The fall guy for a project hostile to the spirit of Scotland

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By Kenneth Roy

WARNING OF CHAOS FOR THE ARTS
Under this headline on 13 September 2010, the Herald ran a story about concerns over the new arts funding body Creative Scotland. The concerns were mine. Phil Miller, the paper’s arts correspondent, reported that I had delivered ‘a stinging attack’ on the lack of clarity about the purpose and policies of Creative Scotland.

 

Have more than two years really drifted by since the mainstream media pursued this early warning about the hydra-headed replacement for the Scottish Arts Council? There was, I noted without surprise at the time, not much response to the Herald story, and none from the artistic community – publicly anyway. Creative Scotland confined itself to the terse comment that Andrew Dixon, the chief executive, would be writing to me to discuss ‘the issues’.

He did write to me. Mr Dixon said he could find ‘no trace of the uncertainty and insecurity’ among artists that I had referred to in the original piece. Instead he had found ‘a country brimming with brilliance’. Of course you can have both: a country brimming with brilliance which is also brimming with uncertain and insecure artists. Sometimes creative people are at their best on the night before the execution.

But Mr Dixon had a point: at that early stage most heads were safely below the parapet, partly out of an understandable fear. Not many who are dependent on public subsidy will bite the hand that actually or potentially feeds them. This lack of candour is pronounced in Scotland and it infects many sectors of national life apart from the arts. But the arts, as an easy target for cuts, are particularly vulnerable. So, for a long time, the mutterings remained private – though it would be astonishing if they never reached the ear of Andrew Dixon.

By the early summer of this year, the tensions between Creative Scotland and its clients were no longer containable. The publicly-appointed board headed by Sir Sandy Crombie, former CEO of Standard Life, now at RBS, was finally stirred into action after two years of what felt suspiciously like complacency. An extract from a minute of the June board meeting gives a hint of the internal convulsions:

The board had a closed session and discussed a range of issues around staff capacity in the organisation, building back empathy with the sector and corporate commitment to objectives. The chair is to meet with the CEO to discuss issues raised by the board.

It was the beginning of the end for Andrew Dixon.

The phrase ‘building back empathy with the sector’ is typical of the weird language employed by Creative Scotland. But empathy was not easily built back. In the late summer, the Scottish Review published a further piece blasting Creative Scotland’s financial backing for a TV cookery programme and questioning the ethos of a public body which misused scarce resources in this way. The mainstream media again picked up the story, exposing Creative Scotland to ridicule. An influential critic tweeted the culture secretary, Fiona Hyslop, with a link to the Scottish Review piece and suggested that it was time for a fresh start.

Not long after this, a group of writers and artists – 100 of them initially – wrote an open letter effectively expressing no confidence in Creative Scotland. It was a thinly disguised attack on Andrew Dixon. I described it at the time as misguided – I still think it was misguided – but it has achieved the desired result: Mr Dixon resigned earlier this week. The playwright David Greig and the poet Liz Lochhead, who appear to have been the prime movers, can claim a notable scalp. But there can be little pleasure at the humiliation of Andrew Dixon. Although Mr Dixon will not be leaving for some weeks, it seems that Sir Sandy has instructed senior staff to report to him rather than to the chief executive.

The signatories of the open letter must be careful what they now wish for. Mr Dixon is clearing his desk at his leisure, but Mr Dixon was the wrong target. He came to Scotland two and a half years ago to fulfil the brief of his board of directors, a board of 11 which includes three bankers, a member of the Scottish liberal-left commentariat (Ruth Wishart) and others too boring to mention. The lack of authority is appalling. There is not a single individual on this board who would be recognised by the intelligent public as a leading figure in the Scottish arts or literature.

It was Sir Sandy Crombie and his mates who signed up to the deplorable idea of replacing the Scottish Arts Council with something called a ‘cultural investment agency’, in which the word ‘arts’ was expunged from common usage and the word ‘investment’ was constantly emphasised. The arts (rebranded as the ‘creative industries’) no longer existed primarily for the pleasure and enlightenment of the people of Scotland; or, as they often must, for their own sake. They were there to serve the Scottish economy; put crudely, they were there to make money. Or, as the corporate plan expressed it in Creative Scotland’s customary fashion, the aim was to ‘capture their economic contribution’.

Who thought this was a smart idea?

The answer is depressingly simple. It was the Scottish Government. The departure of Mr Dixon changes nothing. Mr Dixon did as he was bid. The vision thing, a vision hostile to the spirit of creative Scotland, originated with our political masters and it has not yet been retracted. Rather than admit that her government got it horribly wrong, Fiona Hyslop witters incomprehensibly about ‘re-engaging with stakeholders’. While the stakeholders are being re-engaged, the deeply unpleasant, anti-creative ideology of Creative Scotland has not been abandoned, Sir Sandy Crombie and his discredited board remain in position, and the people working for the arts in Scotland now take their orders from a banker.

You really couldn’t make it up. Indeed it is so implausible that I suggest David Greig and Liz Lochhead should get together and write a play about it. The only accessory required is a dagger, and I expect they’ll find it in the props cupboard.

Courtesy of Kenneth Roy and the Scottish Review