Alison Reeves: Culture hard to quantify in'¨terms of wealth or wellbeing

The Scottish Government is finally writing a National Cultural Strategy, with the first public conversations to inform the process taking place next week.

Culture contributes to the health, wealth and success of our nation
Culture contributes to the health, wealth and success of our nation

Although some clear thinking on how to support our world class arts sector is welcome, it remains to be seen if this strategy will result in any real change. There’s obviously been some careful thought on ensuring the process is inclusive, and Creative Scotland have seconded their Director of Arts and Engagement to lead it, whose remit includes increasing diversity.

Fiona Hyslop spoke at the launch in June of how culture contributes to the ‘health, wealth and success of our nation’, how ‘access, equity and excellence’ were to be the core principles of the strategy. It’s heartening that the language around the value of culture has moved away from bare economics. While it’s easy to throw around the figures of the financial value of the cultural industries (£3.7 billion in Scotland last year), it’s much harder to quantify the value to the well-being of the nation.

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But although it’s not all about money, Hyslop was right to include tackling artists’ low pay as one of the strategy’s objectives. Creative Scotland research shows that 80 per cent of artists earn less than £10,000 a year through their artistic output with just 2 per cent earning over £20,000. Most top this up with other work, some in related fields like teaching or arts admin and some working on construction sites or pulling pints.

Being an artist is financially risky without a safety net which may explain the current dominance of Eton-educated actors in the film industry.

Tackling this challenge is more complex than setting fair pay standards. Most artists are self-employed, with unpredictable careers and an unstable income. To be successful means not simply being a master of your art but also mastering funding applications, social media marketing or charity management.

Paying tax on account means a disproportionately high tax bill the year following the one where you did particularly well. And as you move towards retiring age, there’s no pension scheme, no reward for long service.

The writing of the strategy needs to take into account the wider employment infrastructure. It needs to consider how to ensure the way artists work and are paid doesn’t exclude those who can’t afford the time to create.

Grants to fund a three-year living allowance, a payment made with no pre-defined output? Business training as part of arts degrees, so graduates know how to cost their work, to work to brief, to understand copyright? Tax, pension and benefits arrangements better-suited to those working in this most erratic of industries?

It’s right that these conversations on culture allow space to discuss benefits that are not financial. Most artists resist discussing the value of their work simply in monetary terms. But realistically, it’s only by considering the personal finances of our artists that the process will result in the access, equity and excellence that it strives for.

Alison Reeves is currently working for a music charity, continuing a 20-year career in participative and community arts across Scotland.