Creative Scotland still facing arts funding decision problems

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By Hugh Kerr

 

Creative Scotland the troubled body responsible for distributing around £100 million of our money to fund the arts has managed to create a stushie over its first funding budget since it was relaunched.

In particular it has caused major comment by cutting the budget entirely of Scottish Youth Theatre, which was responsible for the beginnings of many great theatrical careers in Scotland.

It has also cut the budget of the Traverse and the Lyceum, two of Scotland’s leading theatres by major amounts, while rewarding their near neighbour Dance Base with a 24 per cent increase. I am assured that Creative Scotland CEO’s original career as a dancer is mere coincidence!

Readers with a long memory and an interest in these matters will recall that this is but the latest problem of Creative Scotland, but let me give you a quick resume.

Creative Scotland was born out of the merger of the previous funding organisations the Scottish Arts Council and Scottish Screen. It took years, lots of consultants’ reports and several million pounds to set up Creative Scotland.

Its first CEO was an Englishman Andrew Dixon, who announced at his first press conference after appointment: “I am really looking forward to finding out about the arts in Scotland”.

Now before I get accused of being anti-English, I am not arguing that you have to be born in Scotland to know the arts in Scotland.  After all, 7:84 Theatre founder John McGrath  was a Liverpudlian via Oxford,  but of course he lived and worked in Scotland and knew the arts well.

The problem with Andrew Dixon wasn’t that he was English but as he readily admitted himself he knew little about Scotland’s arts. This was the basis of his undoing because when he came to spend his budget not knowing the companies, he  hired a consultant. After charging £250,000, the consultants  advised him to set up a market place, make everyone compete for their grants on a project basis, and end this cushioned three-year funding.

This went down like a lead balloon and a letter was circulated which quickly attracted a huge number of signatures from Scottish actors, directors, producers and administrators protesting the scheme.

Within weeks Andrew Dixon had been forced to resign (leaving with a reputed package of around £100,000) and anguished consultation began on the future with lots of seminars all over the country. How much attention was paid to these is hard to say. Some of us thought it was a classic PR exercise and that was confirmed when the board of Creative Scotland, made up mainly of people from business and the great and the good, announced their replacement CEO, Janet Archer.

She  had been a dancer and then went into arts administration in Welwyn Garden City in Hertfordshire. When I met her recently at the opening of 25 Years of Scottish Modern Art, I surprised her by saying I used to represent her in the European Parliament where I was on the Culture Committee.I was the MEP for Hertfordshire and Essex. Janet became an administrator for a dance organisation in England.  So after the debacle of appointing  Andrew Dixon, it was surprising to say the least when she was appointed the new CEO of Creative Scotland. As one journalist put it to me: “It’s as if Creative Scotland are putting up two fingers to their critics who brought down Andrew Dixon.”

Janet Archer didn’t exactly woo over the arts journalists by refusing to be interviewed by them son after getting the job, which is of course what normally happens in an important new appointment. She was finally made available for interview several months, no doubt giving her time to learn more about Scottish culture. However, when asked about the fate of the Byre Theatre in St Andrews (closed due to funds being withdrawn by Creative Scotland’s predecessor the Scottish Arts Council), she replied: “I am afraid I don’t know where that is.”

She did invite ridicule by saying she had spent six months as a baby in East Kilbride, and had once driven a minibus to Stirling University, in an attempt to establish some Scottish credentials.

Her main claim to knowledge of Scotland came in a supporting statement from Laura Eaton Lewis, who heads up a small Glasgow-based dance organisation The Work Room, which Janet Archer had chaired for a few meetings. Laura later earned a place on Janet’s “External Reference Group”.

So, given all that, perhaps it was no surprise that the major beneficiary of the new budget is: dance! While the Lyceum Theatre was cut by 17per cent or £212,000 a year, and the Traverse by 11 per cent, or  £108,000 a year, and Scottish Youth Theatre cut altogether, Dance Base in Edinburgh got an increase of 24.5 per cent to £408,000 a year. Dance Base is located in a rather nice glass-fronted building nestling near the castle.

I am all in favour of people dancing, however a couple of things stand out about Dance Base. Firstly its budget is over £1m, much of which comes from grants and much of that goes on staff and it benefits very few, largely the people who go there to dance, there are very few spectators at Dance Base.

Of course the problem of people in top jobs in the arts in Scotland who know little about Scotland is not new. Indeed there is a continuing cultural cringe in Scotland around these appointments, despite the establishment of the parliament and the heightened consciousness around the referendum.

Alasdair Gray suggested that these high level positions were occupied by either “settlers or colonists”. His use of language may have been a little provocative but his point had some substance. Most of the top jobs in Scottish cultural organisations in recent years have gone to people from outside Scotland, often with little knowledge of Scotland. For example in the 67 years of the Edinburgh Festival, the greatest arts festival in the world, there has never been a Scottish director. The outgoing director Jonathan Mills seemed little interested in Scottish culture, asserting that it was “an international festival”, even though yet a major part of its stated mission is “to present the best of Scottish culture and Scottish companies to the world”.

It is not just the Edinburgh Festival and Creative Scotland that are headed up by non-Scots but many of the other top arts organisations. The National Theatre of Scotland for example which after years of campaigning by prominent people in Scottish Theatre appointed an English director, Vicky Featherstone who recently admitted that being English had caused her problems.She was replaced by another English appointee, Laurie Sansom, and meantime great Scottish directors like the late great David McLennan were passed over.

Similar problems exist in other areas,for example in the visual arts,with all the directors of the National Galleries coming from outside Scotland and major exhibitions being curated from Scotland with no Scottish paintings represented!

However as Alasdair Gray observed, these appointments are made by people in Scotland, so maybe one of the questions we should ask is how are these appointing boards selected, and should they be democratised to reflect more the artists and the community they serve? At present they are often composed of people from business and the great and the good, plus some people from the arts they serve.

Of course making cuts in an era of constrained budgets is never easy,and we should point out that the Scottish Government has largely protected spending on the arts, whereas the English Arts Council has face major cuts. However in its major cuts to theatre, in particular the axing of Scottish Youth Theatre which has many powerful friends, Janet Archer may have created a perfect storm.

The solution could be a much bigger arts budget but of course in an era of even more savage cuts from our Westminster paymasters this is unlikely. So my suggestion in the meantime is let us scrap Creative Scotland this would save us a few million, and place the large companies into the national funding scheme which already administers grants to many of the major companies. The remaining budget should be given to local authorities, ring-fenced for local spending on the arts. It’s not perfect but at least they would know where their local theatres are.

* Hugh Kerr was previously an MEP who served on the Culture Committee of the European Parliament.