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.