Theatre critic Joyce McMillan shares her manifesto for the arts body so often accused of poor funding decisions and yielding to a political agenda
In the summer, a friend suggested to The Scotsman’s theatre critic and columnist, Joyce McMillan, that she should apply for the job of CEO of Creative Scotland. She knew the role was not for her, but decided to write an application anyway in the form of a manifesto for the organisation. She was not interviewed for the job, and acting Creative Scotland CEO Iain Munro was recently appointed. The manifesto stands, though, as a valuable contribution to the debate; and today we publish a version of it, in the hope of inspiring some robust discussion about the future of arts funding in Scotland as Creative Scotland enters its second decade.
Since the founding of Creative Scotland in 2010, as the successor body to the Scottish Arts Council, the organisation has been surrounded by controversy. As any long-term observer of the arts scene in the UK knows, this partly comes with the territory; allocating finite resources within an ambitious and ever-growing arts community inevitably entails difficult and unpopular decisions, and a great deal of disappointment for some artists and organisations.
In the case of Creative Scotland, though, the criticisms made have often gone much deeper than disagreement with individual funding decisions. Over the past decade, there has been widespread unease with the culture and language of the organisation, with its managerial tone, and with what were initially jargon-ridden and impenetrable internal structures and job descriptions, although those have greatly improved in recent years. Ten years into the life of the organisation, Creative Scotland has just lost another CEO, after a 2018 funding round the handling of which was a failure at best; and having observed the organisation from its inception, and in fact talked extensively to the consultant Anne Bonnar during the transition period, I have come to believe that the problem arises from Creative Scotland’s ambition, doubtless shared by the Scottish Government, to be something more than a funding agency, and to act rather as a strategic body, playing a creative role in shaping and developing Scotland’s cultural landscape.
In principle, this sounds sensible; but in practice, in relation to artists and the arts, I believe that it has proved to be a strategic error, and the source of much bureaucratic waste of effort. No agency can or should second-guess the directions in which creative artists and organisations will want to take their work; none of the great developments in Scotland’s creative life over the past half century – from the opening night of The Slab Boys to the emergence of Celtic Connections as one of the world’s great winter festivals – was, or should have been, predicted by any strategy document.
I therefore believe that the most exciting – and indeed the most creative – way forward for Creative Scotland, in putting the problems of its first decade behind it, is to proudly embrace its role as a funding agency first and foremost; and indeed to seek to become a world leader in the creative, imaginative and transparent allocation of funds, in response to the work of Scotland’s artists, and according to criteria which are regularly debated, revised, updated and endorsed by the creative community itself, both artists and audiences. This intense focus on achieving the best possible allocation of funds has organisational consequences, as follows.
Major focus on accurate and well-informed funding decisions
It is my view that Creative Scotland should seek to focus about 75 per cent of its activity as an organisation in this area, and in particular on ensuring that everyone involved in the decision-making process, whether CS officers and staff or peer reviewers, spends most of his/her/their time acquiring a deep and extensive knowledge of the work being created in Scotland in their art-form area. The aim should be to develop a funding system based on first-hand knowledge of, and discussion around, an artist or organisation’s past achievement and potential, as opposed to one structured round extensive and dangerously exhausting application processes, designed to codify and second-guess an unknowable future.
Essentially, Scotland’s artists and arts organisations are spending far too much time filling in forms, and too little time making good art. This has to end, and the way to end it is to make sure CS decision-makers are so familiar with artists’ work that they often need only a brief CV, a note of the theme and scale of an intended future project, and a credible draft budget, in order to make a speedy decision.
There are, of course, many structural options in relation to the forums in which such decisions are hammered out, to ensure maximum breadth of vision and public accountability; they range from old-style arts council committees of peers and experts (which were cordially hated, but not hated as much as the current system), to in-house groups of officers and various combinations of CS staff and peer review. The key, though, is to focus on the work created and the future potential, rather than on form-filling skills and on the ability to generate the kind of language that has everything to do with current management and policy orthodoxies, and nothing to do with art or creativity.
Sponsoring ongoing debate on criteria for funding decisions
In order to make this focus on state-of-the-art decision-making work, Creative Scotland will have to enter a new era of regular rolling consultation with the creative community, not about vague policy priorities, but about the nitty-gritty of the values that should be applied in reaching funding decisions. It should therefore sponsor something like a twice-yearly “parliament for the arts” in which these criteria are discussed, and possible new considerations brought forward. Everyone wants to see high levels of technical excellence in the arts, high levels of originality and work that genuinely contributes to the life of the nation and the world.
But changing sensibilities can alter both the way we define those terms and the importance we give to other considerations, from gender balance to racial and cultural inclusion, the voices of people with disabilities and even ageism. A national funding agency must also consider issues of geographical inclusion and balance – and indeed it’s hard to imagine a definition of excellence in the arts in Scotland that would not seek to reflect all of Scotland’s rich and varied strands of landscape and culture. The only transparent, decent and democratic way to balance all these demands is through an ongoing debate, a “common pursuit”, of the best approach for the moment in which we live; the kind of debate that never reaches a tidy conclusion, but is always open to new ideas, always present, and trusted by the creative community always to take their views into account.
Politics and advocacy
In Scotland, since the coming of devolution in 1999, I believe we have been fortunate in that successive Scottish Governments have been acutely aware of the value and power of the arts as part of national life, and willing to give them a higher priority than might have been feared, particularly during this last decade of austerity. However, the belief that public funding is on an inevitable downward track seems, over the past two decades, to have become a fundamental tenet of arts management, in a way that seems to me both defeatist, and often quite insidious in its knock-on creative effects, not least on the pay and conditions of freelance creative workers.
I therefore believe that apart from its core activity of making the best possible funding decisions, Creative Scotland should always act as a vigorous advocate for the arts, and a happy warrior for more generous spending regimes. When all is said and done, the sums of money involved are small, compared with other areas of public spending; and the “bang for the buck” is so spectacular – the arts have served Scotland’s international image so well over the last 30 years – that the slogan “just double it” seems to me a fairly good one in approaching Scottish government on the matter of arts spending! Seriously speaking, as both a political and an arts journalist, I think I fully understand the ways in which these two worlds interact; I also think we have politicians who understand that the arts cannot be instrumentalised in any crude way without destroying them. And that represents an excellent starting point for any future relationship.
Partners in arts funding
Creative Scotland should also, of course, have a constant eye on the wider arts landscape, and on ways it can help to support others – from private sponsors to Scotland’s hard-pressed local authorities and educational institutions – who also help to fund the arts. When a crisis arises – such as, for example, the recent announcement of the closure of the wonderful Tramway-based youth theatre company Junction 25, funded by Glasgow Life – Creative Scotland should never be slow to take the lead in trying to find solutions. Following my work on the Charter for the Arts in the early 1990s, I am greatly saddened by the huge disempowerment of Scotland’s local authorities that has taken place since then, and the steady diminution of their once-mighty role as patrons of the arts. I believe Creative Scotland should be a true partner in trying to rebuild that strength of support for the arts at local level, and in working closely with other agencies who seek to contribute to Scotland’s creative future.