Proposals to overhaul arts funding rejected

THE SWEEPING changes for Scottish arts proposed by the £600,000 Cultural Commission were declared dead on arrival in the Scottish Parliament yesterday.

One by one its top proposals, from a super-quango, Culture Scotland, to the call for a deputy minister for the arts, got the thumbs down from the culture minister, Patricia Ferguson. She won the backing of MSPs on all sides, who spoke out against more "convoluted" bureaucracy.

The commission's 500-page report was unveiled in June after a costly year-long consultation exercise. Set up by the Executive, and chaired by the former chairman of the Scottish Arts Council, James Boyle, it pledged to rewrite the Scottish arts script for generations to come.

The report won initial support in the arts community for its call for a massive increase in spending of up to 100 million, to cover a "deficit" in Scottish arts and take it to a 1 per cent share of the Scottish Executive's budget.

But pressed yesterday on the demand for extra funding, Ms Ferguson said she questioned the arithmetic in the document. "I've certainly been impressed by the scale of the figures suggested - easy to do when you don't have to make tough, sometimes unpopular decisions about prioritising government spending," said Ms Ferguson.

She did not rule out a "radical overhaul" in the arts, but spoke out against "unnecessary bureaucracies, which are a drain on resources". She continued: "I'm not convinced that the solution preferred by the commission is the right one."

She appeared sceptical of new laws for "cultural rights", saying: "I believe we need to be practical and also clear about what we are trying to achieve."

Ms Ferguson stressed that Scotland's 32 local authorities are seen as "key partners" in the Executive's approach to the arts and spoke of embracing "community planning" for culture.

"Many councils are doing great things for culture, but I would like all councils to do the same," she said.

That will be watched with concern by arts chiefs, who fear a potential carve-up of arts funding and policy between the Executive and local authorities.

While some Scottish councils, notably Glasgow, are seen as big backers for theatres and museums, others are notorious as "black holes", where money and interest is scarce.

Ms Ferguson said that one of the strongest sections of the commission's report concerned education - a relief for Mr Boyle, who early on stressed giving arts a greater role in schools.

Ms Ferguson also endorsed its idea for a National Box Office. The tourism agency, VisitScotland, was developing a "what's on" database for culture and sport and it could be extended to electronic ticketing.

The Scottish National Party's culture spokesman, Michael Matheson, said he agreed with the minister yesterday on where the commission went wrong.

"The commission's proposals that there should be two competing bodies, one dealing with funding and another with priorities themselves, would simply be a recipe for conflict and would simply not work."

The Conservative spokesman for culture, Jamie McGrigor, said: "We do not believe in setting up the Culture Scotland body or the Culture Fund. We do not believe that it would be of benefit to the public or to artists."

There appeared to be wide support yesterday for the Scottish Executive to continue or even expand its direct funding of the National Galleries of Scotland, the National Museums and the National Library.

Mr McGrigor complained that the cutbacks at Scottish Opera had damaged the "highest quality cultural icon" in Scotland.

However, he said that direct funding and direct accountability had worked well and he suggested expanding it to Scottish Opera and Ballet, Scottish theatre, and even Scottish films.

The Liberal Democrat spokesman on culture, Donald Gorrie, echoed the demand to keep direct funding. While there were some councils that "did" culture very well, he said, there were others that "did it very badly".

The Green Party's culture spokesman, Chris Ballance, said of the proposed changes: "No-one believes the bureaucracy costs would not be increased. No-one wants the years of disruption." The Scottish Arts Council could be improved and made "less bureaucratic", he said.

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