Scotland’s arts sector needs more help – Brian Ferguson

Demands for help for Scotland’s cultural industries are only going to grow louder, writes Brian Ferguson.

The Stand Comedy Club is just one of the comedy venues facing a struggle to survive (Picture: Toby Williams)
The Stand Comedy Club is just one of the comedy venues facing a struggle to survive (Picture: Toby Williams)

On this day in any other year, I would be using this space to reflect on the previous month’s events in Edinburgh, as pop-up venues are being packed up, performers leave town and the city is handed back to its citizens. Walking up the Royal Mile in bright autumn sunshine on Monday morning, there was a definite sense of normality returning to the city after the general weirdness and gloominess of an August in Edinburgh without events or festivals. But five months into the shutdown of cultural venues and events, any sense of revival or recovery seems a long way off.

Things are certainly looking brighter than they were a week or so, when First Minister Nicola Sturgeon and Culture Secretary Fiona Hyslop were coming under mounting pressure to explain why the Scottish Government had only distributed a quarter of the £97 million in emergency arts funding allocated to Scotland by the UK Government two months previously.

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While sectors of the economy have been queuing up for financial assistance ever since the first coronavirus restrictions were introduced in March, it should not have needed a string of Scottish comedians to declare open warfare on the government and its arts quango Creative Scotland before the operators of clubs and venues received any kind of pledges of support.

Likewise, it seemed odd that operators of live music venues and nightclubs should have to take Ms Sturgeon and her government to task for supporting “elite” arts and heritage organisations like theatres and museums while their own businesses were left on the brink.

It was even odder that the First Minister appeared keen to shift the focus onto the refusal of the Westminster Government to extent the furlough scheme and away from the failure to clearly set out what was happening to the £97 million – offering her political opponents a clear open goal. It is little wonder Boris Johnson’s own Culture Secretary Oliver Dowden pounced on the revelations from Creative Scotland that it was still waiting to hear what was happening to £74m of arts funding sent north of the Border.

By the end of last week, the First Minister had bowed to the mounting pressure by setting out where most, if not all, of this money would be heading, although for those companies and organisations clinging on by their fingertips the devil will most certainly be in the detail.

The long-overdue recognition for comedy as a bona fide art form which would be receiving some emergency support was a headline grabber. However while independent cinemas won a ringfenced pledge of £3.5m and youth arts initiatives have been allocated £3 million, the waiting game will be going on for other sectors.

Of the £59m package announced by Ms Sturgeon, just £19m of it will have to be shared out between everything from comedy venues, art galleries and nightclubs to large-scale music venues, orchestras and dance companies. Creative Scotland, which will have the unenviable task of deciding how to distribute this money, is likely to come under enormous pressure, given the ever-growing pleas for assistance.

One thing which appears obvious is that any emergency funding is only likely to be able to stave off mass redundancies and closures for so long. A much bigger issue for everyone, including Ms Sturgeon and Ms Hyslop, is how much additional funding will have to be found from the Scottish Government’s own budget to come anywhere near meeting demands which will only grow louder for a long time to come.

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