Joyce McMillan: Creative Scotland's decision to axe funding defies logic

Creative Scotland's decision to axe funding for seven leading touring theatre companies defies logic, and its failure to explain its reasoning beggars belief, writes Joyce McMillan.

Birds of Paradise show The Tin Soldier
Birds of Paradise show The Tin Soldier

First, let’s spare a thought, this week, for Scotland’s culture minister, Fiona Hyslop. Remarkably, in a world where culture ministers rarely last long, she has now held the post for almost seven years; and in an age of mounting austerity across the UK, she has quite simply played a blinder throughout, in persuading her colleagues of the brilliant “bang for the buck” Scotland gets from its artists, and of the need for the Scottish government to keep on supporting their work.

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Two months ago, in the final tussle over Scotland’s budget that followed the UK autumn budget statement on 22 November, she did particularly well, persuading finance minister Derek McKay not only to avoid making cuts to Creative Scotland and the rest of the arts, but to offer Creative Scotland an additional sum to compensate for declining arts Lottery income.

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Scotland’s arts community and creative organisations breathed a sigh of relief; and looked forward to a Creative Scotland three-year funding announcement, at the end of January, that should, for once, have been a relatively happy and trouble-free event.
So it says something about the decision-making process and presentational skills of Scotland’s main arts funding agency that when the announcement came, on 25 January, it was greeted not with quiet satisfaction, but with outrage and disbelief, not only from the companies directly affected by some of the decisions, but by a range of Scottish, UK-wide and international organisations and voices barely able to credit the choices that had apparently been made.

Despite a massive and partly successful artist-led campaign, back in 2012, to make Creative Scotland a less top-down, managerialist and jargon-led organisation, it is still an agency whose officials generate blizzards of impenetrable reports and strategies, in all of which principles like equality, diversity and inclusion loom large, along with the importance of arts for children and young people.

Yet somehow - in apparent defiance not only of those principles, but of the fact that 2018 is the Scottish Government’s designated Year Of Young People - the list of 216 core companies to receive three-year Creative Scotland funding, released last week, did not include seven of Scotland’s leading touring theatre companies, including two - Birds Of Paradise and Lung Ha - that are widely recognised for their ground-breaking work with performers with disabilities, and Scotland’s two principal touring companies making world-class theatre for children, Catherine Wheels, based in Musselburgh, and Visible Fictions, based in Glasgow.

The other high-profile victims - Fire Exit, Rapture Theatre and street theatre specialists Mischief La Bas - were also companies that had received excellent assessments of their work; but given the world-leading achievements of Scotland’s current generation of artists with disability, and the inspirational role of both Catherine Wheels and Visible Fictions in building up an acclaimed children’s theatre sector that has been central to the success of the Edinburgh International Children’s Festival, now one of the biggest in the world, the decision affecting those companies seemed downright perverse.

Even the minister, in a rare public rebuke to an arms’-length organisation, tweeted that Creative Scotland should have been clearer about their future plans for companies in these key sectors.

For after a few hours of dismay and confusion, it became clear that Creative Scotland had a plan, of sorts, for those companies; but a plan which, extraordinarily, Creative Scotland had not directly mentioned to, or discussed with, the senior artists and companies affected until they received their devastating “dear John” emails on 24 January.

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Coincidentally with the current RFO application process, Creative Scotland has been conducting a review of theatre touring in Scotland, an area where there are long-standing problems; and Creative Scotland’s decision to address it - with a new touring fund which will operate from April 2019 - is to be welcomed.

What was anticipated by no-one, though - except by Creative Scotland’s own in-house theatre team, who took the final decision only after the Scottish budget announcement on 14 December - was that Creative Scotland would react to the advent of this fund by, at the last minute, stripping seven of their highest-achieving non-building-based companies of the three-year RFO funding for which they had applied in good faith more than nine months earlier, offering five of them (but not the two disability companies) a guarantee of funding for a further year, and telling them that after that, their funding will be dependent on their ability to bid successfully into a touring fund process that has not yet been fully set up, and that the companies themselves are being invited to help design.

Laura Mackenzie Stuart, head of Creative Scotland’s theatre team, says that companies should not see this is as a demotion, or as an adverse comment on the quality of their applications; one form of funding, she said this week, is not inferior to another.

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The fact that Creative Scotland can say this, though, to internationally recognised companies used to planning and undertaking commitments on a three-yearly basis, while ripping that small amount of security and planning-space from under them, putting their very livelihoods in jeopardy, and inviting them to help design a new annual funding system under which they will never achieve even that small measure of certainty again, is the mark of a bureaucracy that neither fully respects the work of those organisations, nor fully understands the impact on artists of its own decisions.

We are not, let’s be clear, talking about huge amounts of money here; despite the level of their achievement, the companies under discussion were receiving regular funding at the very modest average of about £200,000 a year, not so very much more than the single salary of Creative Scotland’s CEO.

And worse, Creative Scotland has done this at a time when it is actually increasing its funding, from the same pot, to backroom support and umbrella groups that do not directly produce art at all - organisations such as the Federation Of Scottish Theatre, now to be RFO funded over three years at a level none of those theatre companies has ever achieved.

Now of course, any professional observer of the public life of the UK could write a book about how we came to this pass, where a country’s finest artists - like its doctors and even its soldiers - have to tolerate such discourteous, insensitive and sometimes downright destructive treatment from layers of bureaucrats to many of whom they could teach a great deal, not only about art and creativity, but about how to run a lean, effective administration on very little money.

What’s most depressing about the current situation, though, is that even with a Scottish government that essentially understands the worth of its artists, and a creative community well equipped to organise itself and to make these arguments, we are still stuck with an arts funding bureaucracy so insensitive to its constituency, and to the real meaning of its own stated values, that it can walk straight into this kind of mess without apparently even anticipating the row that would result.

To say that Creative Scotland needs a complete change of culture, and to be returned to the hands of those who will gladly get on - within certain agreed principles - with the core business of funding great artists to make great art, is to state the obvious.

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How to get from here to there, though is another question; although one that some of Scotland’s finest, funniest and most inventive creative minds are now bent on answering, long before the next three-year funding review ever gets under way.