Brian Ferguson: Creative differences cause for real concern

I know I wasn’t the only one tripping off down memory lane last week as the artistic rebellion against Creative Scotland went up by more than a few notches.

I know I wasn’t the only one tripping off down memory lane last week as the artistic rebellion against Creative Scotland went up by more than a few notches.

If the quango thought it had taken the sting out of months of discontent by pledging to take part in a couple of “open session” events in Edinburgh and Glasgow later this month, it had a rude awakening by the starkness of the language used in various diatribes against the organisation.

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But what was also striking about the “100-artists letter” and subsequent tirades were the echoes of previous revolts.

I couldn’t help but notice some of the names attached to last week’s protest letter had been involved in earlier sabre-rattling at the way the arts were being handled by Holyrood.

Therein lies the nub of the pickle Creative Scotland and the Scottish Government have found themselves in. We have been here several times since the idea of a new arts super-quango was first floated in 2005. In fact, the previous year then First Minister Jack McConnell was targeted in a letter warning that the nation’s creative spirit was being allowed to “wither” by his administration’s handling of the arts.

No-one can say the alarm bells about Creative Scotland are being sounded belatedly. Its creation was a tortuous process and even once approved, the gestation period was long and laborious.

At regular intervals, there were calls for the whole process to be scrapped and widespread concerns about the loss of the level of independence which the oft-maligned Scottish Arts Council had enjoyed. Bodies like the National Galleries and National Museums had to battle hard to retain direct funding from the Scottish Government, fearing the worst if they were lumped in.

There appears little doubt much of the ill-feeling from substantial parts of the cultural sector is directed at those at, or very near the top, of Creative Scotland. The initial defences of Andrew Dixon, the chief executive, earlier this year and Sir Sandy Crombie, the chairman, last week – to the effect of our “PR strategy has been poor” and “you just don’t understand us” – have since crumbled away.

When Liz Lochhead, the national poet, an ambassador for the “Year of Creative Scotland” and one of the “celebrity” supporters of the Yes Scotland independence campaign took to the airwaves, the whole affair seemed elevated to another level.

The following day the entire tone of Scotland’s culture minister, Fiona Hyslop, had altered dramatically. And little wonder. The creation, remit, priorities and funding of Creative Scotland are mainly down to the Scottish Government.

Hyslop may have inherited the shape of the quango from two SNP predecessors, Linda Fabiani and Mike Russell, but it was her party’s decision to retain the hugely-controversial plans instigated by the previous Labour-led administration.

Much of the criticism washing over Creative Scotland is not about the personalities involved, but the bureaucratic nature of the organisation, the sheer breadth of the sector it is trying to cover and the whole concept of providing “a return on investment”.

Creative Scotland was not a blank slate when Dixon arrived at the helm just over two years ago. If he and/or Sir Sandy are removed from the picture – and the media has been repeatedly informed they have no intention of going – where will that leave the sector?

Right back at the beginning? I doubt it. The same organisation, with its £83 million budget, will still be there. So will its fiendishly complex funding programmes that seem to lie at the heart of the discontent. I suspect many artists will not rest easy until the entire bureaucratic organisation is dismantled. And any major changes will almost certainly end up at the culture secretary’s door.

Creative Scotland was most certainly not her idea. It was not even her party’s. But her parliamentary profile reminds visitors that she was the minister who got it approved.

On that day in March 2010, she proudly declared: “I expect Creative Scotland to help realise the potential contribution of art and creativity to every part of our society and economy.”

Sir Sandy’s ill-advised “letter of response” has been pulled apart by critics and artists. But when he made the point that “they who provide the money have a right to ask what will result from that investment,” was he not singing from a hymn sheet provided by the Scottish Government? The same government that appointed him in the first place.