By Pat Kane
It’s not much of a trip from your blogger’s home town Coatbridge to the penultimate CS Open Session at Easterhouse’s Platform, embedded in the John Wheatley College campus. Only one stop away from my recently demolished Roman Catholic comprehensive St. Ambrose at Blairhill, and I’m back in a 70s land of Tizer bottles, Willie Ormond, three-day weeks and some memorably territorial maneuvers across the scheme’s golden fields…
Glasgow was always on our horizon as one of our most potentially sparky sessions. It’s home both to a hustling creative industries sector, and the most cosmopolitan and cutting-edge visual arts scene: the location both for national tabloids sponsoring glitzy awards for “creative Scots”, and of events like the Tramway World Cafe, which focused much of the discontent over Creative Scotland’s direction in 2012.
Yet it was also good to be beyond the gridplans of “Glasvegas” (or “Clydegrad”, depending on your orientation), strolling past the plains of Easterhouse to the bustling, youthful Wheatley campus. It was a clear instance of the vision – often articulated in these sessions – that artistry and creativity should operate in the heart of Scottish life and society.
Our first provocation came from Angus Farquhar, creative director of the public-art company NVA (and before that with industrial band Test Department). He began with a series of leading political questions to the attendees – precisely targeted to elicit from them an almost complete consensus across a left-wing, anti-Thatcher, anti-imperialist line (with one bold dissenter in support of the Iraq War).
Angus’s response was to assert that “you are ‘state’ artists if you have taken public money and what the state deems worthy of funding as expressed through its cultural policies ultimately dictates the direction of Creative Scotland, where funding is focused, what it is spent on and how much is spent. We are all indirectly political artists whether we like it or not.”
From his experiences with Test Department supporting the miners’ strike in the mid-80s, Angus knows that crisis and struggle can generate feelings of “controlling your own destiny”. For Creative Scotland, the context is wider than its own national travails: recent comments by the Westminster Coalition government’s Maria Miller, suggesting that “art is a commodity”, show us how a “Thatcherite inheritance is being mainlined” elsewhere.
By contrast, Angus noted how vibrant discussions groups in Scotland have been around cultural policy – Stramash Arts and Variant as two examples. Yet Angus lamented that the SNP had “swallowed” a line on the Creative Industries from the “worst excesses of Blairite cultural management”. This was “intellectually vacuous and timorous”, and “a vacuous and weak setting” for the organisation.
The whole rammy began “because the Scottish Government cut the cultural budget, while bringing in other creative sectors from Scottish Enterprise, without the budget following those sectors” – the result meaning everyone going for a “smaller pot”.
Two specific suggestions for CS arose from Angus’s argument. One don’t do “themed years” – they require artists “to market Scotland at the expense of intellectual integrity”. Historic movements spring from much truer creative impulses than that – there should be nothing subservient, and everything about promoting the “variance of human ability”.
Angus urged all artists to take the longest view: “you need to go for radical solutions because in a hundred years, your artwork will likely be forgotten anyway – so there’s no point in being safe”. And secondly, that CS should find funding for “permanent cultural research” into the effect of arts on society – where arts was conceived as a “check and balance to ensure the best for society as a whole”.
Our next speaker May Miles Thomas – a filmmaker and director of Elemental Films – drilled down specifically into the status of film in the past, present and future of arts support in Scotland. Though a recipient of funds from Scottish Screen and the Scottish Arts Council in the past, under their current criteria May was “ineligible”. But she wanted to use this as the starting point of a deep analysis about the very status of films, not just in Scotland but also in the context of new technological and market developments.
May was sceptical that the pending review of the film sector in CS would answer the key question of why “indigenous film production has remained static in Scotland for over 20 years”. One reason might be some competing interests on resources. Does television’s need for skilled workers need to command quite such authority (eg £800K granted to Creative Skillset by Creative Scotland, generating only 28 placements in the broadcast sector)? Should funds “previously ring-fenced for cinematic, not televisual production” be used in this way? BBC Scotland’s absence as “a regular, visible co-production partner working with the indie film sector” was also noted as part of the problem.
There’s a fundamental lack of power and control within Scotland’s film community, vitiating their ability to both produce and distribute movies. And the lack can be source to the core definitions of public arts funding. May asked us to look at the chapter headings in the Cultural Commission’s Our Next Major Enterprise document of 2005 – key to the formation of CS – and note that film is absent from its categories of arts and cultural sectors (though mentioned and touched upon throughout the text). As a result, the “quasi-Hollywood model for film support” characterised by Scottish Screen “was bolted onto CS”. May believed the organization’s film remit was thus “fatally flawed from the outset”.
In a response to her Freedom of Information request in 2006, May had discovered that Ken Loach’s films – which had received £2m subsidy from Scotland over late 90’s and 00’s – had recouped no money for Scottish Screen. “If Ken Loach’s films can’t turn a buck, what hope for relatively unknown Scottish filmmakers?”
So the presumption that a return on investment should be part of the current criteria for film funding in Scotland is fundamentally flawed – a criteria which explicitly excludes the vast majority of Scottish indigenous filmmakers. Is enabling of Scottish (and world) audiences to see Scottish films the kind of public good that a public arts body should be pursuing? If we agree, then May had four very precise prescriptions for Creative Scotland.
Firstly, “forget theatrical feature films” – spending money in this direction means many other forms of film are not pursued. Investment might be lower overall – but it will “afford the greater rewards of risk-taking” in movie-making.
Secondly, and relatedly, make the criteria for financing clearer. May had responded to one our earlier blogs about the “unconstrained degree of creative intervention” in film by public servant at Creative Scotland. Yet remove the “only-backing-winners” mentality, and funding can shift to enabling creative diversity in film. These are projects which can be proved to exist, rather than projects whose (commercial) success can only be guessed at.
Thirdly, “target the audience you already own” – meaning not just more indigenous supply of film, but finding a way to increase indigenous demand. This was linked to her fourth point, which was a request for CS to follow the lead of Brian Baglow, one of our previous speakers, and “embrace the fragmentation” of screen culture.
If most films are watched outside the cinema, across our current mediascape’s diversity of platforms, then nowadays “all films are equal. Scotland should be the first country in the world to truly grasp this fact”, said May, and respond infrastructurally. (May walks her talk here: her iPad app The Devil’s Plantation is a perfect example of how movie-watching is now disseminated across many devices, and audiences).
May’s last request was for CS to recognise the advantage of existing in, and for, a small nation. This means the organisation is close the ground of where artists and creatives are. Their evident and tangible goodwill was a resource to be exploited.
Following these broadsides, Stewart Henderson, founder and director of Chemikal Underground Records, shuffled onstage rather awkwardly and proceeded to be immediately controversial: “My experience working with CS has been almost exclusively positive!”
The Scottish Album of the Year Awards, which Stuart began through the Scottish Music Industry Association, could not have been realised without support from Creative Scotland – “the proposal required a leap of faith in a strong idea”.
He had “experienced discomfort in his silence” when the Artists’ Letter which brought CS’s crisis to head last year came out. But he wanted to take the opportunity today to acknowledge that “we operate in a complex range of sectors that have unique issues but also common challenges”.
Putting CS on one side, and artists on the other, was “too simplistic” – and the criticisms that were made “were not experienced universally”. One challenge for CS was to enormously improve communication between sectors, to enlighten everyone about challenges they collectively faced.
Could we clarify things with better terminology? Stuart attempted his own ringing manifesto statement: “Scotland is a cultural powerhouse – and we need to build an environment in which individual artists can create the work they want to create”.
Discussion, feedback and further ruminations
We were graced with several members of the Creative Scotland board on this Open Session. Add them to a room of Glasgow’s active and committed creators, and this was always going to be a feedback session thick with ideas and passion.
Musician and media producer Rab Noakes immediately wanted to pull up Angus Farquhar for his opening statement. “Arts funding is public, not political – and it doesn’t make the artist political”. The arms-length principle – whereby an arts-funding body maintains a protected distance between government policy and the artist, buffering one against the other – was invoked either explicitly or implicitly throughout the subsequent discussion.
Many called, as many in previous sessions have, for Creative Scotland to increase its powers of advocacy – and particularly to improve its capacity to make the research case for arts funding to civil servants and government ministers (particularly important, given the lack of artistic experience among ministers).
What information about the power and potential of the arts is actually getting through the governmental filters, in a less than superficial way? And even if substance is communicated, is that knowledge landing with the right people? The burden for monitoring the effects of the whole field of the arts (including the under-represented voluntary arts sector), and providing necessary feedback to Government, should rest with Creative Scotland – which would mean an increase in its staffing.
This can lift the burden on reporting from individual artists. Daniel Cosgrove from Scottish Youth Theatre reminded us that the purpose of doing art isn’t to “add to the economy, but to make us all feel better” – and that artists should be allowed to pursue the latter, and not demonstrate the former. Angus Farquhar noted further than “an output-led arts culture means that those who are good at monitoring their work are the most successful”.
Other suggested that we should draw strength from the fact that Scotland has followed Germany in largely defending the size of its public arts budget, even in straitened times – but perhaps an even more ambitious target should be set by the new CEO, and the community themselves. Was a doubling of the percentage currently spent on the arts – from 0.5% to 1.0% of the overall Government budget – a worthwhile campaign target to aim at?
TV arts producer May Miller, one of the members of the Creative Scotland board present, stuck her hand up to respond to an accusation that the Board “faced in two directions” and “was too scared to argue for artists”. She “didn’t recognise myself as one of those individuals on the board…Perhaps the Board doesn’t engage often enough. But it is sympathetic. And we are looking to develop relationships further”.
To conclude, Poet Elspeth Murray pointed us in the direction of her George-Wyllie-esque acrostic poem, titled “Sympathy – Synthesis – Synergy”. Empathy, at the very least, the watchword for going forward.
In the table sessions – where responses to the CSOpen question on a “vision” for Creative Scotland and its practical realisation are worked on – we had again amplification of a building consensus around Creative Scotland’s most immediate reform measures, which include:
- Solving problems with application forms
- Clarifying CS’s position as advocate for the sector
- The need for a government strategy/vision for arts and culture
- A re-examination of the £83m budget for CS – not particularly large for its range of responsibilities
- To assess the power of “creative industries” terminology and address the perceived conflict between arts and the creative industries
- The feeling that an overall and significant change in the organisation’s public language is required
However the Glasgow audience’s sheets (available in full here) had some distinctive shared demands. Stuart’s vision that there could be a common understanding, across sectors, of Scotland as a “cultural powerhouse” found some resonance, in statements emerging from across the tables.
“More funding and collaboration across art forms”; “artistic support which recognises that archaic categories no longer exist (the cross-pollination of art forms)”; “need more opportunities for networking and sharing across the sectors”. And most directly: “There is a them and us feeling between artists and the creative industries. This is not constructive.”
Other calls echoed across the tables – some of them familiar to those who’ve followed this process so far, were: much more expertise, experience and specialist knowledge in CS’s decision-making processes; the recognition that cheap rents, and mentoring, need to complement and make sustainable the direct funding support of artists.
And from a table including May Miller, Angus Farquhar and May Miles Thomas, a simple but direct statement: “trust the talent”. What might this mean in practice?
One of the fascinating aspects of this whole process, in the age of social media, is the way that one can track the intellectual discourse around an event (using our Twitter hashtag #csopen). So Johnny Galley, one of our Skye speakers, tweeted after the Glasgow event that we should read a blog comment from an “acoulton” on “creative trust”. This is indeed illuminating, and creates some bridges between the “creative industries” and “arts” divide so often highlighted in these discussions.
Another of our regular Twitter interlocutors, Edward Harkins, points us to his comment on the Prospect Magazine’s website, where he links the CS Open Sessions to the AHRC’s Cultural Value Project, mentioned by Tam Dean Burn in our Dumfries session (and again here in Glasgow). “At last week’s Open Session forum in Glasgow”, writes Edward, the “accountancy valuation of ‘culture’ was resoundingly rejected by the participants. The indications are that the players in the arts and culture fields in Scotland are now embarking on something of a journey with Creative Scotland and ‘what truly counts’, and how we best address the outcomes of that discourse.”
So many words, so much quality discussion, and yes, perhaps “an opportunity to crowdsource cultural policy”, in the words of one tweeter – if we give ourselves the space and time to process properly.
Please comment on this blog, retweet and otherwise use well. Next and final session report: Aberdeen.