the media, and other parties – who would see it as an easy budget cut during tough times.
  • Its language around supporting the arts should shift from predominantly financial or business metaphors (investment, added value, prosperity) to more developmental ones – support, engagement, mentorship, transparency, funding, partnerships.

Phew! This is my penultimate blog in the CS Open process. It’s been a fascinating journey, both geographical, intellectual and human, across Scotland over these last few months. I will try to write my own summary of the process in a few days time, as a kickstarter to the wider assessment of this material that Creative Scotland needs to do as its next step. As ever, I welcome all comments, corrections, and forward-on’s.



2 thoughts on “Pat Kane’s Aberdeen Blog

  1. Stramash Arts

    Cheers Pat – that feels like quite a comprehensive round up to me.

    The only thing that I’d emphasise here is that my reference to the McCluskey report wasn’t meant to imply that Stramash Arts represented the be-all and end-all of the CS Stooshie. Indeed the exact same regulations could just as easily have been applied to all of the diverse range of blogs and commentary that helped contribute to the debate.

    Ironically my original intention had been to celebrate what this combined effort had achieved as part of what I see as a wider internet publishing revolution taking place in Scotland right now. As it happened the whole Ian Taylor / National Collective story blew up while I was in the middle of writing the presentation and the whole thing took on a sudden added urgency.

  2. Owen Thomas

    Thanks and well done, Pat, for all the work – balanced, charming and plain-speaking.

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