The Edinburgh Fringe has grown yet again this year - by six per cent, to 2695 shows. And yet there was still a slight sense of anticlimax at yesterday’s brochure launch, since so many of those shows were announced months ago - tickets for almost half of them were on sale long before Thursday.
Why would the Fringe allow its thunder to be stolen in this way? Because, as chief executive Kath Mainland explained simply, it’s the festival’s job to respond to the views of performers, and if performers want to sell tickets early then obviously the Fringe must allow them to do that.
Hearing this, I couldn’t help thinking that Creative Scotland - which was the main topic of conversation at yesterday’s Fringe launches, in the wake of playwright David Greig’s open letter to the organisation - could learn from this responsive approach.
Unlike Mainland - a woman so well regarded I’ve never heard a bad word about her - Creative Scotland’s most senior staff currently face accusations of arrogance, an obsession with control, failure of leadership, and worse. Some of this pre-dated the funding shake-up two weeks ago, but that development in particular has left many artists feeling betrayed - and not just the 49 companies who are having their flexible funding replaced by more unstable project funding. As Greig put it in his letter, trust in the organisation is “haemorrhaging day by day”.
Being savaged by the frequently outspoken Tommy Smith, or by Scotsman theatre critic and columnist Joyce McMillan is one thing, but when a man as normally diplomatic and self-effacing as David Greig starts openly laying into you, it is surely a sign that something is deeply wrong.
How did this happen? There are numerous individual criticisms being made of Creative Scotland - that there is a lack of transparency in its decision making, that it talks in impenetrable, obfuscating jargon, that it doesn’t listen, that it is unhealthily and inappropriately obsessed with marketing and business speak.
But I think Greig nailed it when he talked about trust. What seems to have alienated artists more than anything is the sense that Creative Scotland simply doesn’t trust them to get on with the job of making art.
There is constant talk of “strategy”, as if it is the job of artists to carry out the strategic plans of government bodies rather than reflect the complex, diverse concerns of a nation’s people in bold, challenging and enlightening ways - and to have the freedom to say things the government frequently won’t like.
In an oddly phrased response to one of his critics this week, Creative Scotland boss Andrew Dixon set out how he saw the future for the 49 companies affected by the funding shake-up. “Many will deliver strategic roles for Scotland, others will do programmes and projects on their own terms.”
This is typical of the language Creative Scotland uses, and it gives the unfortunate impression that a government appointed bureaucrat thinks he knows how artists can best reflect the concerns of a nation better than the artists themselves. If not, why the distinction? Surely all art should be made on its own terms?
Yesterday, meanwhile, Creative Scotland’s communications director Kenneth Fowler was quoted telling Scottish Review: “In the past there might have been an idea that the Arts Council was there to serve the artists. That’s not the case any more. We are here to serve the Scottish people and we are accountable to them.”
What are we to conclude from a comment like this? That Creative Scotland thinks this country’s artists - people whose work has punched well above its weight internationally, and is widely acknowledged as being one of Scotland’s strongest selling points - are selfishly ignoring what the public want and need and that it’s up to Creative Scotland to bring them into line?
I had always thought it was the job of arts administrators, from Creative Scotland to the Fringe, to enable artists to make work that enriches the lives of everyone. This is what artists do best, after all. They are deeply interested in other people, and in the health of the nation. They speak for people who are marginalised and disenfranchised, and challenge establishment thinking. What they don’t do, in any democracy, is deliver government strategies.
For various reasons, fewer and fewer artists now think Creative Scotland trusts them to get on with their job. And so more and more artists no longer trust Creative Scotland to do theirs. This lack of trust is incredibly damaging, and Creative Scotland needs to address it urgently. Paying attention to people like David Greig would be a good start.