Brian Ferguson: Arts agency report puts us on hold

'Janet Archer is unlikely to have had much to do with the new action plan'. Picture: Neil Hanna
'Janet Archer is unlikely to have had much to do with the new action plan'. Picture: Neil Hanna
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It’s more than a decade since the phrase “a good day to bury bad news” entered the lexicon.

It was a UK government spin doctor who penned the infamous e-mail on the day of the attacks on New York’s World Trade Centre.

Unfortunately, it was the phrase that leapt to mind when Creative Scotland chose one of the busiest days in the arts calendar to let everyone know what it will be up to over the next year.

I know they know how well this move – without any warning – went down like a lead balloon with the handful of journalists who cover the body’s affairs.

But I wonder how many other artists, administrators and bodies were otherwise distracted when this long-overdue report finally emerged.

Now, I’m not suggesting for a minute that the entire Scottish arts world revolves around Edinburgh, even in August, but Creative Scotland would have known fine well how many things were happening in the capital last Thursday when it chose to make its plans public.

Both the Palace of Holyroodhouse and the Scottish National Gallery were staging major exhibition launches, three major Fringe venues were hosting their own showcases and it was the opening night of the Tattoo, as well as the first day of the Edinburgh Art Festival, which had events on throughout the day.

Across Edinburgh, theatre companies, actors, managers and administrators were preparing venues, making last-minute adjustments to shows and generally sweating their guts out to ensure the Fringe hit the ground running.

Slipping out their annual plans on such a day would have been understandable – if suspicious and sneaky – if Creative Scotland had had any bad news it wanted to bury. Its budget has actually gone up £7 million, for goodness’ sake.

Having since had the time to plough through the 45-page report, only the most paranoid of spin doctors within the quango – or higher up the food chain at the Scottish Government – would have expected it to set bush fires blazing around Creative Scotland.

In essence, it was very much a holding report, before a new long-term vision for the organisation is due to be published in spring next year. That wider blueprint was originally due to be released in May – before the appointment of a new chief executive, before someone realised the folly of such a move.

New chief executive Janet Archer is unlikely to have had much to do with the new action plan – other than putting her name and a few sentences to it – as she only took up office at the beginning of July. Her big job, as she has admitted, is pulling together the long-term plan of action.

In fact, Creative Scotland was promising in early May that it would be ready to be published in “early June” – in its last major update before Ms Archer was appointed. It was clearly not something quickly pulled together in the last week or so.

Buried away amid the many strategic outcomes in the report were three words that certainly raised an ironic chuckle: “Strong media relations.” I don’t believe for a minute Creative Scotland is there to serve anyone in the media. But if it is genuinely serious about building strong media relations in the new era, that was about as bad a start as I could imagine. After the pantomime over the hiring of a new chief executive, it is clear the organisation still has a lot to learn.

What makes it worse for this observer is the feeling that Creative Scotland’s energies should have been deployed elsewhere as the world’s biggest arts festival got under way. With Fringe sales dropping last year, I’d have expected a big effort to get things back on track.

What did Creative Scotland have to say about this Olympics-scale event that was getting under way on its doorstep? Not a jot. The same charge can be equally applied to VisitScotland and the Scottish Government. The city council is also strangely reticent.

Where is the co-ordinated campaign to tell the world about what is happening in Edinburgh this month? What is being done to encourage ticket sales on the ground over the next few weeks? Precious little, from what I can see.

While it would be unfair to dump this collective failure on the doorstep of Creative Scotland, I’d have expected the national arts agency to at least be out there banging the drum. Now there is only the sense of an opportunity missed.