A Modest Proposal: a new structure for the arts in Scotland

It is with some trepidation that I publish this proposal about the future of the arts in Scotland.  I was one of those who applied for the post of CEO of Creative Scotland and was not interviewed.  This blog, therefore, could be read as the response of a bitter and spurned candidate.  It is not, but I understand why it might be considered such and there is little I can do about that.

Throughout the last 15 years of observing the development of the arts and creative industries in the run up to and post devolution, I have had a growing sense of a systemic problem in the way government develops and delivers policy in the cultural sphere.  While on the one hand the arts are flourishing and our international reputation grows, on the other we have been suffering ‘planning blight’ in the policy.   From a cultural commission spawning huge unworkable recommendations, through structural changes which took longer than they should, to ‘stooshies’ about how decisions are made to what appears to be a botched recruitment process with distinguished names being mentioned but no final announcement, we have witnessed, or so it appears, a series of failures in governance and management. In the course of preparing my application for the post I began to wonder if there were not something more fundamentally wrong with how things were structured- although, I admit, that did not stop me throwing my hat in the ring. Now I am free to examine these concerns more openly.

My thesis is that the arm’s length policy by which government funds the arts via non-departmental public body no longer serves us well, and has not since 1999, and it is time to look at the creation of a Ministry of Culture and funding the arts directly from government.

A useful starting point is work by Susan Galloway and an article by her and Huw Jones, The Scottish dimension of British arts government: a historical perspective[1] in which they examine through the archives the relationship between the arts and government pre-devolution.  One of their conclusions is that that as Scotland became more autonomous as a nation at the same time the arts policy function became more politicised.   In the 1970s and 1980s the Scottish Arts Council (SAC) automatically received 12% of UK arts funding via the Arts Council of Great Britain (ACGB), and then spent it in ways it chose even if that did diverge from ACGB policy.  SAC was ‘at double arm’s length’ from government.   In 1992 the responsibility was moved from Westminster to Edinburgh and the Scottish Office which brought arts policy closer to Scottish politicians.  Then, of course, along came devolution which was, it was argued, a means by which decisions taken previously at distance from government were placed in the heart of a democratic process.   Yet despite these changes, and the subsequent merger of SAC and Scottish Screen into Creative Scotland, there has been no fundamental challenge to the notion that politics and the democratic process has no part to play in cultural policy and we persist with the fiction that somehow the arts are too important to be part of that process.

The ‘arms- length’ principle for the arts was established in the immediate aftermath of the Second World War and was in part in reaction to the twin threats of fascism and communism and the fear of a state run arts world doing only state-approved art. Its intention was no more and no less than to prevent politicians interfering in decisions about what should or should not be funded.  The principle has its roots further back in the establishment of the BBC and our University system.  It is a very British compromise with all the brilliance and muddle that implies. And indeed it has worked:  I can think of no evidence to suggest that there has been one exhibition or performance which has been approved or banned because of central government interference. However what is clear is that spending public money means being accountable for it.  The government of whatever persuasion has its own priorities and will direct money in that way.  This is called democracy but sometimes this has been interpreted as ‘political interference’.  So let’s do away with the muddle and establish some clean lines between the artist, the arts organisation, the creative project and the political process which votes the money.

After all what have we got to fear?  Freedom of expression is enshrined in the European Convention on Human Rights.  This is the structure which works across most of Europe including Germany where the federal cultural budget has just been increased while government spending overall is being tightened. In none of the countries which fund the arts directly– with left or right wing governments –is there any suggestion that individual artistic decisions are influenced by party politics.  The biggest threat to the arts comes from the economic crisis – and some might argue, the failure of global capitalism.

And what would it mean in Scotland?  As we have all witnessed in other areas, Government decisions are open to scrutiny: we have a robust committee system in the Scottish Parliament with the checks and balances needed to prevent undemocratic political actions and we also have more media outlets than you can shake a stick at.

But the most persuasive argument is that it already happens.  Government directly funds our national performing arts companies, museums and art galleries.  As far as I can tell, the orchestras are not being instructed to perform Hamish MacCunn in every programme nor is National Theatre of Scotland doing all its plays in Doric. In fact we can see a flowering of many of our national institutions – one only has visit the Scottish Portrait Gallery or National Museum of Scotland to see that. What’s more it is time our national companies were pulled more closely to the rest of the cultural world in Scotland. We are too small a country to have such a division in the way things are managed.

What about cost? Well of course we would have to write off the money and time already spent on setting up Creative Scotland but it’s minuscule in comparison to the billions written off in badly thought through government procurement projects.  Mistakes happen. Let’s move on.   There are potential savings too. The Government would require additional expertise internally drawn from existing Creative Scotland staff but staffing in of central functions could be merged with existing corporate departments.  The use of ad hoc external expertise would address some of the recent demands of the arts community to be involved more in consultation on funding decisions and the process whereby some of the funding is already devolved to small specialist organisations could be extended—especially the funding of individual artists.  Few would weep at the disposal of Waverley Gate – and probably the Glasgow office — with the new Ministry accommodated within the existing estate.  There is, of course a lot of devil in any detail and this proposal is intended as a point of departure for debate not as a blueprint.

In 2002 I co-authored a report to Scottish Executive about the Scottish Arts Council, as part of the quinquennial review of the organisation.  Re-reading the conclusions, I can see hints of concern about the structures which operated:  “There is confusion about the role and remit of SAC that affects all aspects of its work. To clarify this the arm’s length principle needs to be re-visited and relationship made clearer between the Executive, SAC, the cultural community and the partners and agencies which interact with SAC. ‘Ministerial interference’ needs to be transformed into ‘Ministerial leadership’.”

Now is the time to see evidence of that Ministerial leadership and a maturing of the relationship between the arts and government.




[1] Susan Galloway and Huw David Jones, (2010) The Scottish dimension of British arts government: a historical perspective, Cultural Trends, 19, Issue 1&2. 


Feminism is like housework. You need to re-visit it every 10 years.

On 8 May I participated in a round table discussion in Lyon on Gender equality – Europe in motion : women in the cultural sector organised by H/F (home/femme) Rhones-Alpes.   The event was part of a European Lab which ran alongside the music festival Nuits Sonores.  The aim was to share experience across Europe and identify actions to influence the new EU cultural programme. Below is the paper which formed the basis of my contribution to the discussions over two hours. For a summary of the discussions and their outcomes, see Europe de la culture : où sont les femmes ? ( in French).

 H/F Rhones-Aples is part of a network in France which promotes gender on equality in arts and culture.  The campaign has gained new energy from the election of Hollande and a left government and the leadership of the Minister of Culture, Aurelie Filippetti who has called on all organisations in France in receipt of public money to take account of gender in programming and employment and has pledged to collect and publish data. 

As indicated below, gender equality in arts and culture is a  campaign which has been going on for many decades in Scotland and across the UK.   It is time to re-start the campaign. 

Feminism is like housework.  You need to re-visit it every 10 years.[1]

« Le féminisme c’est comme le ménage : il faut y repenser tous les 10 ans. »

This quote – which comes from one of our foremost poets and playwrights  — is intended to be partly a joke but carries with it a serious message.  It is echoed in a piece published in Causette in 2010 « Le féminisme, c’est comme le ménage, si on ne s’y colle pas régulièrement, on finit par s’habituer à la crasse. » [2]

This is not empty rhetoric.  In preparation for this event, I have gone back through my personal archive and found material/research prepared over the past four decades- mainly, but not exclusively, in theatre and performing arts:

  • In the 1980s— I was involved in campaigns on women in the arts.  This work originated from the Labour Party and the publication of  a report on women in the arts and media, The Missing Culture.  I was working with the trades unions in Scotland at the time and organised a campaign and a conference on this in 1989. Our concern then was that the exclusion of women was not simply an issue of jobs but also affected the very roots of our culture.[3]
  • In the 1990s I was working at the government agency, the Scottish Arts Council.  We introduced a policy that all organisations that received public funding, monitored their activity and produced figures on equal opportunities.  In 1996 we analysed these figures in a major review which highlighted continuing inequalities facing women in positions of influence and power across the arts. This led to the development of policies in that area.[4]
  • In the first decade of the new millennium, I undertook a review of theatre directing in Scotland and identified the lack of women directors in our theatres.
  • More recently, I led on a review of theatre for Creative Scotland, the new government agency for culture in Scotland which replaced the Scottish Arts Council.  We uncovered the absence of monitoring of equal opportunities policies within the theatres which received public funding.   Nearly 50% of those surveyed did not bother to monitor. Creative Scotland itself took no steps to gather data nor monitor the application of these policies.  This means that there are no current data available on the number of plays by women which are produced, nor on job opportunities for women directors and designers in theatre in Scotland.  This takes us back before 1990s.

For today’s event, I could be reading a paper I prepared at the end of the 1990s and apart from updating the statistics slightly and making some of the references more contemporary, nothing has changed. The conclusions are just the same.

The most detailed recent research in Scotland comes from Stellar Quines, a feminist theatre company which commissioned research comparing the position of directors, writers, actors, designers and composers in theatre when they were founded in 1993 with the situation in 2009.

Key findings are:

  • The gender balance in a typical theatre season was more female in 2009 than 1993 but in no one category were women represented at a level of 50% or more.  Indeed in only one category (actors) was women’s representation above one third. Recent research in England characterised the problem as 2:1 issue: two men for every one women working in theatre in creative roles.
  • In general comparable data from UK, European and international sources showed an increase in women represented in theatre across a range of artistic roles.  However the trend in Scotland was slow in comparison and there was evidence that women got more opportunities in the less well funded companies.
  • Governance—the boards of theatres are mainly male and are, it appears, reluctant to appoint women.
  • There is a need for mentoring/support/networking systems for women—and sharing in the success of women.
  • Non- white and women with disabilities struggle with the complexity of their identity and appear to suffer from multiple discrimination. The identity issue is further complicated in Scotland by a debate around the desirability –or otherwise—of having Scots leading key cultural institutions- however we define that.

There are other arguments which echo down the decades:

  • The bigger the budget the less likely you are to see women in positions of creative leadership: not one of Scotland’s national cultural institutions is led by a women- including orchestra, opera, ballet, theatre, the national museums and galleries, the national library of Scotland and the Edinburgh International Festival.[5]
  • And then there is the Shakespeare problem — a particular issue in England. In France perhaps it is the Molière problem- the issue of the ‘canon’- (le canon litteraire).   Shakespeare dominates theatre in England. An interesting fact – he created 981 characters of which 826 are male and only 155 female. This does imply fewer opportunities for women performers.  However it goes beyond that into the heart of programming. Neither Nick Hytner (outgoing director of the National Theatre in London) nor Gregory Doran (recently appointed director of RSC and previously associate director) has ever directed a play by a woman. Ever.  Both have worked extensively with classical or historical texts where women just don’t feature.
  • In Scotland we have a different issue.  Interestingly there is much less in the way of the established ‘canon’ of work and indeed in an analysis of repertoire over the decades we showed that new work is central to theatrical output in Scotland.  So if women playwrights are not getting their work produced then it is because they are being offered fewer opportunities. But, as I said already, there is a lack of data.
  • And let’s not forget—women make up the majority of audiences in performing arts.

What has to be done?

  • Information is power: I was shocked to discover lack of data in Scotland.  If an arts organisation is in receipt of public money, it must have a policy and this must be monitored.  Let’s also recognise the crucial importance of European wide research such as the work done by the FIA – Federation of Actors on Age, Gender and Performer Employment in Europe. This research in 2007/8 showed that there are fundamental issues facing women in the performing arts—shorter careers, less money and age and gender stereotypes when it comes to roles.
  • Raising the issue: When there is an injustice, often we look to our lawmakers to pass legislation to make it illegal. It is illegal of course to discriminate in terms of employment and access to services But it is hard to legislate in the cultural world where we rely less on employment contracts and more on artistic collaborations.  Your Minister of Culture is to be congratulated in taking the lead on tackling this in France with her announcement of  ‘une Saison de l’égalité’ which specifically challenges French performing arts organisations to tackle programming and access to production for women.  In the UK all public bodies now have to report on the impact of their policies on equal opportunities.  Creative Scotland has produced such a report although it contains little on gender. [4]  There is a commitment to start gathering data from now, which means we will have to wait a few years to build a picture.  All we can do is keep analysing the data and raising the issue. ‘Why have you not commissioned any female playwrights, composers, choreographers? Why are you excluding the talent of over 50% of the population?’ And in this, as I said above, we need to government data to be gathered and made available.
  • Using the tools: The difference today from 30 years go is that we have new campaign tools in Twitter and Facebook – these are also the tools we can use for networking and mentoring. We need to use these networks to highlight these issues.   (An example of this is the Twitter feed @wits_scot which a few of us set up for International Women’s Day).  And let’s not forget international solidarity and events such as this.  We are now able to work across borders much more easily and pan- European campaigning is now a reality.
  • Women taking the lead:  I am impressed by initiatives such as Agent 160 a writer-led theatre company that produces work from its female playwrights, based across the UK.  Prompted by the fact that 17 per cent of produced work in the UK is written by women, Agent 160 addresses the production and commissioning gender imbalance in practical ways by producing plays and blogging on issues.  Women need to take initiatives and perhaps stop being too accommodating.  Here’s an example. My grandmother worked as a shorthand typist in the early 20th century- she learnt shorthand (a form of coding), typing (high level keyboard skills) and filing (data management and retrieval).  That job was a woman’s job so why is it when the digital revolution happened it all came down to boys with toys?  Why, sisters, did we allow men to take over the keyboard, coding and database management? And why, therefore is it men who dominate in the new digital creative businesses?
  • And this brings me to my last point: re- visiting feminism.  I care about hearing diverse voices in the arts and culture, including those from minority ethnic communities and those who have a disability, or those, like me, who are gay.  And I support building common cause where there is a common goal.   It seems, however that somewhere along the line we stopped talking about feminism and re-framed the debate around ‘diversity’, ‘access’ and ‘equal opportunities’ in employment.   Women have become bracketed with ‘minorities’ which we are not; and been subject to initiatives which are concerned with ‘creating dialogue and understanding amongst diverse communities’.  Or ‘providing greater access to opportunities’.  The issue about women in the arts is not just about jobs or access to services it is about who we are and how we see ourselves.  Let’s not have the same debate in another ten years.

[1] I think (and so do others) that this is Liz Lochhead’s quote, but have not been able to confirm this.

[2] Translation- ‘Feminism is like housework: if you don’t get down to it regularly, you end up getting used to the dirt.’

[3] The Missing Culture: Labour’s Plans for Women in the Arts and the Media  (1988?) London:Labour Party.

[4] Equal Opportunities in the Arts, Sarah Coleman (1996) Edinburgh: The Scottish Arts Council.

[5] Christopher Hampson is Artistic Director of  Scottish Ballet, Scotland’s national dance company and leads he artistic team.  However the company’s Chief Executive and Executive Producer is a woman, Cindy Sughrue.

[6] http://www.creativescotland.co.uk/about/our-policies#equality- see link on page to Equality Outcomes.