Moray arts budget cut is a flawed party line

Moray Council’s decision to cut its entire arts budget should be a call to arms for Scotland’s cultural community. Fight it, or you could be next, warns Andrew Eaton-Lewis

MORAY Council has created quite a stir over the past few days. “A disgrace,” fumed actor Kevin McKidd to his 147,000 Twitter followers, following last week’s decision to axe the council’s entire arts budget. “I think it is outrageous,” said the painter and playwright John Byrne. “An act of staggering cultural incompetence,” added crime writer Stuart MacBride.

There is, alongside the anger, some nervousness. This is not an isolated incident but further evidence of a trend – local authorities deciding not just to reduce arts funding but to stop funding the arts entirely. Newcastle City Council was poised to do exactly this until an intervention last week from shadow culture secretary Harriet Harman watered down (a little bit, at least) what Billy Elliot writer Lee Hall had condemned as “a kind of nuclear blast to the whole ecology of the north-east”. But other local authorities have pushed ahead with similar plans. In 2010, Somerset County Council voted to axe £160,000 of arts grants as part of a plan to save £43 million.

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What happened last week is significant because Moray is the first council in Scotland to do it. The figures involved are similar to Somerset – a £94,000 cut as part of a plan to save £30 million. An obvious criticism, already widely voiced, is that it’s a futile and self-sabotaging gesture – £94,000 is just 0.3 per cent of £30 million, a negligible saving considering what will be lost.

According to Hi-Arts, which promotes arts activity in the Highlands and Islands, this small amount of money had a “transformative impact” on the area in recent years. It enabled two big projects by the National Theatre of Scotland and two visits from the Royal Shakespeare Company, and employed artists to transform primary schools and do “remarkable” work with young offenders. Moray, according to the council’s own website, “is at the forefront of rural arts development in Scotland” – or was. Financially, statistics consistently show that far from being a drain on taxpayers’ money, culture generates far more money for the economy than it costs to fund. According to a Creative Scotland report last year, the arts are worth £3.2 billion to the Scottish economy.

Why cut that £94,000, then? Because culture is an easy target. Every time a council decides to stop arts funding, roughly the same argument is trotted out. It cannot be argued that “arts come before life-and-death services like children’s social work”, said Nick Forbes, leader of Newcastle City Council.

“The party’s over and it’s up to all of us to get together and clear up the mess,” said Ken Maddock of Somerset County Council after that 2010 vote. Now Allan Wright, leader of Moray Council, has taken the same line: “We have to live within our means at this difficult time,” he said, as if this 0.3 per cent saving represented a significant difference to the council’s finances rather than a token gesture, less than the annual wages of its chief executive.

All these statements are designed to sound like common sense. Actually, though, all reflect a particular ideological view, that access to culture is an indulgence – a “party”, even, according to Maddock – rather than a human right, and something that, as John Maynard Keynes put it, helps create “civic pride and a sense of social unity”. Keynes’ thinking is very much out of fashion now, and Thatcherite values now dominate our thinking to the extent that even artists themselves often defend what they do in terms of its economic benefits. Depressingly, several online comments on the Scotsman’s Moray cuts story reflect the prejudice – fuelled by a right-wing, philistine media – that artists squander taxpayers’ money on self-indulgent projects the public doesn’t really need or want, rather than, say, selflessly trying to make us all more questioning and more imaginative. “The creative community will just have to be creative now and make their own money just like the rest of us,” went one. According to this thinking, anything that doesn’t generate a profit for the person who made it is just baffling and pointless.

Those who work in the arts often dismiss opinions like this, because they can still afford to. The Scottish Government, after all, says it regards the arts as “of key importance to Scotland”. Even if politicians don’t always value the arts for the same reasons artists do (the suspicion is that, for the SNP, Scottish artistic success is essentially a useful propaganda tool for independence) at least they’re committed to supporting it financially.

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But for how long? It is telling that while in England recent debate about arts funding has focused on cuts – to the Arts Council, and to local authorities’ arts budgets, leading to public spats between culture secretary Maria Miller and the likes of film director Danny Boyle – in Scotland the arguments have been about the way arts funding is administered. The crisis at Creative Scotland last year – which led to the resignation of two of its most senior figures – was prompted not by cuts but by a lack of confidence in Creative Scotland’s senior staff, and the ideology behind the decisions they were making. There was much criticism of Creative Scotland’s “corporate” language, and echoes of Keynes’ thinking in complaints that Creative Scotland policy – as this newspaper’s Joyce McMillan put it – “reduces the language of creativity to a series of flat-footed business school slogans”.

In England, though, even the economic case for culture seems to have been abandoned. The North-east of England – home to the Sage, Baltic and the Angel of the North – symbolised the success of the “creative economy”. Now, a Labour council leader has proposed stopping arts funding entirely. In Westminster, meanwhile, a government run by ideologue Tories and impotent Liberals is insisting philanthropy is the way forward – that, in “difficult times” (difficult times created, to a significant extent, by the Tories themselves) the arts world needs to become “better at asking” for private money.

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Scotland is different, right? Perhaps. Today, though, Stirling Council is debating whether to cut grants to the MacRobert Arts Centre, Stirling Writers Group, Artlink and Art Forum, and close art gallery the Changing Room. This is not a 100 per cent cut, by any means, but that may be partly because Stirling’s councillors wouldn’t dare suggest such a draconian move, yet. Every time a council stops funding the arts entirely, though, the principle that the arts should be publicly funded – in the name of civic pride, social unity, and universal access to a whole world of potentially life-changing ideas and possibilities, or just for the economic benefits – is further eroded. If that matters to you at all, stand up against what is happening in Moray, in particular. Otherwise your town might be next.