Pat Kane’s Dumfries Blog

Rutherford Building, Crichton Campus, Dumfries

Rutherford Building, Crichton Campus, Dumfries

By Pat Kane

To the Crichton Campus in Dumfries, for our sixth CS Open Session. As a judge in the Scottish Books of the Year Award in 2009, I remember the panel giving the Poetry award to Tom Pow’s brilliant collection Dear Alice, which drew on the Campus’s history as a lunatic asylum in the 19th century. Here’s some lines from Tom’s ‘Bedlam Ballad’:

Because I’m made of off-cuts,
I must write my own story.
Because I’m made of light,
I will not ration my glory.

That’ll do as a framework for another listening day with artists, creatives and their enablers – asking them how best Creative Scotland can support what they do, in terms of its structures, resources, vocabulary and values. As per the previous sessions, we kicked off with a curation of speakers who illuminated all points of the debate about CS’s past, present and future.

Actor, radical and force of nature Tam Dean Burn had been one of the most outspoken critics of the organization’s conduct in 2012, being one of the earliest signatories of the artists’ letter, pulled together by David Greig.

Tam had his own disquiets with CS: “I had cringed at the revelling in their branding and logo and had noted they were saying they were as much about ‘advocating for the arts’ as funding. No, I thought, let the artists advocate for the arts through their work and you get on with your job of distributing the money.”

Since his intervention, Tam has been discussing the future of arts policy in private online forums, and being inspired by the critiques of those from Variant magazine – recent losers in a funding round from CS – who perceive a general European “neoliberal policy shift of culture towards serving the market economy”. He approves of their proposal for a “Critical Academy” which could help artist, creatives and their supporting bodies to think through this crisis towards a different model of sustaining cultural activity.

Where should CS be heading? Like Matt Baker’s presentation in Inverness, Tam wanted to place these current debates in the widest context of a capitalism in convulsion (though certainly not dying away). And he also wanted to note that, in contradistinction to the recent “culture as commodity” comments of the Coalition’s arts minister Maria Miller, our own arts minister Fiona Hyslop immediately distanced herself from that position.

Yet will the core problems of CS be addressed? That the new CEO was being appointed while the Open Sessions were being conducted seemed “dodgy” to Tam: “if it turns out that these meetings are just pointless talking shops, there’s going to be a lot of angry people”. His headline suggestion was that CS should be about “cooperation not competition…it must be creative in looking to fulfil people’s needs. I don’t give a shit what it contributes to GDP and growth”.

CS staff should feel “valued and stretched, with attention paid to their needs”. Tam cited the Human Givens theory of “nominalisation”, as a good caution against corporate  language that “sounds great but has no substance”. Terms like “integrity, vision and imagination” (taken from the job description for the CEO) are so abstract that no-one can imagine sharing any mutual perceptions about them. When that happens, “it makes it very difficult to cooperate, interactions are therefore crude and we become selfish”.

Tam concluded by suggesting that one means of reimagining our arts-policy vocabulary would be to get plugged into the AHRC’s Cultural Values Project, which had met in Glasgow recently to inquire (as their site says) into “the actual experience of culture and the arts, rather than the ancillary effects of this experience”. Perhaps CS could get in touch – and in specific, ask for help with the question of why more people don’t apply for arts funding.

If (to take an example) 50 apply for a music fund, and only 17 are accepted, then “the majority of people’s relationship with CS is rejection. Can we not use our imaginations to make those relationships more about cooperation, finding ways to help artist feel valued? It’s not all about money”.

Charlotte Gunn playing Violin with Feis Rois  All Rights Reserved by Feis Rois

Charlotte Gunn playing Violin with Feis Rois
All Rights Reserved by Feis Rois

Fiona Dalgetty, chief executive of the Gaelic festival organisation for young people, Feis Rois, was up next – who partly agreed and disagreed with Tam. She agreed with his vision – shared by many others in this process – of a more horizontal relationship between CS and artists/creatives – “they should reposition themselves in terms of partnership, a body supportive of peers”. The ideal of everyone in Scotland participating in and valuing arts, screen and creative industries, in a world-leading way, is something Creative Scotland should hold onto – particularly as it develops younger talent.

Fiona reiterated some of the “fixes” emerging over previous session that CS could quickly enact. Much clearer language in application forms, and less precise criterial for subsmission (the Ideas Bank perhaps still promising here).

There should be more clarity and honesty about what the organisation can and can’t do. It can’t fill the cash gap for local authority cutbacks – but it can help forge collaborations and unleash energy in localities, as happened in Dumfries and Galloway through the Place Partnership scheme, and forge new discussions between arts, local development and tourism, through the Creative Place Awards.

Isn’t Creative Scotland’s role to develop partnerships with other public bodies? For example, the coming Children and Young People’s bill - “is it linked to an arts strategy for youth?” Fiona pointed out, again as many have done over these sessions, that a “national cultural strategy working across government departments” might be the missing link in the chain of CS’s effectiveness.

Our third participant, the writer and multimedia filmmaker Ewan Morrison, was embroiled in a script deadline for a National Geographic movie – so sent through his text, and asked me to read it out. In the CSOpen process, the organisation’s Ken Fowler has been rather hopefully using playwright David Greig’s request for participants to explore “routes ahead” rather than “root causes”. Yet like many speakers and participants, Ewan needed to put CS’s recent crisis in a longer historical narrative than just the “stushie” of a new body learning how to walk.

The acute contradiction of this moment is that the tradition of government arts funding began in the same spirit as the post-war establishment of the NHS, said Ewan – that is, a public good “that would not survive if left to market forces”. The great advocate of a regulated market, John Maynard Keynes, was indeed the Arts Council’s first chairman. Yet during the 80s, the Conservatives “began to starve arts funding”, urging the private sector and charities to take up the slack. “So began a confused era in arts funding”, wrote Ewan, “half social democrat, half led by market forces” – which confusion informed the “market lingo” so objected to by CS’s recent detractors.

Ewan drove deeper into the question of the effectiveness of public money as bringing any kind of financial return on its investment. He claimed a “huge failure” on this agenda, and asked that Scottish Enterprise make public its record of how many companies failed to succeed after receiving public investment. “A government enquiry should be set up to evaluate the disbanding of Scottish Enterprise”, urged Ewan, and “the redistribution of its funds to cultural projects” [whether this meant all funds, or just funds related to ‘creative industries’, Ewan didn’t make clear].

For him, a classic example of the miscommunication between a government funding for enterprise, and Creative Scotland, is the former’s support of Amazon – “the 56th biggest corporation in the world, with an annual turnover of $48bn”. £12.5million was given to facilitate its depot at Dunfermline. Did any of the politicians realise the damage that Amazon does to the Scottish publishing industry – driving down book prices (which affects Scottish publishers) and wiping out bookshops?

Even worse, with its Kindle e-publishing platform, Amazon encourages self e-publishing: those profits go to the author and Amazon, but none to Scottish publishers. Creative Scotland should only fund authors signed up with Scottish publishers, and never fund self  e-publishers – which is a “back-hand subsidy to multinational corporations”, who pay little or not taxes to any exchequer on these islands.

Ewan concluded with two clear prescriptions for a publishing agenda in Scotland: an enquiry into the viability of reintroducing the Net Book Agreement, and of price-fixing for books within Scotland, as occured in France and Germany. And secondly, a reaffirmation by a “Scottish Arts Body” that “indigenous culture has to be shielded from global market forces”.

Discussion, feedback and further ruminations

The room in the Crichton’s Easterbook Hall today was full of wisdom and experience, at all ages and stages – something of a testament to the area’s depth of artistic and creative practice. Older artists and writers were particularly eloquent.

Playwright Thom Cross echoed the Scottish Arts Counci’s transition director Richard Holloway’s parting injunction: how does Creative Scotland cope with the “autonomous audacity” of the way an artist interfaces with a bureaucracy? In this current phase of Scotland’s overall development, arts development must enter a new phase. Should we look again at the Irish option of tax breaks – which might address the “back end” of enabling arts production, as much as the “front end” of direct grants?

Ruari McNeill who has a background in theatre management (including the Lyceum, Tron & Scottish Theatre Company) had been involved in arts “for far too long” – but used that perspective to remember a time when it was much simpler to engage with arts funding: “audited accounts and a two page form, than something 25 pages long”. Is this a job-creation exercise for administrators?

There was a lot of energy around the question of how much Creative Scotland should value the “peripheries” of its geographical remit. Peter Stark “had been fighting the creative suck from capital cities like London all my life” – and was worried that the discussion around the future of a big institutions like CS looked like a “centralising” discussion. This would be “wrong and dangerous – historically, arts flourish and move forward when decentralised”.

Julian Watson from Mill on the Fleet made this subtler still: even in Dumfries and Galloway, Stranraer is a periphery… but the predicaments of other peripheral areas – like the West of Ireland or Highlands and Islands – could be mutually shared in some kind of conference.

It was a delight to hear from a director of the Scottish Association of Flower Arranging Societies, that their own development was often hindered by the need to hold workshops in the Central Belt: funding assistance with this would support the creativity of a particular sector (the over 50s). “This isn’t about wee posies on tables – but radical, designed floral art” (and she’s right).

One voice suggested that perhaps there could be too much ambition for national recognition from a region like Dumfries and Galloway. Might it be unsustainable in terms of the degree of footfall and business that could support its expansion? Yet others (like CatStrand’s Sean Paul O’Hare) responded by emphasizing that perhaps a development perspective could be a more flourishing context for artists, where they are part of larger organisations that include them, instead of just serving communities with their art

Sculptor Stan Bonnar noted in response that “When I see the words ‘creative Scotland’, I think that it will be creative, if everyone listens to each other, and joins the debate”. (Stan clarified in some subsequent tweets that he has “gone to the back of beyond to try and understand what the basis of public art language might be. The very last thing my art is about is cascading anything down into the community.”)

Stan Bonnar's Artwork 'i am nothing but my difference from you'

Stan Bonnar’s Artwork ‘i am nothing but my difference from you’

The table responses to our standard CSOpen question – what’s the vision, and how do we get there? – were some of the richest and densest so far (collated here). My own current thinking is that these responses will require collating, parsing and mapping across all 8 of the sessions – it should be possible to identify recurrent requests, concepts and vocabulary from over 600 attendees and participants. There’s no claim to science here – but it should be possible to point at some kind of consensus from artists and creatives around the next steps ahead for Creative Scotland.

Given that, I’d like to take the license to point out some of the quirkier ideas that came out of a vigorous, all-points discussion at the Creighton Campus:

  1. A Creative Scotland ambassador, possibly voluntary, in every community/town over 2K in population, feeding back into the organization
  2. Amateur arts production gets big audiences, much more than professional events. How much is CS supporting this?
  3. Should the National Theatre of Scotland be broadcasting to cinemas as happens in England?
  4. How can arts communities group together “to afford things collectively they might not be able to afford on their own”?
  5. Could CS have a “mavericks” department – “where more disruptive voices could be heard?”

And from Thom Cross, an announcement that we should all be receiving an invitation to his forthcoming Carluke Jam Festival. In light of the endless plenitude of the foregoing three hours of discussion, I suggested he should call it “Jam Today”. The suggestion was welcomed with a perceptible nod.

All sharing of this post welcome; equally invited, all comments below. Next blog: Glasgow.