Scots face an almost impossible task to win the top creative and cultural jobs in Scotland, says Pete Martin
THE trouble with getting older is that life starts to hold fewer and fewer surprises for you. Even if you’ve got all your own teeth, hair and marbles, you can’t keep the same joy of new discovery – the zest of fresh revelation – you enjoyed when you were young.
Unless you’re as forgetful as a goldfish, you’ll never relive that first kiss or listen to your favourite song like you never heard it before. Worse still, age coats your arteries, not with cholesterol, but with a cynicism that hardens the heart, blunts the mind and shortens the life.
So, it saddens me that very little surprises me any more. Day by day, year after year, truth has jumped out from behind the door of public life wearing a hideous mask so often that it’s now hard to muster a reaction.
Where once there may have been a frisson of shock at the classic “bishop and actress” schlock of the popular press, there’s now numb predictability. Everything is reflected in a distorted mirror: the national treasure who’s a sexual predator; the as-yet-unnamed proponents of family values who make Dickens’s Dotheboys Hall seem like an ideal children’s home; the carers beating the cared-for; the holy man preaching intolerance; the pedlars of austerity lining their own pockets.
The conflict between apparent fact and underlying truth leaves you with a dreary sense of déjà vu. Nonetheless, after 30 years in the creative business, there is one thing that still stuns me. What I find genuinely surprising is – among the commanding heights of the Scottish cultural economy – how unimportant it is to be Scottish.
There, I’ve said it. I’m no nationalist and I appreciate it always sounds petty, narrow-minded and protectionist to point out that Scotland gives away many of its top cultural jobs and greatest creative opportunities to people with no great connection to Scottish culture. But it’s the truth.
I’ve no wish to impugn the talents and experience of anyone working at any level in Scotland’s arts scene, especially anyone who happens not to be Scottish. I believe that, in general, immigration is a good thing. The infusion of adventurous, energetic people adds a new weft to the warp of Scottish life and brings new vitality to the economy. And yet, I’m still taken aback when so many key posts in publicly-funded Scottish cultural organisations are consistently awarded to people from outwith Scotland.
Perhaps I am naïve. I have always imagined the primary focus of publicly-funded arts is to create a connection with its own public – to explore and illuminate human experience from a historical and social perspective that’s distinctively, creatively Scottish.
You would have thought that a key requirement for such a task would have been a profound understanding of Scottish culture and the kind of osmosis of the highs and lows of ordinary Scottish life that would be virtually impossible without having grown up north of the Border.
Not so, apparently. The National Theatre of Scotland has appointed Laurie Sansom, artistic director of Northampton’s Royal & Derngate Theatres, as its new head. While I’m sure he’s a fine chap, he’s not from Scotland. He follows in the footsteps of the well-respected Vicky Featherstone, who is now decamping to the Royal Court Theatre in London. She’s originally from Surrey but, if I remember rightly, Vicky did at least claim to have holidayed here when she was growing up.
If the arts scene in Scotland were ever discussed down the pub, this might make a good trivia question.
Q: Out of Scottish Ballet, Scottish Opera and Scotland’s leading publicly-subsidised theatres (the Citizens in Glasgow, the Lyceum and Traverse in Edinburgh, DCA in Dundee and Perth Theatre), how many are under the artistic direction of someone who’s actually from Scotland?
A: One, the Lyceum.
Does anyone else consider that weird? Maybe not. It’s certainly convincing to argue that in an increasingly connected, global, creative world, the only real considerations can be “talent” and “the best person for the job”. Convincing but, in my view, simply untrue in the special case of cultural economy.
The lack of commitment to Scotland’s own talent is self-defeating. It cuts off creative opportunities and curtails career development for local talent. It strangles succession planning. It distances Scottish artists from Scottish audiences and breaks the long-term strategic link between public funding and public interest.
As far as I can see, it doesn’t happen like that in other places. Guess where the director of Ireland’s Arts Council, Orlaith McBride, comes from? What about the chief executive of the Canada Council for the Arts, Robert Sirman? Or New York’s commissioner of cultural affairs, Kate Levin? Or even Alan Davey who heads up the Arts Council in England? You can work your way through the membership list of the international federation of arts councils and cultural agencies from Albania to Zambia, if you must. But if you can guess the weight of a two-tonne elephant, you can work out quite easily that “where you come from” is generally regarded as a core competency for the job.
In the ongoing debacle around Creative Scotland, it seems churlish to mention that its embattled boss, Andrew Dixon, does not come from Scotland. He successfully masterminded capital projects to pump a cultural renaissance on Tyneside. In recent months, he may have wished he’d stayed on the other side of Hadrian’s Wall, where the creative natives are not so hostile.
However, the real issue is more fundamental than Mr Dixon’s relationship with Scottish artists. Scotland’s cultural agency is tasked with telling everyone at home and abroad that the country is filled with world-class creative talent. When you can’t find anyone in Scotland with the creative vision and experience to run the organisation, it rather cuts the enterprise off at the knees.
As anyone who’s ever seen a Western knows, bringing in a “hired gun” is, at best, a painful short-term answer, classically made necessary by feeble-minded, fear-filled, self-serving, local decision-making. Little wonder the townsfolk often choke on the medicine meted out. And, in the end, the “hero” rides off into the sunset anyway, leaving the town more or less where it started.
Yet, as Craig Levein’s tenure as Scotland coach confirms, simply being Scottish is no guarantee of success either. Appointing the wrong Scot – a local with a dreary numb-nuts negative strategy – is as dispiriting as appointing a non-Scot. Both are based on short-term fear and lack of long-term vision, and store up failure for the future.
Still, there’s the potential to learn from home-grown stuff-ups. But preferring talent from the UK regions presents a more radical problem. It’s a tacit admission that Scotland is not a proper nation. As Laurie Sansom said in a recent interview: “The NTS feels like a really good fit. I suppose 20 years working in regional theatre around the UK is not an accident.” In short, we’re acting as if we’re just another region of the UK.
On that view, winning a top cultural job in Scotland becomes a serious statistical challenge for a Scottish contender. The UK population is roughly ten times bigger than Scotland’s. So, within the same talent level, it’s 10-1 against: for every Scot, there could be ten candidates from outside Scotland. And, of course, the lost opportunity means Scotland doesn’t develop the experience, talent, track record and critical mass “in-house”. That this modus operandi creates a self-fulfilling, self-perpetuating cycle should surprise no-one.
To be clear, this is a question of Scottish rationalism rather than nationalism. Differentiation is a fundamental driver of economic value. In an increasingly competitive world, distinctive culture can be the “line in the sand” that protects real national interests and promotes confidence and prosperity. Frankly, if we can’t organise ourselves to achieve that in Scotland, I will very surprised and sorely disappointed indeed.