THE TENURE of Andrew Dixon as chief executive of Creative Scotland has been described by one senior figure in the agency, not unkindly, as like a train charging away from the station, with the other carriages struggling and puffing to keep up.
Some of those carriages represent its staff. When the agency was put together from the Scottish Arts Council and Scottish Screen, the combined workforce are thought to have been reduced from about 150 to 90. That is said to have saved £1 million, but Scottish Screen in particular saw the departure of several old hands.
Those that remain have been left, it would appear, with an even heavier load in dispensing funding, which has been amplified by the shift to lottery money that can’t just be handed out in regular tranches.
In the last six months of 2011, Creative Scotland made 576 awards, handing out £23m. This May, Dixon blogged that “investment programmes” for the Year of Creative Scotland 2012 alone, had attracted 286 bids for £24m in awards, against a budget of just £6.5m. A few days later, that budget was boosted by £2.2m.
It’s not just some of the staff who may have been left trailing. If Creative Scotland has a “communication” problem, it appears to be with some of the most established players in Scottish arts. Some could be described as the “old guard”, though that hardly applies to the likes of playwright David Greig. Some have turf and jobs to protect – not exactly a crime – but are also insiders who know the Scottish scene well and have been a committed part of it for decades.
Most are simply frustrated. Like Greig, I have hardly encountered anyone since the flexible funding dispute blew up who completely understands what they are hearing from Creative Scotland, or likes it when they do.
That has included writers, film-makers, theatre company and theatre directors, festival directors and fund-raisers who try to navigate their baffling forms, portfolios, and funding goals, with limited access to people to actually talk about it.
Their frequent complaint is that their organisations, and their funding, aren’t being overseen by experts in the field. The result, some say, have been some baffling conversations and “screwy” decisions.
Creative Scotland is making much of the fact that it is actually increasing what it spends, thanks to lottery funds. There are undoubtedly some big new brassy beneficiaries. The organisation has spent £250,000, for example, on the Northern Lights project, launched on 27 March as Scotland’s “first mass participation documentary film project”.
It is part of the Year of Creative Scotland, overseen by a filmmaker called Nick Higgins. It calls on people to submit mobile phone or camera uploads, “from a brief video fragment to an unedited stream of consciousness”, about their “lives, hopes and dreams” in Scotland.
These clips are to be made into a film, to tour Scotland this autumn; its makers have received 814 submissions online so far, in the running for various cash awards. It’s a pretty mixed bag on the website, but the proof will be whether the end result produces anything more stimulating than YouTube.
But the focus was shifting this week away from how Creative Scotland has been assigning funding – the flexible v project argument – to how it makes decisions, and whether what it hands out is being monitored closely enough.
The Scottish Arts Council was not exactly beloved. In some quarters another funding row, aimed at Creative Scotland, is greeted with groans because of past battles fought against the SAC to save institutions such as the 7:84 theatre company, that were sometimes well past their sell-by date. But the likes of its cumbersome art form committees had some assurance that decisions were carried out openly, with due care and a proper paper trail.
The Cultural Alliance, a loose organisation of arts organisations which grew up in the drawn-out gestation of Creative Scotland, has raised concerns over transparency of current decision-making, among them the simple matter of keeping accurate minutes. It is now monitoring the discussions that Creative Scotland is having with individual companies affected by funding shifts.
Its founder, Jan-Bert van den Berg, says that decisions on funding will always be an “imperfect solution”. Creative Scotland has gone for the streamlined model, he notes. But he’s warning that “informed decision-making” has to lie at its basis.
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