Brian Ferguson: Government has to fund Scottish Youth Theatre

The Scottish Youth Theatre performed at the Edinburgh Festival.
The Scottish Youth Theatre performed at the Edinburgh Festival.
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Janet Archer, Creative Scotland’s chief executive has, by any standards of public life in Scotland, had a fair old pummelling over the last couple of months.

Controversy over long-awaited decisions on which organisations would secure vital backing for the next three years has hardly abated since they were unveiled in January.

Every passing week has stoked discontent about the national arts quango even further, thanks to the online letters and petitions, political interventions, resignations, u-turns and unanswered questions that have emerged.

The sudden prospect of the closure of the Scottish Youth Theatre saw the chorus of criticism of Creative Scotland’s stewardship of Scottish culture reach a new crescendo.

Amid the storm of controversial over the “Creative Scotland cuts” in January, the case of SYT was overlooked, despite its high profile. That is because, in Scotland’s arts funding hierarchy, it has been something of an oddity.

Like 20 other companies cut adrift by the quango, it was previously funded, but only thanks to ring-fenced government funding and backing from private-sector firm Clyde Blowers, after a controversial intervention from then First Minister Alex Salmond four years ago.

With that funding package about to run out, SYT was presumably banking on being put on the same pedestal as other fully-funded national companies like the National Youth Choir of Scotland and Scottish Youth Dance.

It is far from clear why SYT’s plans and recent track record were dismissed by Creative Scotland, other than strong hints that they simply not good enough compared to rival bids.

Of course, Creative Scotland’s senior management and members of its board made several ill-advised ventures into the public domain to warn the Scottish arts scene was facing impending doom and “cultural carnage” before its budget was set by the government.

But when it emerged that its funding had actually gone up by £16.6 million, it appeared to be a mutual victory for Ms Archer and culture secretary Fiona Hyslop. Or so it seemed.

With much of that increase allocated to address a predicted shortfall in lottery income and the remainder ring-fenced for the film and TV industry, difficult decisions were still to be taken. The future of SYT was one of them.

Three months later and its future is very much in the balance. First Minister Nicola Sturgeon faced uncomfortable demands to explain its treatment at Holyrood last week and growing demands to overturn Creative Scotland’s decision. Ms Sturgeon left little doubt that the government would not allow SYT to wither and die. Such a prospect would cast a shadow over the multi-million pound “Year of Young People” campaign she has fronted. But there is no easy solution.

Whatever happens now will be seen as a bail-out in response to a threat of closure – a highly dangerous precedent for any politician or funding body to set.

Although the government has no option but to act, another rescue package will make an even bigger mockery of the system of arts funding in Scotland than Mr Salmond’s deal.

The only wriggle room may be that Year of Young People and the extra funding that has been made available. The need to pull SYT back from the abyss would not have been seen as a priority at the start of 2018 – but it is now to avoid the entire 12 months becoming a national, or even international, embarrassment.