Joyce McMillan: Start again, there’s plenty of talent around

Creative Scotland is undoing the work done by artists like George Wyllie
Creative Scotland is undoing the work done by artists like George Wyllie
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Creative Scotland’s latest review endangers artists and betrays a total lack of imagination, writes Joyce McMillan

Last week, for this newspaper, I wrote a glowing column about the cultural and political legacy of the sculptor George Wyllie, who was laid to rest on Wednesday, and about how his generation of artists helped to transform Scotland into a better and more forward-looking place.

2012 is the year of Creative Scotland. Picture: Phil Wilkinson

2012 is the year of Creative Scotland. Picture: Phil Wilkinson

I doubt if I could have written that piece, though, if I had seen the messages that began to appear on my computer screen almost as soon as I had finished writing – the messages about the latest funding review from Creative Scotland, the agency charged with supporting and promoting Scotland’s cultural and creative life.

Now, it is worth emphasising that there is a reason, although not a sufficient one, for Creative Scotland’s decision to make changes. From 2013, a much smaller proportion of its money will come from Scottish Government grant, and a much larger proportion from lottery funds, which can only be used for one-off projects.

Creative Scotland will have more money to spend but will need to balance it differently. The organisation, therefore, needs to withdraw regular grant income from some arts companies, to reduce the regular element in the funding of others, and to set up some large project funds open to all comers, and it needs to make these decisions on the basis of current artistic performance.

Yet instead of getting on with this basic job – hardly rocket science for any well-run arts agency – Creative Scotland has decided to withdraw its middle range of funding, known as flexible funding, which offered basic income security on a two- or three-year cycle to small- and medium- scale arts organisations with a strong creative record.

The result is to throw some 49 Scottish arts organisations from a condition of modest security into a state of complete insecurity, in which they have to bargain from project to project for their right to exist.

This list of companies includes some of Scotland’s most admired and impressive arts organisations: among them are Tommy Smith’s Scottish National Jazz Orchestra, the internationally acclaimed Vanishing Point Theatre Company, Edinburgh-based Fringe stars Grid Iron, the CCA in Glasgow, and Stills photography gallery in Edinburgh.

In making this disrespectful and poorly-argued decision, in other words, Creative Scotland has succumbed to three particularly destructive, deadly sins that now beset government agencies in the UK.

In the first place, its thinking is still hopelessly infected – 22 years after the lady’s political demise – by a kind of undead Thatcherism, a half-baked, hollowed-out, public-sector version of market theory that reduces the language of creativity to a series of flat-footed business school slogans, and imposes a crude ethic of sado-competition – “this will make you sharper and more creative” – on areas of society where co-operation and mutual respect matter more.

The second deadly sin betrayed in this review is the bad administrator’s pervasive preference for structural tinkering over core activity.

Creative Scotland is supposed to be Scotland’s main cultural funding agency and champion of excellence in the arts. Its core function is to act as a wise, well-informed, responsive and responsible agent of the Scottish people in identifying that excellence, and in providing funds to support it. Yet the organisation finds itself in the hands of leadership which refers to the allocation of funds as the “boring bit” of its job and surrounds itself instead in a blather of mind-numbing policy-speak about advocacy, social strategy and business development – that is often demonstrably none of its business.

This barrage of needless strategy-making, combined with the shift towards project-based funding, helps set the conditions for the third deadly sin, which is to set up a mechanism that is bound to increase the control of funding agencies over the agenda and repertoire of artists.

In order to make arts funding worthwhile, creative organisations should be set free by it and to help change and reimagine society.

Yet in last week’s announcement, Creative Scotland effectively guaranteed a huge increase in its own power to manage the agendas of some of Scotland’s most senior artists, many of whom -– faced by mutton-headed bureaucrats telling them what kind of projects they want to fund this year – may well take the obvious option and leave the country.

So what should happen? First, this failed attempt at a review should be binned, and Creative Scotland should take it back to the drawing board. That some of those 49 companies might benefit from a return to carefully-managed project funding is possible, but the idea that most of them will benefit from it is just a lazy fiction, invented to justify the substitution of one-size-fits-all structural change for the real exercise of artistic judgment.

Beyond that, though, this review raises serious questions about the board of Creative Scotland, which has knowingly appointed to key roles in Scotland’s cultural life people who clearly embrace a commerce-driven ideology that Scotland in general, and its cultural community in particular, has rejected at every available opportunity. We need to know why the board thought it was acceptable to do this, and how it sees its position, given the failure of this review.

And finally, there are questions for our supposedly social-democratic SNP government, about why it continues to preside so complacently over such needlessly controlling systems of administration, and so much insidious market-inflected corrosion of the values for which it says it stands.

Although I would love to hear Alex Salmond and Fiona Hyslop give a ringing answer to those questions very soon – an answer that finally shakes off the mental shackles of the 1980s, and moves towards a truly creative response to new times – I fear that I may be waiting a long while before I hear anything so decisive, so penetrating, so welcome, or so right.