By Pat Kane
If there’s any single piece of advice I’d chuck at the board of Creative Scotland (CS), from charting and facilitating these Open Sessions, it would certainly be this: get out of the office, and regularly visit all the airts and pairts of this country.
Other than the straightforward bohemian joy of hanging out with artists for an afternoon, it’s good to ride the train through the startling musculature of the Highlands, and then saunter along the elegant banks of the River Ness towards Eden Court Theatre. The thought easily arises: there’s enough diversity and quality, and enough proximity and connection, in this wee nation to enable big things to happen.
Our three kick-off speakers each had the same high levels of coherence, passion and vision as our previous events. But again, in the spirit of openness, they all took their chances – both to ask deep, constitutive questions about the purpose and shape of Creative Scotland, coming out of a time of crisis and mismanagement; but also to point clear ways forward, based on their own practice or expertise.
Described to me in rather hushed tones as a “Gaelic singing legend”, Arthur Cormack spoke first, as the CEO of Fèisean nan Gàidheal, the network and institution that serves the Fèis music movement, and which is a Foundation Organisation of Creative Scotland. In the first of many Gaelic proverbs (helpfully instantly translated for us Lowlanders), Arthur felt speaking here could be a case of “am fear a loisgeas a mhàs, ‘s e fhèin a dh’fheumas suidhe air” or “he who burns his backside must sit on it!”. Indeed, a Gaelic proverb might be the best way to proceed here…
“Cha bhi fios air math an tobair gus an tràigh e - the value of the well is not known until it goes dry”. Arthur described the old Scottish Arts Council as “bent but not broken”, deploying artform-specific advice much more than Creative Scotland. Yet in relation to its recent troubles, Creative Scotland was accepting the wisdom of “Bàthaidh toll beag long mhòr – A little hole will sink a big ship”, and “Chan eil tuil air nach tig traoghadh – There isn’t a flood that will not subside”. But what would a better vessel be?
Arthur laid out his wish-list for a Creative Scotland – one that fully supports the Scottish Government’s commitment to inspire and support a culturally ambitious Scotland; that offers “new support mechanisms for the development of creativity in Scotland that are transparent and easier for the end user”: that has the Gaelic arts as “a key part of its remit”; that supports “the traditions, ideas, customs, heritage and identity of those living in Scotland”.
Yet while much of this is being delivered, Arthur acknowledged the intrinsic awkwardness of an organisation like Creative Scotland. “Chan urrainn do dhuine sam bith seirbhis a dhèanamh do dhà mhaighstir – nobody can serve two masters”. It must both deal with passing Ministers and their agendas, and with an artistic community that has “a long history of resisting interference from the government”.
“If Creative Scotland does want to help Scotland’s creativity shine at home and abroad and wants to invest in talented people, then I feel it has to engage in the art of the almost impossible”, continued Arthur. “It should simplify its processes, and sharpen its decision-making. But it has to remain accountable to the public purse and to Ministers. That is the reality for any public body in the 21st century, a reality not always understood by the general public or by artists”.
Yet CS could certainly improve its direct relationship with artists. “Tuig thus’ an t-eathar, ‘s tuigidh an t-eathar thu - Understand the boat and the boat will understand you”. Arthur restated his plea for more decisions about commissioning to be made by people with experience of those artforms – and sketched a scenario where an artist might come to CS with an idea “free from any criteria”, discuss it with a knowledgable person, and find a path to resources and support.
Roanne Dods, a producer and director at the arts development agency PAL, was responsible for organising the Tramway World Cafe event at the end of 2012, which served as a gathering place for many Scottish artists to talk through their responses to the “stooshie”. Her thoughts on the next directions for Creative Scotland were clear and trenchant:
“Listening is important. Ask good questions! Curiosity is a critical skill, and the last regime didn’t have it. Do a job of work at CS, there’s enough to do – so create an active and engaged organisational culture, which makes good decisions and gets money out of the door. And hire staff who care about the richness and the complexity of the arts sector.”
Roanne also had some tart words for the current Board of Creative Scotland, composed from those “responsible for the mess last year – a board warned by auditors in September 2011 that it wasn’t getting enough information to scrutinise decisions being made by staff… If that had happened in another company/private company, then the chair might’ve thought about resigning”.
Yet Roanne had a deeper critique of the kind of leadership culture demonstrated by Creative Scotland. The International Futures Forum in St Andrews – of which Roanne (and your humble blogger) are associate members – sees the arts and cultural sector as leading the way, in times of crisis and confusion (see this paper from Graham Leicester & Bill Sharpe).
“Can artists learn to manage & value ourselves on own terms with CS helping to lead? Artists offer the yin to the yang. We don’t do what we’re told, we respond to what’s needed.” Roanne quoted environmentalist Bill McKibben saying that “artists, in a sense, are the antibodies of the cultural bloodstream. They sense trouble early, and rally to isolate and expose and defeat it“.
If artistic practice can inspire broader structural changes in society, and also be a “canary in the coal mine”, then a body supporting and developing arts and creativity has to reflect artistic practice in its governance – and not draw from corporate models.
“The bottom line is the quality of work & quality of idea. CS can create a wider environment where critique can happen without dissing” - and thats informed by a real understanding of the difference of each artistic practice.
Public sculptor Matt Baker took Roanne’s thoughts about cultural leadership and amplified them hugely in his presentation. David Hume’s “truth comes from an argument among friends” was his watchword today – and to some degree Matt’s argument was with those who want to protect art from its social responsibilities.
Setting himself out as someone whose art practice has to happen “otherwise he gets ill”, and who started out as the ultimate bedroom radical “who wants to change the world”, Matt wanted to share some experiences that challenged his sense of what being an artist means. One of which was sitting down with “non-arts people” – like Phil Hanlon, professor of public health, or Colin Mair of the Improvement Service – and finding a “correlation in discourse, a frankly spooky symmetry with my youthful radicalism. We all agreed in our meetings that capitalism is all shot. So what’s next?”.
Creativity might be a way to “reconnect people with their imaginations”. and thus perhaps reduce those self-destructive and addictive behaviours which cause the yawning gap between health outcomes, and projected health spend.
Matt suggested this implied a “massive expansion of our vision of what our collective practice is”, and how artists might work “alongside other sociable agendas”. We (and the we included CS) had a clear choice:
“We further marginalise ourselves as a niche interest – or embrace a new golden age, and take our places as leaders in our country to make the world a better place. Be in no doubt, what I am proposing here is a radical vision of expanding the arts and arts budget for the benefit of the better of society. Don’t forget Roosevelt’s New Deal and Labour ’45: both saw arts spending as a fast and cheap way to get the economy moving”.
What could CS do to enable this?
“Broker new relationships and partnerships for the arts and creative industries – put us at the centre of things and allow us to use our talents in the service of society”. But expect artists to get involved in practical projects first, than spend their time discussing abstractions.
Yet artists themselves should avoid a dependent relationship in this – they should actively organise themselves at a local level, even when crises of finding or institutional failure occurs. With news of the contraction of cultural promoters Hi-Arts in the Highlands fresh in all minds, Matt recalled a similar collapse (of DGArts) in his own area of Dumfries & Galloway. The response was an explosion of collaboration and partnering which brought health, education, tourism and environment bodies into contact with creatives through “a Chamber of Arts”. New initiatives now come through this which would be impossible under the old regime.
Matt’s hopeful closing words were: “let’s look on this afternoon as an amazing gift of time together to work on the practical project of using the arts to make Scotland a better place”.
Out of the first feedback session to the speakers, one or two concrete demands were put to the organisation. A chorus of voices raised up about how much they missed the “regional arts offices and officers” of the old Scottish Arts Council. These appointees knew their patch, the artists and traditions within it, and were able to make good decisions quickly, “without palaver”. There were also real losses when the “cultural coordinators” scheme ended, sundering links between artists and schools. (Creative Scotland’s Kenneth Fowler confirmed that the organisation was looking at its structure in the next few months).
Other voices responded strongly to Matt Baker’s appeal for a more socially-engaged arts sector. Sam Eccles wanted artists to be less introverted – “if it doesn’t have ‘arts’ at the top, we don’t think it relates to us”. They should deploy language that could help them access the resources of the voluntary sector, or health, where so much great ameliorative work has been and could be done. Fiona Campbell flagged up how much arts could contribute to the Scottish Government’s “preventative spend” approach to social policy, if only someone could “speak government language”. European Cultural Funds also exist for artists – and CS should be the place that helps get artists close to them.
Eden Court’s Colin Marr took it as a truism that art had social benefits: what Creative Scotland should be is an advocate for arts spending, in a climate of savage local authority cuts to arts budgets (referring to Moray’s decision to slash arts development budget of the area to zero). But other voices (including Tina McGeever of Out of the Darkness Theatre in Moray, and Nick Fearne, the Moray Arts Development Officer out of a job at the end of May) were careful to say that Creative Scotland should not step in to financially “save the day” or fill the gaps left by local authority cuts. Nick also plaintively noted the disjunct between arts officers’ being asked to justify outcomes by elected officials, and the “lifetimes work” required to make a difference. To these points, applause all round.
To kick off the group working session, Kenneth Fowler highlighted key themes for him that were emerging from the previous three sessions:
- CS should be a stronger public advocate for the arts.
- The position of the “creative industries” within Creative Scotland’s ambit is currently not right.
- Should the Scottish Government have an arts strategy? (Fiona Campbell noted that in the list of national indicators for Scottish national performance, one for “cultural engagement” was included).
- CS is still a relatively small proportion of overall arts funding. We can advocate but where’s the power to comply (say, a cuts-bent local authority)?
- If we need a new “vision” for Creative Scotland, what might it look like?
- We’re working on the language we use to communicate with artists and others.
- We need to either revisit the remit of Creative Scotland – or revisit resources that enable current responsibilities to be properly exercised.
- We need to think about accountability & governance.
- People coming to these events generally know what needs to change.
Much of what came back from these sessions (see the Table Headlines here) echoed this summation pretty accurately. Some strong points were made about Creative Scotland’s role in amassing solid research on the health and social outcomes of art. And that CS should have a better “institutional memory” – remembering good funding practice, and archiving projects from the past (so that “wheels aren’t reinvented”).
Again, many requests for the organisation to make sure they employ officials who have a high-level of expertise in arts sectors. Also, more than a few inquiries as to how porous and consultative the Board of Creative Scotland is – and whether a paid-for and defined role for a working artist on the board might be a solution.
And certainly, the loveliest practical suggestion was that, perhaps, some people could be allowed to sing their application form (given some artists’ absolute aversion to form-filling!).
Earlier in the day, I took a show of hands on how frequent the attendees would like an event like this to happen. On that show, we’ll see you all next year – though Kenneth Fowler’s fond hope is that it would be “a report on what we are doing, rather than what you think we should be doing”.