What comes after Creative Scotland?

Gerry Hassan

Scottish Review, August 1st 2018

Festival time is upon us again in Edinburgh. The yearly jamboree of the various Festivals and Fringe take over our capital city, bring a select part of the world to our shores, and give a platform which presents a vibrant, dynamic Scotland on an international stage.

At the same time all is not exactly well in the official world of culture in Scotland. Two weeks ago, the publically funded body, Creative Scotland, lost its second head, Janet Archer, in its relatively short history.

Archer resigned after a troublesome year. There was controversy in January when Creative Scotland announced its long-term funding of arts and cultural bodies, jettisoning 20 major arts companies from its regular support list, reducing it in others, and then when pressurised, engaging in a hasty U-turn reinstating funding for five bodies, and finding more monies to ease some of the losers.

It all seemed back of an envelope stuff. The respective companies were confused. Staff at Creative Scotland were left bemused and without a clear line. And politicians, Culture minister Fiona Hyslop included, showed their dismay.

A body such as Creative Scotland are in a bind in such funding situations. Losers make noise. Many can still remember over two decades ago when the then Scottish Arts Council pulled funding from the once left-wing firebrand theatre company Wildcat Stage Productions. Truth was that their best work was long in the past, with the banner of heresy and dissent passed on to a new generation.

Such funding processes have to involve winners and losers, otherwise there is no point in such a process. Imagine if every organisation who had previously won funding had it protected and guaranteed forever. That would be a recipe for complacency, even more of an insider class, and erect an even bigger barrier against new cultural entrants. Thus, change and some controversy is endemic to this walk of life.

Allowing for this there was still something jarring about this year’s announcements. It was more than poor communication externally and internally. It was more than the mini-U-turn by Creative Scotland, or Janet Archer’s inadequate expression of ‘regret’ before parliamentarians. It was even more that some of the casualties who had all their funding pulled, such as NVA, were trailblazers held in respect here and the world over, or that subsequently, NVA and Culture Republic, the arts audience development company, announced that they would shut up shop.

The longer backstory to all of this is the strange story of Creative Scotland and what it was established to do and represent. It was set up to situate arts and culture in the terrain of the creative industries and creative class, which is fundamentally about arts and culture as part of government policy, from economic development to social justice, diversity, inclusion, and nearly any other area you care to add on. Art and culture as public policy, tourism, consumption, and of course, being monetised and reduced to business speak and logic.

Some will shrug their shoulders and say that arts and culture has to be pragmatic, go with the flow of political fashion, and this is the prize to be paid for a seat at the top table. But something more was at work. Creative Scotland’s genesis as an idea at the turn of the century wasn’t a home grown eureka moment. Instead, it was directly imported from the height of New Labour and the Westminster Department of Culture, Media and Sport (DCMS) when all was a buzz with talk of ‘the knowledge economy’ and ‘Cool Britannia’.

Creative Scotland came north aided by triumphalists and cultural consultant blowhards selling their wares, and being bought by a succession of Labour ministers here – Mike Watson and Patricia Ferguson being particularly relevant.

Creative Scotland was and is a simulacrum as an idea: a poor copy of a New Labour/DCMS flawed idea – one which was about the economy and its winners, about diversity and inclusion in a narrow sense, and pseudo-business speak and logic. The implication of this was a depressing one for Scotland: namely, that we had no original ideas about how to cherish, celebrate and platform arts and culture in our own country, instead importing a threadbare set of ideas with a questionable worldview. An undercurrent flows from this of how the SNP ten years into office think and see culture, which seems to amount to little more than a steady as she goes, don’t frighten the horses, and do as little change as possible, approach.

It is this flawed idea which has never had any widespread affection, love or buy-in from artists, cultural figures and administrators, which informs the stramashs of recent times. When controversies like the January funding debacle take place, Creative Scotland to use the language it itself invokes, has little to no cultural capital to draw on, and hence, the shit hits the fan.

There is a recurring pattern. When Creative Scotland was set up in 2010, its first chief executive, Andrew Dixon, became embroiled in a major national controversy about how the organisation did its business. This entailed a significant part of the arts and cultural world saying that it was unhappy with CS, but most of this focused on administrative processes and over-bureaucratised form filling, rather than the body’s values and purpose. Eventually Dixon had to go, along with the controversial Venu Dhupa, who Dixon had brought with him, and who had created chaos in the British Council before briefly coming north.

All of this should have been an opportunity for a reset but alas this didn’t happen and hence we are where we are. There is hope for new direction. Comic book success Mark Millar said ‘my dream job would be to take over Creative Scotland’, ‘run it like Holywood’ and turn it into a cultural body that makes investments, generates profits, and hence increases its pot of money. This totally misunderstands the role of a publicly funded arts and cultural body, that art is more than business, and that there needs to be publicly subsidised art and culture.

But there is disquiet all around which isn’t surprising considering the origins and purpose of Creative Scotland. Discounting permanent miserablists like James MacMillan, there is widespread unease. People worry about ‘the cultural cringe’, the relationship of a body like CS to government, and where genuine, heretical, and even, leftfield art and culture come from, find funding and audiences. A generation ago, BBC Scotland and STV, used to invest in this sort of thing – alas no more.

Even more Creative Scotland or whatever comes after it, has to exist in a society which doesn’t just have tight public spending rounds (although CS managed to make a mess of a funding round where it had an uplift of £6.6 million on the previous year). The very idea of authority and decision-making is constantly up for challenge. It is salutary to remember that in the first thirty years of its existence, the Scottish Arts Council, from 1967-97, was not the subject of one parliamentary debate or question. The ‘Scottish arts establishment’ of that age, of the likes of Magnus Linklater and Seona Reid, could reign in relative peace, making decisions without scrutiny, and without having to justify themselves in public. That was an unsustainable system which disintegrated with the arrival of the Scottish Parliament; in fact, the first enquiry into the then Arts Council happened in 1998 in anticipation of devolution, with its then leading personnel not liking or adapting to it.

Scotland is blessed by a rich ecology of passionate, talented, gifted people who love arts and culture, and many artists who create unique, precious work. Yet, in the last decade, something has gone amiss about how we officially think, promote and fund this rich, wonderful world. After recent experiences., instead of just appointing another head to the flawed idea of Creative Scotland, why don’t we dare to have the courage of our convictions and do something bold and Scottish born? There is a rich world of successful cultural bodies to draw from for inspiration, from the National Theatre of Scotland (NTS), to the Scottish Book Trust, the revitalised Saltire Society, and such recent start-ups as Creative Dundee and Creative Edinburgh (which despite their name have no direct connection to Creative Scotland).

Why don’t we after the age of Creative Scotland, the creative class and knowledge economy, the last two of which are now globally seen as discredited terms of bubble economics, create something of our own which reflects the best of our ambitions and values? We could even call it the New Scottish Arts Council, and then give it the room, not Mark Millar-like, to have space from government to experiment, take risks and invest in and advocate in the cultural imagination. We cannot go back to the old ways of pre-1997 and the old new ways of the last decade have proven even more troublesome. We could even try and reclaim and reinvent the word creative.