THERE are around 80 cross-party groups at the Scottish Parliament dedicated to everything from animal welfare to video games, through golf, human rights, psoriasis and Tibet.
Their purpose is to raise awareness about a particular subject or cause and learn from experts in the field. Some you would expect to find, such as the cross-party group on Malawi, which has done a power of work to promote links with Scotland's unofficial twin country.
Others are rather more unexpected. Did you know there was a cross-party group on the Scottish Showmen's Guild, the body that represents funfair and fairground ride operators?
Sometimes they hit the headlines. Former Rangers manager Walter Smith drew a full house a few years back when he told the cross-party group on sport why he felt Scotland wasn't producing the players it did back in the 1970s and 1980s (too little street football and too much coaching for talented youngsters, he said). More often, though, cross-party groups stumble along in relative obscurity, a kind of after-school club for MSPs where it's OK to agree with someone from a different party.
The striking thing about Holyrood's newest group (if, as expected, it is approved by the Standards, Procedures and Public Appointments Committee on Thursday) is it doesn't exist already. The cross-party group on culture aims to become a forum where MSPs, artists and administrators meet to discuss the arts in general and specific issues affecting Scotland's cultural sector.
It will consider, for example, whether Scotland should have a cultural policy, how other countries nurture talent and how local councils can continue to support the arts, so often seen a luxury at a time of shrinking budgets. More excitingly, perhaps, the group will throw open Holyrood's doors for special performances and events.
That there's an appetite for closer engagement between politicians and the arts world is illustrated not so much by the list of MSPs who have signed up (10, so far, to be convened by the Independent Jean Urquhart) but by the artists and cultural bodies involved. Individual artists include Julie Fowlis, the folk singer and musician, Murray Buchanan, the former chairman of the Citizens Theatre, and Mary Anne Kennedy, the musician, producer and radio presenter. The list of affiliated organisations - all 100 of them - reads like a Who's Who of the Scottish cultural scene, including the various Edinburgh festivals, Glasgow School of Art, major companies such as Scottish Ballet and regional bodies such as Shetland Arts Development and Fife Cultural Trust. The visual arts, literature, theatre, dance, music will all be kept in the loop even if they are not represented at all the quarterly meetings.
It's interesting to note that behind the scenes Creative Scotland, the national arts body, is providing "secretariat support" - ie doing the organising - for the cross-party group. After a difficult year, dominated by fall-outs over funding and the drawn-out departure of former chief executive Andrew Dixon, it seems the country's most senior arts administrators have come to the conclusion this new channel of communication can only be a good thing.
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