I wonder if anyone will ever realise how wonderful it all was

 

–      Robert David MacDonald, Chinchilla act 2.

I have resisted entering into the debate on Alasdair Gray’s essay partly because others have already said what I would have said and partly because the tone of the debate was getting a bit too unpleasant for my liking, but mainly because I wanted to read Gray’s piece before jumping to conclusions.  From reports, it seemed to me that perhaps there is a case to be made for encouraging a Scottish interest in cultural leadership posts.  I am with Vicky Featherstone when she suggested that sometimes boards ‘assume that a person from England knows better.’ Although I think there are further more complex reasons for the lack of Scottish appointments to Scottish posts.

Having said that, it did worry me that the essay contributed to a narrowing of the debate- rather than opening it up.

Gray’s theory, that there is a system of classification which describes non-Scots who run our cultural institutions, falls apart when examining what has happened in the last few weeks.  Vicky Featherstone has made a huge contribution to Scottish theatre whatever her background.  She has commented eloquently on her own relationship with Scotland and does not need me to add anything.

However, alongside more recent targets, Gray focussed his criticism on what went on in the arts in Scotland in the 70s, 80s and 90s.  I venture to suggest that in this central part of the essay, Gray is an unreliable witness.  No problem in his works of fiction but, for goodness sake, folk might believe him when he tells them that it was two Englishmen who ran 1990! (It was a Canadian and a Scotsman, by the way)[1].  The essay suggests that Scottish culture was marginalised and, unlike Ireland has failed to protect and promote its own.  By inference it also implies that we are the weaker for it.  I dispute both the evidence offered and the conclusions drawn.

I start with the assertions on theatre. Anyone wishing Scottish theatre could be like Irish theatre clearly has not being paying attention recently.  It is Scottish theatre writing which is ‘punching above its weight’ and for the evidence I point to the recent review of theatre and the work of the Scottish Society of Playwrights in providing the evidence of the international reach of Scottish writing ( see pp72-74).  Further, I argue this strength is as much because of the work in the 1970s and 1980s — not in spite of it.

I am sure we can all describe our great cultural memories.  A few of my theatre highlights of the last century include 7:84’s The Cheviot, the Stag and the Black Black Oil (written by John McGrath– self described as ‘born in England, evacuated to Wales and married to Scotland’).  I saw The Cheviot at the Citizens’ Theatre, following its Highland tour, programmed there by Giles Havergal, (born in Edinburgh to Scottish parents); Chinchilla, by Robert David MacDonald, born in Elgin, interpreter for the UN before coming with Giles and Philip Prowse to run the Citizens’ in Glasgow for over 30 years; The Slab Boys, written by John Byrne (Scottish artist) directed by David Hayman (Scottish actor who began his career at the Citzens’ and played Nijinsky in Chinchilla) produced by Chris Parr (non- Scot) at the Traverse Theatre.  Then there was Mary Queen of Scots Got her Had Chopped Off by Liz Lochhead, directed by Gerry Mulgrew for Communicado (this time by two great Scottish artists) and the revival of Men Should Weep by Ena Lamont Stewart first performed by Glasgow Unity Theatre in 1947 and memorably directed by Giles Havergal in a new production the early 80s as part of 7:84’s Clydebuilt season which also celebrated work by George Munro and Joe Corrie.

Maybe in this period I did suffer from not seeing a great production of Jamie the Saxt but I doubt it (I have seen a production, but not a great one).  I agree that the Citzens’ did not develop new Scottish writing- except work by Robert David McDonald — but I do not accept that Scottish theatre is less because of this. I would go as far to argue that the Citizens’ had a profound and lasting affect on a generations of young people who came in school parties to see the great classics of European drama presented as no other theatre in the UK dared.  In those school parties are the established Scottish writers, actors and theatre directors of today.

What then gave Scottish theatre an added outward looking confidence was the exposure to international work not only at the Edinburgh Festival but also as a result of Glasgow 1990, City Of Culture.  It is easy to pick up a book and read prose or poetry from other lands, less easy to be exposed to international influences in theatre.  For me a great moment in the run up to 1990 was a production of Stars in the Morning Sky by Lev Dodin performed by the Maly Theatre of Leningrad (sic) at Mayfest 1988, whose director was Di Robson, a New Zealander.  The effect of Wooster Group, Robert Lepage and Peter Brook et al on Scottish theatre artists during 1990, was partly an influence on their work but also the confidence to know they could do it too and that others, furth of Scotland, might be interested in what they had to say.  And it also gave them the venue to do it in- Tramway.  Of course Gray is right that a great deal of 1990 was about showcasing international work and making it accessible to Scottish audiences, but not all of it.

Maybe he missed the first theatrical event for 1990, Jock Tamson’s Bairns by Liz Lochhead and Communicado – an epic production on the nature of the Scots inspired by Burns and MacDiarmid, commissioned by Glasgow 1990 or The Ship by Bill Bryden at Harland and Woolf shed about, well, the building of a ship. It seems he also missed David Mach at Tramway and Steven Campbell’s first solo exhibition at the Third Eye Centre, and John Bellany at Compass Gallery and the major exhibition on Scottish art and design, Scotland Creates at the McLellan Galleries in the same year.

So what about support for visual arts?   It is here that I really take issue with Gray and his callous and casual dismissal of the role of Chris Carrell, Director of the Third Eye Centre in the 1980s.  Let’s just clarify the role of the man and the Centre.  Under Chris’s direction, we saw the celebration of the new Glasgow artists: Built in Scotland (1983), New Image Glasgow (1985) which featured the ‘new Glasgow boys’ and Scatter (1989).  This relationship with emerging artists, many of whom came from up the hill at Glasgow School of Art, has been central in creating Glasgow’s international reputation for art which is now the subject of a major research project.  However it was not only the new kids on the block which the Third Eye Centre supported.  Other artists exhibited included, for example, Bruce McLean, Bet Low, and Oscar Marzaroli and his brilliant photographic record of post war Glasgow. It was Chris Carrell who brought to prominence the work of the late and greatly loved George Wyllie. The Third Eye Centre re-positioned the ‘old’ as well as presenting the new.  Projectability grew out of an exhibition of work by artists with disabilities, long before any serious disability arts movement in the UK, and the Third Eye Centre– and Glasgow– became the home to The National Review of Live Art when its Director, Nikki Millican moved to direct performance at the Centre.

Let’s not forget the publishing wing of the Third Eye so close to Chris’s heart – and its imprint which saw the publication of artists’ catalogues to accompany the exhibitions and the work with Hamish Whyte from Glasgow Libraries.

Maybe it is false memory syndrome on my part but I seem to remember the great novelist Alasdair Gray being part of the group of writers and poets who found a convivial place in Sauchiehall Street to listen to readings and discuss work over a dram or two. But it is not my imagination that the Third Eye Centre in 1983 published the first anthology of Glasgow poems, edited by Hamish Whyte, under the title of Noise and Smoky Breath.  And it is certainly not my imagination as I sit looking at my copy, that Alasdair Gray’s own painting of Cowcaddens graces the front cover while the late Edwin Morgan is quoted on the back in fulsome praise of the anthology.

As with theatre, the Third Eye also took an international perspective – led by Chris.  The New Beginnings season of Soviet art at the end of the 1980, featuring the Rodchenko Family Workshop was an eye opener and gave us a new understanding of what was happening not only in art, but also in theatre music and artistic debate behind the iron curtain.   New Beginnings followed an earlier season on Hungarian art and both saw the collaboration across artistic and academic in the city—collaborations which played an important background role in securing the City of Culture title.

All who care about the development of Scottish culture share Gray’s obvious concern about its marginalisation — whether in cultural life or education.  However, sadly his thesis in this latest essay is built on some shaky evidence and an interpretation which does not stand up.  There is a debate to be had on this issue– especially now. Gray is welcome to his views and his memories, but let’s not confuse the work of the artist with the work of the historian and commentator and be a little more rigorous with our sources.

This blog is dedicated to the memory of Cordelia Oliver, (1923- 2009) painter, critic, arts commentator and tireless champion for the arts in Scotland, whose hand I feel very heavily on my shoulder as I write this. 

Correction:  this blog was amended 30/12/202 to clarify the relationship between the Third Eye Centre and the National Review of Live Art.

 


[1] Bob Palmer who was the Director of 1990 is a Canadian who worked at Theatre Workshop in Edinburgh and the Scottish Arts Council before taking up his post in Glasgow 1990.  He stayed on after 1990 and worked for the then Glasgow District Council.  He left under reorganisation and went on to run City of Culture Brussels 2000 and then the Council of Europe.  His deputy Neil Wallace, a Scot, also stayed on after 1990 to work for the Council and to establish Tramway.  He now lives and works in the Netherlands.

 

Creative Scotland and the creative industries

The debate around the future of Creative Scotland includes calls for a re-visiting of the role of the arts funding body as laid down when it was first established.  In essence what is being called for is the removal of responsibility for supporting what is called ‘creative industries’.  I disagree, and here is why. 

Jenna is a dancer.  She is a member of Spilt Milk, a company formed by two of her fellow dance graduates.  They produce work which takes a witty, intelligent and sometimes ironic look at social dance.  They have performed in festivals across England and were showcased at the Linbury Studio, the Royal Opera House.  Like all emerging artists, they spend time making applications for public funds – especially from the Arts Council.  And like all emerging artists, they don’t earn much from this work.  So to support herself, Jenna teaches dance at University level.  She has also runs a business which is her passion: weekend dance classes for children and their parents. Jenna wants to do a PhD in inter-generational dance and these classes provide her with the material which will inform her research as well as being a creative outlet and, crucially, an income source.

I met the entrepreneurial Jenna when she came to work with me in the Midlands as we developed a centre to support recent arts graduates establish their own businesses.  We received economic development cash to retain creative graduates in the area, support the development of sustainable businesses, and, through this, create jobs.  We worked with graphic artists, photographers, film-makers, dancers, theatre artists, musicians and web designers Our job was to give them access to advice, mentoring, specialist training, technology and hot desk spaces to allow them to launch their businesses. Or that’s what we said when speaking to people in economic development.  When talking to the Arts Council we spoke about helping artists to create work through providing studio and office space and expert support and guidance from established artists and academics working in their field—as well as providing short courses on things like marketing and finance.  Both these statements meant the same thing.  Jenna and I are bilingual in the language of economic development and art, and for us there was, and is, no tension.

More importantly there was little conflict for the artists with whom we worked and they were happy to accept advice on how to work in a variety of settings if it meant they could make work.  Applying to the Arts Council to do a collaborative project or develop a full-blown show or exhibition, or selling the work to specialist markets— both allowed them to do what they wanted to do.  The desire to make money was secondary in all cases to making work (although some of the web-based companies had half an eye on being the next big thing in social media). However everyone needs to make a living and our role was to help our graduates sustain their practice through accessing commercial and public sector opportunities. Which is precisely what Jenna is doing through her dance classes.

We worked with tiny businesses and fledgling companies so I watched with interest the proposals to establish Creative Scotland out of Scottish Screen and the Scottish Arts Council and make a closer and more explicit link at national level, between work which is supported via arts public funds and work which can be sustained through engaging with the market —sometimes given support from economic development agencies.  However for a variety of reasons the debate in Scotland became sterile and there was a growing mistrust from the artist.   Arts funding equalled good; economic development equalled bad and, worst still commercial equalled selling out.  There was no bilingualism, just babel.

This discontent grew into the rejection of whole the idea of ‘creative industries’. Many a tree has died in critiquing the concept of creative industries- and I too tire of the overblown rhetoric around the concept of creative industries being the saviour of our economy.  But it is foolish to deny the link between of film, broadcasting, publishing, recording, design, games architecture and the rest of the arts sector and build some kind of cordon sanitaire.  Equally it is depressing to promote the notion that if a theatre show makes money in a commercial sense it must be without merit and exploitative of the artist and the art.

Some who reject what they call the ‘ideology’ behind the establishment of Creative Scotland and the term creative industries have their own deeply held ideological position which they will hold fast until we reach the sunny uplands of a new Marxist world.  I however, can’t wait that long.

Another position taken by some is that Creative Scotland should focus on art and the artist, and let another agencies in economic development do the rest.  However, as I have tried to suggest above, it is not always so clear-cut and tidy.  I also think this is a timid position. Surely we want to see leadership from the arts community when it comes to seeing public investment in creative businesses?

The real failure in our approach to the creative industries in Scotland is not that Creative Scotland has funded a cookery programme — that’s bad judgement and rightly pilloried.  No the real failure is that, in common with other industrial and commercial sectors in Scotland, we are brilliant at creating and inventing and terrible at making any money from it.  Thus, we have in our midst, paying taxes and being part of our society, the most successful living writer in the world (J.K. Rowling) but Scotland makes next to nothing out of the ‘exploitation’ of her talent in publishing and film making.  And before anyone tells me that we are too wee to make any impact on the global film industry which is US dominated, I say, Wellington, New Zealand.  And oh if only we could use our fabulous talent in writing, acting, music, design, and technical skills and produce just one TV drama to match that which is coming out of Denmark at the moment!

Not all of this is down to what Creative Scotland supports from its budget — economic development bodies have a role too — but the leadership must come from the arts body, surely.  And in turn its legitimacy will come from the expertise and skills it gains from working with artists whose creative output it supports.   It starts with the art whether we call it a project, business or an industry.

Postscript Spilt Milk is keen to tour to Scotland and especially the Edinburgh Festival Fringe.  Follow the link to get hold of them if you can help!

Update****

This blog has attracted a few comments on Facebook and Twitter.  I quote them here with my response.

From Robert Dawson Scott on Facebook, two points:

1.    I’m really glad someone has at least come and out argued this case. Like you, Christine, my initial thoughts on the idea of Creative Scotland were not negative; the very fact that government was treating the creative sector as something worth investing in, rather than just a drain on money that could have been spent on schools/hospitals/la la la, seemed to be a positive step. Where it began to unravel, I think, or at least where one of the threads began to work loose, was when it became clear that CS wasn’t going to get any of the resources that, say, Scottish Enterprise, can access to invest in industries. Whether that was the Enterprise network leaning on government to protect their comfy berths for clapped out business men or not we may never know but I shouldn’t wonder. It left CS a bit broken backed from the start; and also made the mash-up of art and commerce more uncomfortable than it needed to be.

Good point – maybe this needs to be re-visited at the very least to make the relationship between Creative Scotland and the enterprise agencies (let’s not forget Highlands and Islands Enterprise) more effective.  There is what is called the Creative Industries Partnership of which Creative Scotland is a member along with Scottish Enterprise, Highlands and Islands Enterprise, Scottish Funding Council, Skills Development Scotland, Scottish Development International, and Convention of Scottish Local Authorities  (or if you prefer CS, SE HIE, SDS, SDI, COSLA – aka a bad hand at Scrabble). Maybe some clarity is required.

2.    On a smaller point, and you should know better than repeating this, CS has not invested in a cookery programme. It invested in the pitch to get a network programme to Scotland. The cash will be repaid since the pitch was won and the result is about 28 jobs in the TV industry at no cost to anybody (except the licence fee payer). Even cookery programmes need camera people, editors, blah blah. Oddly enough, for all the opprobrium this has attracted, it was actually an example of CS doing something that it was supposed to do. Of course I am an employee of STV so I would say that; but also I am an employee of STV so I do actually know the detail.

I stand corrected and agree I made a cheap dig.  However I do not think this is what CS is supposed to do.  I do not think that its remit should include supporting the core work of a PLC.  I do not think supporting jobs CS’s primary role (although it is always excellent when it does). This perhaps just illustrates how muddled the thinking has been in this area—and I don’t blame STV for trying.

From @johnnygailey on Twitter several tweets and two main points.  I have re-produced the tweets as they appeared but because of the restrictions of Twitter, the points are made in abbreviated form.  I have re-stated what I believe to be the essence of what is being said but happy to correct if I have got it wrong.

1.  it’s not the same thing: one you fund coz it can’t find form in the market, the other you find coz it can, and you expect return

The point is that the creative industries and the arts are not the same thing because you expect a financial return on the former.  I agree with this.  State funding for the arts is indeed about supporting the creation of work which cannot be sustained via the market.  This in itself does not deny the link between the artist/idea and a viable business.  CS has a role in supporting artists directly but it also can, should and does work in other ways to allow the work to be produced and distributed in a way which will make a return.  Whether CS shares in this return depends on what it is.  For example, film funding can be given as ‘an investment’ so the public purse is recompensed if the movie is a hit. But normally the view is that public money is sued to assist the artist – and the work—to reach a wider market and this will in turn help to support future work.  Whether this works as well as it should is a moot point and one I am raising.

2.  The ideology is not to dump ctve ind remit..the ideo is whethr arts should spec. be tied to the Single Overarching Purpose of Govt:”2 focus govt & public services on create a more successful country,with opp fr all of Sctld to flourish,thru increasg sustnble econ growth”

Economic growth is not the only way to ensure a country ‘ flourishes’

Just because there is economic growth, doesn’t mean ALL Scotland is flourishing.

I suggested that the problem with CS is not one of ideology but how the relationship between creative industries and art is managed and developed.  @johnnygailey’s challenge is that the ideological problem is not as I have described but the fact that CS is expected to follow Government policy and in particular the focus on public services being aligned with economic growth. Absolutely fair point. I agree that I have misinterpreted some of what has been said about the underpinning ideology of CS’s remit.

I agree that economic growth is not the only way in which a country flourishes.  I also agree that not all benefit from economic growth. Further, to link the  development of the arts solely to an economic return flies in the face of everything artist stand for – and indeed what we all understand as the role of state funding for the arts.  So far I agree wholeheartedly.

However I think we need to recognise the realpolitik.  The funding is public funding.  Government is responsible for setting the budget and determining how that funding is spent. The current Scottish Government was elected to do just that.  It is not surprising that it expects its public bodies to develop their plans in line with its objectives.  This should not be confused with government interfering with individual funding decisions in terms of what is or is not funded. It is about CS’s plans and priorities.

This is nothing new.  All governments have sought to determine how their money is spent whether directly by them or via another agency.  In reality this works as a continuous dialogue between government and the agency.  I sat around the board room table of the Scottish Arts Council during the last Conservative government in the early 1990s and witnessed the Council managing its relationship with a sometimes hostile—and sometimes not—political reality.  As was said in 1999, the good thing about devolution is that it brings the arts and government closer together and the bad thing about devolution is that it brings arts and government closer together.  For an utterly brilliant and fascinating exploration of all this check out a project led by Susan Galloway at the University of Glasgow, The Scottish Arts Council 1967-2007: arts governance and national identity. A historical analysis of cultural policymaking.

This is neither good nor bad but, like the weather, we have to live with it and how we handle it is part of the democratic process.

From @southfilmfest:  I wonder if JK took HP to Canongate? & no film studio i Scotland, calls for one ignored by Scottish Screen for years.

No idea about whether or not there was an opportunity for Canongate to publish Harry Potter.  It is a remarkable business and has made a great contribution to the cultural as well s economic scene.  I am not an expert int his area but I belive it becomes very hard for small publishers here or elsewhere in the UK to hang on to successful writers as they cannot compete with ‘the big boys’ on advances.

On the issue of film studio, the issue is partly capital investment to create such a facility– which could  attract lottery funding–but also the viability of such a facility.  I realise there is a bit of chicken and egg here but I understand that what is needed is a big commitment from major film and TV companies to make the business plan stand up.