Joyce McMillan: Silence isn’t golden for the arts

CREATIVE Scotland’s ten-year plan leaves more questions than answers about how it will make its decisions, says Joyce McMillan

Janet Archer, Creative Scotland's new Chief Executive at Creative Scotland's offices at Waverley Gate, Edinburgh Picture: Neil Hanna

A NEW piece of information flits across my screen, on a bright Edinburgh spring day. It’s the announcement of a Fringe show, planned for this year’s Festival, in response to David Bowie’s “Scotland, stay with us” plea. It’s called All Back To Bowie’s, features artists such as Karine Polwart, Cora Bissett and the playwrights Peter Arnott and David Greig, and – most importantly – it will be different every day, offering a huge range of “gentle thought and hard day-dreaming” about Scotland’s independence referendum.

Meanwhile, just down the page, there’s a gorgeous time-lapse film of the construction of Andy Scott’s wild and magnificent Kelpie sculptures, just about to be officially unveiled in the former post-industrial badlands beside the M9, near Grangemouth. There are images of the new Reid Building at Glasgow School Of Art, opened with great emotion on Wednesday by art school graduate Robbie Coltrane. There are excited responses to the previews of Vanishing Point’s new show The Beautiful Cosmos Of Ivor Cutler, about one of Scotland’s most eccentric and best-loved humorists. And there is a thrilling series of tweets about the West End debut of the National Theatre of Scotland, with their haunting teenage vampire drama Let The Right One In, first seen in Dundee last summer; including a brilliant blog by young London-based critic Dan Hutton about how the show subtly shifted his attitude to the Scottish independence debate, offering him, as he puts it, a chance to see “the other” in a context where that group isn’t ordinarily represented.

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In this referendum year, in other words, Scotland’s cultural life seems to be thriving; not “tense, nervous and unimaginative,” as Alexander Linklater argued in a recent Observer column, but almost mind-blowingly rich and energetic. What’s more, the institutional structures that support it now seem in better shape than for some years. While England’s lacklustre culture minister is forced out of office over an expenses scandal, and replaced by a banker, Scotland’s culture secretary, Fiona Hyslop, has emerged as an impressive advocate for the intrinsic value of the arts, and a true enthusiast for the work of artists in Scotland and beyond.

And this week – following its troubled launch in 2010, and the two years of conflict that led to the resignation of its first chief executive – Scotland’s main arts funding agency, Creative Scotland, published a new ten-year plan which, while full of pleasing generalities, is at least written, by and large, in a language artists will recognise – enthusiastic, passionate, and punctuated with powerful quotations from leading Scottish-based artists.

What’s more, the outline of Creative Scotland’s new funding structure, also published this week, directly addresses one of the main sources of conflict back in 2012, by restoring a “regular funding” system which will enable organisations of all sizes to apply for core support over a three-year period, rather than depending entirely on hand-to-mouth project funding.

So is it time for some self-congratulation, in the world of Scottish culture? Absolutely not; for some profound problems still remain, not least the kind of disconnection between different spheres of the nation’s life that leads to shock decisions like last week’s announcement of the blowing up of Glasgow’s Red Road flats, as part of the Commonwealth Games opening ceremony. Creative Scotland is still inclined to lapse into business-management talk about how it will offer “leadership”, when in fact that is the last thing it needs to do; what it needs to do is to build effective relationships with other bodies involved in Scotland’s public life, act as a passionate advocate for the arts, and – above all – distribute its funds wisely, to the artists and creators whose imaginative power will lead us towards new times.

And it’s in this last field, in addressing the question of exactly how it will make its funding decisions, that Creative Scotland’s view of the next ten years still seems to revolve around something of an intellectual and organisational vacuum.

If there is a mood of discontent among some Scottish artists at the moment, it is focused on the sense that the criteria for Creative Scotland’s funding decisions are vague, that the goalposts are constantly moving, and that the feedback received by unsuccessful applicants is at best inconsistent, and at times almost incomprehensible.

In its new strategy document, Creative Scotland at least puts the funding of the arts back at the top of the list, as its core activity; and it also announces the excellent aim of trying to provide something more like a sustainable livelihood for Scottish-based artists, a high proportion of whom – according to a recent report – are earning less than £5,000 a year.

In order to fully achieve these goals, though, Creative Scotland needs to devise trustworthy, transparent and accountable systems of artistic decision-making, which deal as fairly as possible with a situation where demands on its funds will always greatly exceed its ability to offer support. Here, strangely, the new strategy is silent; silent on the criteria it will use in making artistic decisions, silent on whom it will consult, and silent on how it will keep those criteria under review, through what should be a continuing process of debate.

We are emerging, after all, from an age in which the whole idea of artistic judgment has undergone a triple challenge; first from those who rightly rejected the old, rigid canon of “great art”; then from the shock-troops of extreme individualism who wrongly argued that artistic judgment can never be anything more than individual and subjective; and finally from the purely social, economic and bureaucratic measures of the value of art that rushed in to fill the vacuum.

So if Creative Scotland wants to be a cutting-edge funding body of the 21st century, it could set itself no greater or more significant challenge than to generate a continuing and always open-ended debate on artistic value; a debate that would involve artists and audiences across Scotland, that would constantly inform and shape Creative Scotland’s own decisions, and that – in times of unrest, or unhappiness, or dwindling funds – would give the system a resilience, an accountability, and an openness that it currently lacks, but that it should be looking to develop, over the next decade, and beyond.