Beware false prophets

The front-page splash on Saturday’s Herald was about impending cuts to public expenditure and the possible impact this could have on the arts in Scotland. Richard Findlay, Chair of Creative Scotland is raising the alarm and warning the Scottish Government and the arts world about the devastating affect these cut will have. Findlay and Creative Scotland should be congratulated for taking a lead in influencing the government and advocating for the arts.

The justification for arts funding is familiar and in summary is a. the arts don’t cost very much as a proportion of public expenditure; b. the sector employs lots of people for that money; c. their turnover runs to billions; d. the arts are good for our economy.   Given that one of the key priorities of the Scottish Government is economic growth, it is understandable why Creative Scotland is making the economic case.

However I would argue that it is not the arts’ strongest suit. First the numbers are a bit slippery. Findlay asserts that Creative Scotland supports 118 regularly funded organisations (although later in the article this figure becomes 121) and these organisations employ a total of 8,000 people. This averages 68 people per organisation. Even a cursory knowledge of the arts in Scotland suggests this is inflated- presumably by including freelance and contract artists- who are not employees and not on 12 month full time contracts. Perhaps more concerning is the conflation ‘arts and creative industries’- where 71,000 people work and these businesses turnover £5.75 billion. What the article does not say is that the creative industries include areas such as advertising, architecture, computer games, radio and TV, heritage, software/electronic publishing- all of which fall outside Creative Scotland’s remit[1]– indeed most businesses in these areas are not supported by the cultural budget at all. Perhaps it is unfair to be picky about figures quoted in a short article, but if the argument is to be made on numbers the numbers have to be clear and consistent. [2]

Second, while the arts have got a role to play in Scotland’s economy, it is hardly their raison d’être. Their role in tourism and image making is pretty clear – see the Edinburgh festivals — and Ministers regard the arts as being important in supporting Scotland’s image abroad. It is not unusual for the arts to be part of the soft diplomacy of a country, region or city. However outside these areas, arts organisations supported by Creative Scotland do not in and of themselves generate a large economic return. If people of Glasgow, for example, are spending their money in the theatre, they are not spending it in other wealth generating areas.

As we move closer to the big reckoning we are going to hear more of this. If not the case for economic impact, it will be the impact on health and education. Like the economy, the arts have a role to play in those areas too. There are examples of engagement in the arts affecting mood in those suffering from depression, or providing a therapeutic support for those with Alzheimer’s or well-designed hospitals aiding healing process. However there is a lack of robust evidence that the arts are good for your health and well-being. There is also an argument to be made in the role of the arts in schools being stimulation to learning concentration and confidence. But there are other activities and actions that can aid health and well-being or raise educational standards.   The Big Noise in Raploch has had an enormous affect on the youngsters participating in music-making. Elsewhere in Stirling a primary school has used sport and exercise to improve the health as well as the concentration of its pupils. Both these projects are excellent and in their own way support the development of the next generation. The arts do not have the monopoly on good ideas and effective interventions.

So while arts organisations should be demonstrating how they are contributing to local economic development or linking with schools, or working with people with disabilities or combatting isolation of the elderly, or supporting the refugee community as they learn about life in Scotland, the case for arts funding will not be won by claiming that the arts can solve society’s ills nor that they can be instruments in socio-economic development.[3]

So where should the arts be staking their claim? In entertainment, enlightenment and provocation; by exploring ‘who we are and how we carry ourselves’[4]. In 2000, I co-authored an article that examined the place of the arts at the start of devolution. We said about the place of the arts in the pre-devolution era[5]:

‘The impression is that in the dark days of 1980s and 1990s, when the devolution cause was nurtured in Scotland by a growing band of Scottish politicians, community leaders, churchmen and trade unionists, it was Scotland’s cultural community that kept the flame alight and warmed the spirits. It was the poet who articulated our national identity as both nostalgic and radical; it was the film maker who presented Scotland in all its beauty and quirky nature to the wider world; it was the singer who told of Scotland’s industrial devastation at the hands of an uncaring Westminster government; it was the fine artist who made us look at ourselves and our cities in a new ‘cool’ way. In these ways Scotland’s artists defined us for ourselves and re-defined our place in the world as a nation capable of at least being able to run our own domestic affairs.’

If the arts had a role in the 1980s and 1990s in how we saw ourselves, they moved nearer to centre stage last year during the referendum campaign– not only with campaigning, although some did- but in exploring ideas of cultural and civic identity and imagining a better Scotland regardless of the constitutional position.  Artists challenged ideas and images of the place we occupy in the world today. Or, to put it another way:

‘Fostering our sense of belonging by supporting and promoting cultural and creative opportunities, events, festivals and the celebration of key dates in the Scottish calendar.’ -from The Scottish Government’s National Outcomes

After the Charlie Hebdo atrocities, sales of the books of Voltaire, Montesquieu and other authors of the French enlightenment soared, in reaction to an attack on free speech. The recent attacks in Paris have led to another literary phenomenon – this time copies of Paris est une fête have sold out. Known better by its English title, A Moveable Feast, it is a memoir by Hemingway of his time in Paris in the 1920s. It is being read today as an assertion of Parisian identity and French values. The author says in his introduction:

‘If the reader prefers, this book may be regarded as a fiction. But there is always the chance that such a book of fiction may throw some light on what has been written as fact.’

Surely this is the place of the arts and the role of the artist – to throw a light on ‘the fact’?  It’s not about the economy.

 

[1] http://www.creativescotland.com/resources/our-publications/plans-and-strategy-documents/creative-industries-strategy-2015-17 (p24)

[2] Mark Brown wrote a letter to the Cabinet Secretary, Fiona Hyslop criticizing Creative Scotland’s Creative Industries strategy. Re-printed in the Sunday Herald 15 November 2015 https://scottishstage.wordpress.com

[3] This is not just an issue for us in Scotland. Last month I was at a gathering of the European Cultural Parliament where there was a great deal of discussion about the current crisis facing Europe with the arrival of thousands of migrants (this was pre Paris). That was until a Greek delegate pointed out that culture could not prevent the deaths in the Mediterranean and Aegean nor could it solve the problem refugees landing in Lesbos or Lampedusa. There is a humanitarian crisis that demands a humanitarian solution. The arts cannot intervene where we have no real role.

[4] From the speech of the First Minister Donald Dewar MP, MSP at the opening of the Scottish Parliament, 1 July 1999.

[5] Cultural policy and Scotland: a response to the National Cultural Strategy, co-authored with Adrienne Scullion, Scottish Affairs 39 (spring, 2002): 131-48.

 

 

Glasgow’s Shame

I am a volunteer tutor in English for Speakers of other Languages – also known as ESOL- and supported brilliantly by Glasgow ESOL Forum. For the last three months I have been working with a young man who fled here a decade ago from persecution in his own country. Let’s call him Adam. I do not know his full story—it is not my role to uncover uncomfortable truths from his past. We are working on his future. But there is a lot I do know because, well, I can’t avoid it.

At some point after Adam arrived here, he was savagely attacked and sustained multiple injuries. This has resulted in him being seriously visually impaired, with hearing difficulties, has problems with speaking and is confined to a wheelchair. He also suffers from vertigo and, it appears, some brain damage. He is, to all intents and purposes, housebound. The ESOL Forum does not normally support volunteers to go to learners’ homes – too risky. However Adam receives two 2- hour sessions a week of support from the Glasgow Association for Mental Health (GAMH). It is during one of those sessions that I go to his flat and work with him on his English. Without GAMH he would not receive any support at all in English nor in a range of other aspects of his life with which he requires help – from ordering shopping online to help going to the polling station- which he did for the first time on 18 September.

I have just read that Glasgow City Council has voted to slash GAMH’s funding by 40% and I could cry. But this is Adam’s story and not mine.

Uneducated in his country of birth, Adam can speak and understand Farsi, but the only language he can read and write is English. He also lacks numeracy skills. However he is a very intelligent man and someone who wants to learn and is particularly keen to understand the building blocks of the English language through understanding its grammar and also get a grasp of how numbers work. I bought him an abacus and once I showed him how it worked, he exclaimed ‘genius!’. It is a struggle given his complex health problems and his disability but teaching him is not a chore but a joy. He has ambitions to improve his language and numeracy skills to the level where he can study further. He is fascinated by science and medicine- possibly because he has spent quite a lot of time in hospitals with doctors and health workers. He is also a philosopher and an observer of life in his beloved Scotland – even from his wheelchair in his living room. He recently told me:

‘I love to mix with people who are well educated and positive. Before I met the wrong people and I thought all people same. But they are different. Human life is very short and you must live with good people.’

By ‘good people’ he means me and the ESOL Forum, his carers who come in four times a day, his friends from the local church and above all the workers from GAMH who help him navigate through life.

I have no idea what impact this decision will have on Adam but what I am pretty sure about that it is unlikely he will receive the additional hours that his support worker has said he badly needs. Adam I know is not alone in requiring and valuing the support of GAMH. But he is the one I know about and his story is one which should shame anyone who believes that this wonderful charity should be cut.

This is not a decision taken by a UK agency. This is not another heartless squeeze on people with disabilities by Westminster. This is not a Scottish Government decision. This is an attack on the most vulnerable in our city taken by our own city council. These are not Adam’s ‘good people’.

August in Edinburgh- some observations

(Grumpy old woman alert!)

As the Fringe and Book Festivals pack up for another year, the media are full of stories on ticket sales and overviews of the highs and lows of the arts in Edinburgh during August. There is still more to come, of course but I wanted at this point to add some highs and lows as a visitor (from Glasgow) and member of the audience in Edinburgh during the summer.  I have been coming to the festival since I was a child and, as an adult, I have been every year for more than I can remember. This year, like every other, there have been many wonderful moments which I will cherish and some (very few) I will happily forget.   But this blog is about the wider experience.

The city looks magnificent.  It always does look pretty special and the sunshine definitely helps.  But big congratulations to the staff of City of Edinburgh Council who kept the place so clean.  Given the number of flyers being thrust into my hands and those of other visitors, we should have been knee-deep in litter.  The fact we weren’t is down to the unsung heroes of Street Care and Cleaning.

This is the last year BT (before trams) and I don’t want to add to the grumbling we have heard for too long about the disruption caused by their construction – and at the same time the re-construction of both Edinburgh’s main stations. It has been an obstacle course round diggers and Heras fencing for too long. However the city has never been kind to pedestrians and the relationship between those on foot and those in vehicles is fraught.  This year I brought my bike through on the train to aid getting from one venue to another and let me tell you Edinburgh bus drivers just don’t care.  My hope, therefore is that in the brave new Tramworld, we see a better layout of roads and pavements and special lanes which can accommodate everyone.

Another infrastructure issue is access to wifi. For overseas visitors this is crucial for getting information, booking tickets, using maps to find venues on smart phones without incurring huge bills.  No point, promoters, having shiny apps if your customers can’t afford to access them. I can attest to the fact that in parts of Quartermile it is impossible to get 3g never mind wifi.  Many venues offer access but often it is not adequate for most purposes beyond email. So Edinburgh, bite the bullet and create a city centre wifi zone and be an enlightened city for the 21st century.

However wifi is just one aspect of accessing information.  Most phones need regular re-charging and a common site in the city is of folk crawling along the floor of bars and restaurants trying to find the socket used by the cleaners for their vacuums in order to plug in an i-phone –and then hovering around anxiously making sure it is not stolen.  This is one for the private sector. Install proper phone charging facilities which can be freely accessed for those buying a meal/drink/ticket.

I want to put on record my great box office moments—the Edinburgh International Book Festival which refunded my tickets I booked online by mistake; the Edinburgh International Festival which re-printed lost tickets (twice!); the Fringe box office which refunded money for a cancelled show before I even knew it was cancelled- and joy unconfined- the Fringe Booth at Glasgow Queen Street! Thanks to them and their lovely helpful staff. Less impressive was the attitude of the front of house staff in some of the temporary venues. It is likely that they were overworked, low paid and lacked training. Back-to-back shows mean we have to expect queuing and crush but so much of that can be made bearable by good customer care. If you want to see how to do it, go to the Traverse, Edinburgh International Book Festival or Summerhall which managed to cram in audiences to its rabbit- warren of venues with a smile and charm.

Summerhall, however scores less well on my final point: toilets. With the huge numbers of folk passing through venues, this becomes a real issue. Not enough, not clean, not working. Temporary venues in old buildings have a problem. They cannot address the issue with portaloos, like the big tented spaces or with lovely facilities you find in lottery funding-enhanced theatres. However Summerhall is not a temporary venue and it needs to look at its operations in this area.  But it is not just venues. How is it possible that a new restaurant facility like Peter’s Yard is allowed to get away with inadequate number of loos?  Whether you are using temporary toilets or not, they need to be cleaned — and regularly.  And ‘out of order’ signs should be a badge of shame.  Perhaps there is a lesson to learn from those who clean Edinburgh’s streets, not just during the festival period, but all year round.

 

 

 

 

 

 

Les acteurs français sont trop payes! (French actors are paid too much)

Thus ran the headline in the French daily newspaper Le Monde on 29 December above a photograph of Gerard Depardieu.

Yet this was not an article about the larger than life French actor, his drunken antics on a scooter, his move to a dreary village in Belgium to avoid the new 75% tax on earnings above €1m.  Nor was it about him in a fit of pique at the French government, tearing up his French passport and accepting President Putin’s invitation to settle in an inhospitable part of Russia (followed by his decision to fail to appear to answer the ‘drunk-in-charge- of-a-scooter’ charge which may result in him being detained in France on a criminal charge).  No, this piece was not about ‘pathetic’ film stars –the French PM’s description of Depardieu.   Instead the article suggested that French cinema is in crisis and it has little or nothing to do with Depardieu.

The author of the think-piece is Vincent Maraval, founder and director of Wild Bunch the successful film distribution company which counts The Artist (Oscar winner Best picture 2012) and Angel’s Share (Jury Prize, Cannes 2012) as two of its recent successes.   So a man who is a key part of the film industry in France and globally and who, when he speaks, is listened to.   Although he subsequently rejected the title given to his article by Le Monde’s sub-editors, his thesis is, nevertheless, that French movies cost too much and this can be put down to the level of fees paid to the ‘talent’.   He blames the financial structure of the film industry in France for the problem and has attacked the process of film finance which has underpinned not only a treasure of French culture but also an industry with lots of jobs.   This is of interest not only to France but also to those who look on the French film-funding model with envy.

First, his thesis.  Put simply, French films cost too much.  According to Maraval, the French movie costs on average €5.4 million.  Only US studios produce movies are more costly.  The average US independent movie costs €3 m.

The recent success of movies such as The Artist and Amour—reaching as they do a global audience- masks the fact that most French films have a limited market beyond France.  At home, French video sales are collapsing , TV  audiences for French films are in terminal decline in the face of reality TV, and cinema attendances stagnating.  There is, according to Maraval, a mismatch between reach of a movie and its cost. He cites the recent Asterix film (Astérix et Obélix : au service de Sa Majesté) which attracted a cinema audience of 4 million – perfectly respectable until he points out that it cost €60 million – equivalent to the cost of a Tim Burton US studio  movie.

Maraval’s argument is that the cost is down almost entirely to the fees paid to artists.  Again he makes comparisons: French actors appearing in American movies are paid a lot less for these movies than they are for appearing in French ones.   Well known names like Vincent Cassel, Audrey Tautou and Marion Cotillad can command fees of between € 0.5-2m for a French film, but are happy with a fee of between €50-200K for an American one which has a global reach.

So why is this happening?  Maraval puts this problem down to the way in which French movies are financed and the availability of state funding.  This ’state funding’ comes via the CNC (Centre national du cinema) which in turn receives funding directly from government with its film investment coming principally from a level on ticket prices (10.7%) and also a levy on French broadcasters—both free to air and subscription channels.   Maraval’s point is that there is no link between the popularity or earning potential of a movie and its cost.

The reaction to this piece has been vociferous and in those news-lite days between Christmas and New Year, there were several headlines criticising Maraval’s attack on individuals and accusing him of putting the government support at risk at a time when Hollande’s presidency is struggling with economic problems and sinking poll ratings.  Effectively, it is argued, Maraval has given the politicians and excuse to cut funding to film.  Leaping to the defence of the film industry, however, is the Minister of Culture,  Aurélie Filippetti and there is talk of a ministerial summit on the funding of the French film industry later this month.

What relevance is all this beyond France? Since the original article was published, the French movie has yet again broken though the ‘foreign film’ barrier at the Oscars with Amour (co-pro with Austria) nominated for five Oscars. Whatever Maravel says, from where we sit, the French film sector continues to produce movies in French about French stories, with French talent and money a few of which become global hits, or are translated into globally recognised films—the rest being shown primarily in France and shaping French culture and ideas.  Is there a problem?  That’s for the French to decide.

In terms of the UK film industry  — and film-making in Scotland—the lesson from France is that commitment from the government and the industry does deliver cultural and economic rewards.  However intervention in the market place with public money does not always guarantee quality (assuming quality means movies which enjoy critical, audience or financial success) and supporting innovation and experimentation should be just that—support for the new and not the enhancing of fees for those who already enjoy great success.

 

 

 

 

Want to buy tickets for shows? Forget it!

I decided it is time to get New Year into gear and book some tickets for up and coming events.  Three different scales of shows; three different experiences. I have written about poor ticket selling practices in Scottish theatre before.  This time I am naming names.

Arches charges £1 booking fee plus £1 transaction fee plus 50p card fee – per ticket to book online.  NTS sells its tickets for Black Watch at SECC via Ticket Soup.com and not listed so assume sold out- but it took me three clicks to get there and I can’t be bothered trying to find out.  Seen the show before anyway, but friend wanted to go. Need to go back and say I have failed to find tickets.

For David Leddy’s site specific show Long Live the Little Knife in Govan, you are encouraged to book early as space limited and gives a phone number- but no box office opening times.  After some detective work discover box office is Tramway but sadly no opening times given on their website.

I think I will just buy some books online instead.

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.

 

Going for Gold: Involving Arts in Community

Going for Gold: Involving artists and community

Above is a link to the paper presented at the World Leisure Congress in Rimini, Italy on 30  September 2012 which discusses issues around access, community arts and arts in the community and suggests we have seen some new interesting developments in the context of the London Olympics 2012.  *

 

* Slides to be found Arts in Community World Leisure Congress

BA or Ryanair? The pain of theatre ticket buying.

I am very fortunate to receive invitations to opening nights or special performances from friends, former colleagues and professional associates.  However I also attend lots of arts events on my own initiative and therefore, like anyone else, I am used to booking and paying for tickets.  This experience has, at times, left me feeling ripped off and exasperated with how bad performing arts organisations are at selling tickets. All (bad) examples are unidentified but all happened to me- across theatres in Scotland.

A friend, frustrated about the process of collecting a ticket in Edinburgh this summer, mused about how he could sail through Glasgow Airport flashing his iPhone and board a BA flight to London without ever having to fumble around with a bit of paper. Of course we all have our horror stories about air travel but, in an effort to drive down costs and improve efficiency all airlines encourage you to book and check in on line—and you save money by doing so.

Let’s contrast this with theatre.  Yes you can book online.  Yet all issue you with tickets which you need to pick up at the venue or pay to have sent out.  This becomes even more complicated if the venue is not the booking office.  The Edinburgh Fringe made steps this year to make this easy and hurrah for the Queen Street station booth in Glasgow. However it becomes very tricky with re-sales.  I know of two spare tickets for the sell out Barrowland Project on Sunday afternoon because the selling agent could not arrange a resale via its system.

Some websites are better than others and some are just terrible.  What about the theatre which does not let you book two tickets if it leaves one seat empty next to it?  I know the argument but what if you and your friend really want to sit in the middle of row H because you have a hearing impairment and this is the best place for you to hear?

Plaudits must go to the ‘BA of booking sites’, Edinburgh International Festival.  The site is several years old now, but is relatively straightforward and you can select your seat.    But the real reason I love the EIF booking system is that you don’t pay anything more than the price of the ticket. Some of our most valued theatres – funded by the tax payer- would make Ryanair blush.  £2 ‘transaction fee’ for booking online- what’s that all about?  This can work out at more than 10% of the total cost.  And then you get asked for a donation! It’s like Michael O’Leary asking for you to buy him a wing for his new plane after you have paid for using the loo.  I know, of course that the booking fee is widespread in the commercial sector- including theatre, bands and big sports events.  I can just about understand why a business model which involves the venue/promoter using an external agent to sell tickets might have to charge extra for this service –although I am not totally convinced this cost cannot be absorbed into a ticket price.  I am at a loss, however, to know why a theatre which runs its own box office feels the need to add an extra booking fee for its own productions when booked on line where little staff time is involved.  And like Ryanair they don’t tell you until it is almost too late.

Of course I could book by phone—although again this often incurs a booking fee. You would think that if there were a booking fee, you would be phoning straight through to handling centre.  No. You have to decide if you want to speak to the box office, the artistic director, the catering manager and someone who sorts the education programme .  Once you have pressed the buttons you are in a queue and this is costing you.

Let’s turn now to the issue of efficiency. In the Alice and Wonderland world of theatre booking, my face-to-face transaction with a member of staff does not incur a booking charge. So I turn up on the night and wait in a queue.  Back in the day, I had management of a box office and I did my bit of counting ticket stubs, writing up the advance sales, calculating door sales on the basis of marks on a plan and managing the sales queue on the night.  Of course it is so much better now we have computerised systems. NO IT’S NOT.

Rather than focusing on getting the sale done, today when I book in person the poor member of staff feels the need to show me the seat by pulling the computer screen round for me to see which seat I am being offered.  I make my selection and as the queue builds up I am then asked if I have ‘booked with us before’.  Not sure. Give over my postcode. Then remember I did book before but that was under another address. By the time we have located me on the system and changed the address – or entered an address if I am a new customer, the queue is restive and the stage manager is urgently asking front of house if they are ready to go.

So whatever way we look at it, we have an inefficient system (sorry ‘systems’ plural because there is not just one), which makes you as a customer feel ripped off and dissatisfied.

But the great advantage of the computerised box office is that it provides a wealth of detail on who buys tickets.  From a customer’s point of view this holds few advantages.  OK I go on the mailing list and receive a regular brochure but beyond that I rarely receive targeted information by post or email (again the Edinburgh International Festival is an exception). Unlike supermarket loyalty cards, there is no benefit to me to have my data held by the venue.

From the theatre’s point of view the data provide management reports on the audience profile and a good example of how this is used can be found with the audience development agencies.  But I know from the work we did on the theatre review that not all venues can use their systems properly; there is an issue about sharing data between the venue and the visiting company; and there is still a gap between gathering and analysis and actually doing anything with the data.

This is not an easy issue- let’s not forget the one persistent problem with the Olympics/Paralympics was about how the tickets were sold.  But we are not talking here about global events  with huge demand. We are trapped in a system which is inefficient, costly and ultimately rips off the customer.   And that is before we look at the actual cost of the ticket. So which is your local theatre? BA or Ryanair?

 

 

 

 

Look what I found!

In 2006, while working at the University of Glasgow I undertook a piece of research for the Federation of Scottish Theatre on Theatre Directing in Scotland.  I was encouraged to re-visit this work recently by someone who had read the report and picked up some points from it relevant for now.  And indeed on re-reading, I note that many of the issues identified then emerged again during the Review of Scottish Theatre and some of the key recommendations in the 2006 report have not been implemented. The question is, are they still appropriate and useful?

Christine Hamilton August 2012

What I did on my holidays

I watched the Opening Ceremony of the Olympic Games on Friday 20 miles from Stratford—the other Stratford, Warwickshire.  I was visiting friends in Coventry which has, incidentally, fully embraced its role as an Olympic football venue.  We gathered around the TV, marvelling at Danny Boyle’s vision:  the NHS, CND and multi cultural Britain for a moment gave us a glimpse of a Games away from the stifling effect of corporate sponsors, eye watering budgets and failing private security firms.  The Daily Mail and the bonkers MP were correct, this was not their Little England.

Sitting in the heart of England, I felt I understood what has been achieved by working together.  Boyle chose Brunel and steel making to represent the industrial revolution, but it could have been Watt and ship building; the coup de théâtre with Tim Berners-Lee is a reminder that Alexander Graham Bell’s telephone was the first step in that digital revolution.  The nurses, clinicians  and other NHS workers celebrated our world class health provision, which was built on the science which gave us disease control, penicillin and anaesthetics.

This was a vision of the Union which no politician, economist, political scientist nor constitutional lawyer has yet articulated.  This was not an event which bowed to ‘tick box’ approach to the UK nations, their cultures and achievements. Granted we did have the children’s choirs and a sweet rendition of Flower of Scotland from Stirling Castle (where else?), but no hackneyed vision of pipes and tartan, just the achingly beautiful voice of Emili Sandé singing the hymn adopted as the English FA anthem while the dancer/choreographer, Akram Kahn performed his moving tribute.  What everyone agrees is that the artists delivered on Friday.  They delivered not only a view of the London Olympics to the world but reflected ourselves to ourselves.

After all this I was not surprised on my return to read headlines in the Scottish media about the Opening Ceremony providing a back drop to the debate on independence.  Some of the headlines were at best wishful thinking and at worst overblown jingoistic nonsense (Games are new Battle of Britain, screamed Scotland on Sunday).  A bit premature since we have two years to go until the referendum.  What the London 2012 event confirms, however, is the role which artists will have in exploring the issues as we approach the day of making the biggest decision of our lives as citizens and voters.  Of course nothing will ever again have a budget of over £20 million and guaranteed global TV audience in billions, but it will be the artists who can take us on the journey of imagining.

After the launch of the Yes campaign, David Greig, wrote, Leaving the Castle, a wonderful blog about what it might feel like the day after Scotland’s independence. At that point I knew that we can hope for two years of sparky creative thinking and making from our artists which will reflect, challenge and ultimately help us each make up our own minds on our country’s future.