Tiffany Jenkins: Art quango recovers after chaos

Janet Archer, Creative Scotland's chief executive. Picture: Neil Hanna
Janet Archer, Creative Scotland's chief executive. Picture: Neil Hanna
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Scotland’s arts agency has survived the uproar that led to a year of change and reflection, but it still has a long 
way to go, writes Tiffany Jenkins

This time last year, the arts agency Creative Scotland was in chaos. It had lost two senior members of staff: chief executive Andrew Dixon and the director of creative development, Venu Dhupa, both stood down after a deluge of criticism about how the organisation was run. It was described as a “dysfunctional ant-heap” by the poet, Don Paterson, after a major rebellion by artists and arts organisations in response to a shake-up of the way grants were distributed, with many losing regular support.

The future was in question for the quango that had only been established in 2010, by merging the Scottish Arts Council and Scottish Screen. In just a couple of years it was to be lambasted – in a very public letter from 100 leading artists – as run with “ ill-conceived decision-making; unclear language, lack of empathy and regard for Scottish culture.”

A year on, how has it done? Has it addressed the problems that beset it? Its very survival suggests that the signs are good. In July this year, Janet Archer took up the difficult post of chief executive. After all the scrutiny, it was always going to be hard to chart a new course that would be considered credible. There are still issues to be resolved, but they have listened, holding many open sessions for those that work in the arts, screen and creative industries to voice constructive, and not so constructive, criticism. There may be less trouble ahead.

One of the problems with Creative Scotland was with the idea of what culture is for and who the quango is for, both of which have altered slightly. The arts are no longer conceived as working primarily in the interests of the economy, an important shift that isn’t confined to the quango. In June, the culture secretary Fiona Hyslop made a speech in which she argued that the arts were a “fundamental good” which should not be measured merely as an economic commodity – how they were seen – putting some distance between Scotland’s cultural policies and those from Westminster. There has been an attempt to put artists and creative organisations at the heart of their work, addressing the misgiving that Creative Scotland appeared to be too concerned with Creative Scotland.

Another issue that rightly enraged many was the language the organisation used to describe the arts and what they were doing – the language of business; that corporate speak that makes little sense, especially when applied to culture. Some of the corporate language has been erased, thankfully. But it could still win a prize for daft jargon about creativity, although here there are many contenders. One of the remaining problems for Creative Scotland is that arts organisations everywhere are out of practice when it comes to talking about quality, truth and beauty, instead of the language of tick box measurement and audience numbers and types – outputs, that is, rather than answering the question: is it any good? That needs to be addressed more generally.

The playwright David Greig, one of the critics of the quango, has noted that many of the moves made thus far have been positive, but has suggested changes be made to the Creative Scotland board. In November, he gave evidence at the Scottish Parliament’s education and culture committee, stating: “The key thing for me is the board. The board remains essentially, in personnel terms, what it was previously.” The change he advocvated would involve “putting more practitioners on the board”. Greig has a point. Adding a creative practitioner or two may help to reinforce and elucidate their needs and vision.

In another encouraging move, Creative Scotland recently announced that its controversial funding schemes would be scrapped, to be replaced by a simplified system. They will delete the 18 funding pots with their confusing criteria, and reduce the available funding pots to three – for “regular, project or targeted” funding. This should at least make it easier to understand how to apply for funding as well as for what. They plan to publish an explanation for the system by 1 April, 2014.

But the question of film needs to be addressed urgently. In October, Creative Scotland announced that they wanted to spend more on film and television than the £4m they currently contributed from the agency’s annual £97.5m budget. This seems sensible. But their support for film, which has brought results in Sunshine on Leith and Filth, has angered some, who have called it “a vain exercise in wish fulfilment and trying to make Scotland the Hollywood of the north.” But what is wrong with trying to do just that? We should be trying to make good and successful films. These concerns need to be addressed by a powerful advocate of the potential here. The agency has also been criticised from a different direction, by the producer Gillian Berrie, for having no film plan in Scotland and being poorly resourced. Creative Scotland are a little directionless on this front. They are still seeking a new director of Film & Media, which they hope to fill next year, but for now the strategy is lacking.

But it’s a start, and it’s important that it continues this way, because we need Creative Scotland. In a civilised society, public subsidy is required if the arts are to be supported; especially the new, difficult or risky work. It is not enough to rely on sponsorship or philanthropy to ensure this happens. And someone needs to organise it.

The primary function of its predecessor, the Arts Council, when it was established in 1945, was to patronise the promising artists of the day, so that ordinary people could experience their work. John Maynard Keynes, instrumental in its foundation, stated that, unlike the other national institutions, the purpose was not to socialise, cure, or teach, but to free up the artists and, as a consequence, give “universal opportunity for contact with traditional and contemporary arts in their noblest forms.”

We still need something a bit like that. Let’s hope that Creative Scotland continues to improve.