By Cathy Agnew

THE sheer resilience of Scotland’s rural arts sector – never overflowing with resources at the best of times – has been heartening and astonishing during the pandemic. But the damage has been immense and local recovery plans are urgently needed. These should consider how to strengthen partnerships between arts organisations, communities and councils.

This year the cancellation or shift online of high-profile events supported by Dumfries and Galloway Council’s Major Festivals and Events Strategy (MFES) 2018-21 has meant an estimated loss of £8 million to the local economy.

As chair of DGU, the region’s network that connects and promotes the creative sector, I know this is a fraction of the overall losses as numerous cultural events had to be abandoned. Can they be revived? Can we safely return to physical events? What needs to change? Can any that have gone for good be replaced?

Whilst these questions need to be answered everywhere, for rural areas they are particularly pressing.

The cultural economy is a major driver for tourism and hospitality and provides jobs in places where traditional industries have waned. Events and festivals also bind communities together, provide opportunities for volunteering and have a recognised positive impact on wellbeing. This can be invaluable when many people have been isolated and mental health is presenting challenges.

Over the years DGU has worked closely with Dumfries and Galloway Council and, thanks to an enlightened attitude towards its cultural economy, we’re better placed than some rural areas to face the future.

One example is that the council is investing £30,000 in Together Again – a year-long programme of small-scale, grass roots events and activities across the region to be curated by DGU. This will encourage activities that enhance cultural life, social cohesion, health and wellbeing – providing much-needed earnings for artists, performers and others, to say nothing of giving enjoyment to audiences. It’s the sort of thing that councils and local arts bodies are ideally placed to do because they know the vital contribution the cultural sector makes to their economies.

Similarly £217,000 has been pledged to Dumfries and Galloway’s four Signature Cultural Events (2020-22). This means that events such as Spring Fling Open Studios (which normally attracts over 10,000 visitors and generates £1.4 million) and Dumfries and Galloway Arts Festival (Scotland’s largest rural performing arts festival) can regroup and reshape to fit future needs.

But it’s not just the money -–it’s the collaboration, flexibility and the thought that goes into how to hold physical events safely that’s so important and all the more so as who knows what the impact of the second wave will be?

But what does seem clear is that we’ll not be chasing record attendance figures. Instead the MFES will emphasise finding ways to invest in wider areas for longer time periods, making more use of outdoor venues.

The fact that every £1 of MFES money generates or safeguards £30 for the economy (adding up to £16.35 million in 2018 and 2019) shows both its importance and its remarkable good value.

Local planning applies specialist knowledge from within the communities and organisations that need support. They know what will work for them. And whilst different models inevitably suit different areas, surely now is the time to call on every local authority to invest in their creative sector.

In the meantime, Dumfries and Galloway looks forward to welcoming you back as soon as safety allows.

Cathy Agnew is Chair of DGUnlimited