'Hands-off' warning on the arts

SCOTLAND'S thriving arts scene will be threatened if the Cultural Commission hands more power to the Executive, the Scottish Arts Council (SAC) has warned.

In a strongly-worded letter to the commission, the SAC insists the arts will only continue to flourish if control remains separate from government.

The letter - signed by more than 30 arts organisations across Scotland - makes it clear that any move to extend the Executive's power within the arts will harm cultural expression.

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The commission, led by James Boyle, has been charged with refashioning Scotland's cultural scene and reports on Thursday.

But in a last-minute intervention, the SAC calls for the retention of the "arm's length principle" in which funding for the arts is decided and distributed by a separate body independent of ministers.

The SAC says independence from the Executive is vital as a check "against unhealthy concentrations of power", to protect freedom of expression, retain democratic structures, and ensure that decision-making is not compromised.

The letter, written by SAC chief executive Graham Berry, states: "We remain convinced that creativity will only thrive when it is at arm's length from government.

"We believe that the arm's length principle ensures that decision-making is not compromised by other influences. By maintaining an independent distance, it ensures that every interested party, whether arts organisation, local or national government, will act in the best interest of the communities they wish to serve.

"It acts as a check, or balance, against unhealthy concentrations of power, which can skew the ultimate aims or purpose of any endeavour and it allows for any action or decision to be challenged by an opposite, but equal, interest group."

The Cultural Commission's report will land on the desks of the Scottish arts world on Thursday morning. It will be heavy reading. Since June last year the commission has received more than 700 submissions from a wide range of arts organisations.

Sources close to the report say it will be around 150 pages long and contain "hundreds of recommendations". The seven-strong secretariat, headed by former Radio 4 controller James Boyle, have kept their counsel.

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But in the past few weeks, as the commission conducts its last round of consultations with arts bodies, a picture has built up of what it is likely to say.

Sources say Boyle is likely to recommend "a series of options". These include the creation of a "super quango", called Culture Scotland. The arm's length organisation would encompass the existing functions of the Scottish Arts Council (SAC) and potentially oversee such institutions as the national galleries and museums.

The alternative would be a culture ministry working with local councils. This option is favoured by Scotland's local authorities, which have called for the SAC to be abolished. It is believed it will be central in establishing a cultural bill of rights.

The final proposal would be to retain the status quo with some minor adjustments, which could include more "federalisation" between arts groups.

Education will definitely feature. Boyle, a former teacher, firmly believes in creating an environment where pupils have access to the arts.

One proposal could be to centralise the education departments of national bodies such as Scottish Opera and the National Theatre of Scotland.

So far most senior art figures have adopted a "wait and see" mentality.

But Sir Timothy Clifford, the departing director-general of the National Galleries of Scotland, has warned that he feels threatened by the commission and any move to devolve funding from the National Collection to the smaller galleries.

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