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Creative tensions

DAMAGED goods.

John Byrne signed the letter criticising Creative Scotland
John Byrne signed the letter criticising Creative Scotland

A culture of materialism. Trapped in a Gulag of their own making. Scottish artists and writers have levelled a fierce volley of complaints at Creative Scotland, after more than 200 signed an open letter protesting at what they view as the "deepening malaise" within the national funding body.

Among the leading names who signed the letter last week criticising the quango's "ill-conceived decision-making and unclear language" and "lack of empathy and regard" for Scottish culture were playwright David Greig, authors Ian Rankin and Alasdair Gray and poet Liz Lochhead.

Yesterday hundreds more Scottish artists added their voices to the chorus of criticism after the Scottish Artists Union – which has nearly 1,000 members – called for more transparency in Creative Scotland's work. The union claimed there was a feeling of "no confidence" in the arts body, which has the task of spending more than £83 million of public and lottery money on supporting the arts annually.

A key point of contention among many artists has been a change from fixed-term funding to a more project-based approach, while the commissioning role and structure of the arts body have also been criticised.

On Friday, Sir Sandy Crombie, chairman of Creative Scotland, admitted that the body has a major problem in its dealings with artists. Two inquiries, which will report before Christmas, have been set up to examine the organisation's operations and its lottery funding.

In a statement, Crombie said: "I want to give my personal reassurance that all matters brought to our attention will be thoroughly considered and, where possible and necessary, that improvements will be made."

However, some prominent figures have lent support to Creative Scotland. Among them is Michael Elliott, chief executive of the Royal Scottish National Orchestra (RSNO), who said the "continuing relentless public barrage of criticism" was unjustified and damaging to the long-term interests of the arts in Scotland.

He said Creative Scotland had supported RSNO initiatives such as the Astar project, which will offer a classical CD to babies born over the next year in Scotland to inspire a love of music.

"I have found Creative Scotland to be responsive to creativity, innovation and achievement, and to have a passion for enabling the arts and culture across the whole of Scotland to flourish," Elliott said. "The organisation has admitted mistakes, is learning from them, and is taking action to improve."

Andrew Dixon, chief executive of Creative Scotland, acknowledged that more needs to be done to listen to some of the concerns of artists.

However, he added: "We should point out that we have devolved funding to bodies that work directly with artists across various disciplines, including the Scottish Book Trust, Playwrights' Studio and Transmission Gallery.

"While we're keen for artist-led organisations to take decisions closer to the coal face, we also accept that we need to talk to artists directly ourselves. Some artists who have voiced concerns are people who we perhaps have not reached - We have to find lots of formats in which we can talk to artists."

Dixon said the body had been in talks since June with agencies including the Federation of Scottish Theatres and the Literature Forum on how best to engage on policy issues with artists.

He said: "We have cut £1.5 million from our running costs and have 30% less staff in order to put more money into the cultural sector.

"So there are fewer of us, but we are out and about across Scotland."

Tam Dean Burn, actor:

IT was the strength of feeling from the artistic community that made me sign the letter. I understand that a lot of people declined to sign because they were understandably reluctant to jeopardise any funding, even though they felt strongly about CS.

Personally, I've had a growing sense of disbelief and irritation about the way CS has been operating. I see no need for it, because we have a very successful Scottish arts community, whereas Andrew Dixon has come in acting as if there's some big problem that he can solve, and insisting that we have to learn to operate on a much more business-like basis.

Some people have suggested this attitude is a Thatcherite or Blairite hangover, but it is definitely from the era when the market was seen as the answer to everything. Combine this with CS's dumbing-down approach, which you can see most clearly in their awards. It's not the job of the funding body to initiate awards ceremonies – especially when they charge £110 for tickets. CS seem to think their job also involves advocacy for the arts. That is not how artists see it.

Prof Willy Maley, author, professor of Renaissance Studies at the University of Glasgow:

EVER since CS came into being, I have heard nothing but bad stories. There have been stories about people who wanted to speak out and complain but couldn't, or were not listened to, or were met with a brick wall.

The situation is remarkably similar to what is happening in our universities, where there is a tier of management that will not listen, consult or communicate.

Artists and academics are in a similar, related position. There is something profoundly un-Scottish about it; I like to think we have a democratic ethos or principle. For a small, poor country we have an extremely rich artistic and literary culture. To try to turn this into something we are going to lose face, and faith, over is absolutely disastrous.

It has something to do with a culture of managerialism, of railroading things through, of using business-speak. In terms of the signatories to the letter, I am something of an outlier: I was asked to sign, but, from everything I have heard [about CS] I felt that, whatever its original intentions, it is not working out.

David Harding, former head of sculpture at Glasgow School of Art, now part of AHM collaborative group:

I HAVE no personal grievance with Creative Scotland but am opposed to its very being because of the neo-liberal policies and attitudes it is attempting to impose.

So this is not about its competencies, of trying to make it better, but one of conflict with the whole ethos. Neither is it about personalities. Andrew Dixon and Venu Dhupa [CS director of creative development] may not be the best appointments that could have been made to carry out the Scottish Government's wishes, but changing them will not change what CS is being charged to do.

Creative Scotland is a New Labour construct supinely embraced by the SNP. It should have been fought at the Bill stage, but artists have little enough time and security to make work, let alone to be able to take time to fight a Bill going through Parliament. However, since CS has now shown its teeth, and the cuts bite, artists can react. CS is damaged goods. As Ian Bell wrote: there are only two words needed – "art" and "work".

Fiona Robertson, administrator of Sound Festival, Aberdeen:

Following the changes in the funding to Flexibly Funded Organisations, Sound has been awarded £177,000 by CS over two years. Under the present circumstances, we're happy to have been awarded that grant for our projects, and it is slightly more than we had been awarded for the two previous years.

However, during the review process we were encouraged to articulate a vision for our development by CS, and this new funding level doesn't invest enough to achieve that vision. We would have liked to have had a fuller discussion with CS about our strategy and how their investment would help us achieve this. We believe this lack of discussion is part of the current problem, and there needs to be a re-think on how CS engages with cultural organisations and artists. Creative Scotland has also developed a business ethos, reflected in the language they use, including within the application forms. Whilst this may be appropriate for the creative industries, it feels at odds with the way arts organisations and artists operate.

Corrina Hewat, harp player, principal Scottish harp tutor at the Royal Conservatoire of Scotland:

I HAVEN'T had many dealings with CS since it changed from the Scottish Arts Council, purely because it was becoming bad for my health. Why? I don't understand the forms, and start to shrivel inside when I think about having to do any forms. I'm more into writing, collaborating with other musicians, taking the music to far-flung places, and teaching.

I seem to be in a never-ending loop – must work to pay the bills, need someone to help me, can't afford that, but if I just keep working to raise enough money to get someone to help me ... and so it goes.

I also don't want to complain about CS. I am not a complainer by nature and the whole ethos of supporting the arts is one I live by. I want to see the good in everything, and art in all forms is essential for life. So I'm happier stepping away from the forms and the business speak.

I have received funding through many ventures – touring and recording, many albums and many collaborations, none of which would have happened had it not been for the support we received. The funding enables us to tour larger groups to outlying areas, in venues that would not normally have such gigs going on. It enables collaborations, and enables workshops to be given to kids who are then inspired to keep listening and learning music

Also I don't want to have to cut down on band members, take less time rehearsing, or to change the show so it ticks all the boxes. Why should my art be undermined, and why should I change the way I think to fit? Shouldn't it fit with me?

I'm co-musical director of the Unusual Suspects. We started as a 32-piece, having to slim down to 22 for the tour as stages weren't big enough. Getting the band on the road was always an expensive thing and I was grateful the SAC supported us in those first years. There was a feeling of trust within the community that the folk working in the organisation had direct knowledge and interest in the field of expertise they were funding. But each time we asked for help, it had to be bigger and better, which was near impossible to do through lack of money.

Surely small arts organisations can be given some kind of assurance for a two- or three-year funding plan? How can the arts survive if we are in this constant short-term thinking mode? Art is not just for Christmas, it's for life.

John Byrne, artist:

I simply signed the letter because I'd heard so many gripes from people who run small theatre companies. You just pick up the vibe and think, for God's sake. I have never had any truck with Creative Scotland; I've no idea what Andrew Dixon or anyone else from the organisation looks like. I'm self-sufficient, and self-financing, and have been for many moons. I've no need to go cap-in-hand to them, but it sounds as if others do. You almost get the impression that it's like approaching the KGB – you have to queue up, and sign forms in triplicate. CS don't get out and about much, do they? They almost seem to be in a Gulag of their own making.

'We need to put artists in charge of the resources'

By Anne Bonnar, who helped to set up Creative Scotland

The current furore over Creative Scotland (CS) is the latest battle in a long war between the arts community and cultural bodies. Well-trammelled struggles over ideology and the control and management of funds have taken on particularly Scottish characteristics since devolution, with artists challenging funding bodies on fairness, trust, respect and ethics. The current public intervention by leading artists about the apparent lack of empathy from those who control the arts resources has tipped the discontent expressed about changes to funding streams over into a crisis.

Co-ordinated public intervention by eminent artists has been a game-changer in every recent battle. Protests from artists when I was Transition Director for CS influenced changes to the way that body was set up. CS has had a difficult birth and many of the factors influencing that have now been addressed. But the lack of a structure which recognises eminent artists and their contribution to the cultural leadership of Scotland means that many will continue to feel marginalised and to limit their contributions to a public attack when things go wrong.

State support for the arts and culture in Scotland has strengthened during the last few years after a period of uncertainty. There has been the appointment of a respected Culture Minister staying the course after nine short-term predecessors, the legal establishment of Creative Scotland through the Public Sector Reform Bill, and the appointment of a board and an experienced and committed CEO.

CS has invested in the arts. The merging of Scottish Screen and the Scottish Arts Council has reduced annual operating costs by more than £1m and provided some protection from deeper cuts during this time of reduced public expenditure.

However, board members of CS are appointed by Ministers and not remunerated, in contrast with Scottish Enterprise or NHS. Not only does this signal that culture is less important than enterprise but it precludes applications from those artists who must prioritise work which generates income. There is an artist on the board, musician Gary West, and others who practice art in their spare time but in selecting a chair closely associated with Scotland's financial services, Fiona Hyslop has prioritised financial stewardship. Alternative structures involving artists would signal government recognition of their importance and reduce the singular focus on what is just one part of the cultural landscape.

As Makar, Liz Lochhead occupies the sole official position for a leading Scottish artist. Establishing a national artists' academy with a role in national cultural leadership could bring artists in from the cold and allow more balanced and considered setting of cultural policy. In addition, increased fiscal autonomy could be used to provide a time-limited allowance for artists and creative workers to develop their work, either in tax incentives or a creative enterprise allowance. This would loosen the singular dependence on CS and create a more balanced system for artistic and cultural leadership in Scotland.

Anne Bonnar was Transition Director of Creative Scotland for the Joint Board of the Scottish Arts Council and Scottish Screen, and is now a director of Bonnar Keenlyside, an international arts-management consultancy.

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