Why Scottish arts scene has reasons for optimism amid crisis – Brian Ferguson

More than £100 million in financial help for Scottish culture from the Scottish and UK Governments should make a real difference, writes Brian Ferguson.
Fiona Hyslop, Cabinet Secretary with responsibility for  culture, speaks in the Scottish Parliament (Picture: Andrew Cowan/Scottish Parliament)Fiona Hyslop, Cabinet Secretary with responsibility for  culture, speaks in the Scottish Parliament (Picture: Andrew Cowan/Scottish Parliament)
Fiona Hyslop, Cabinet Secretary with responsibility for culture, speaks in the Scottish Parliament (Picture: Andrew Cowan/Scottish Parliament)

After months of despair and despondency over the future of arts culture, the storm clouds have undoubtedly parted over the last week.

A notable ramping up of lobbying activity across the UK in recent weeks has finally exploded onto social media networks.

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Frustration at the lack of apparent interest and concern from politicians has finally been turned into real demands to not only be heard but fully supported. At least three separate campaigns – all inspiring in their own ways – have emerged in recent days, encouraging artists and audiences to highlight their last concert, persuading professionals at every level of the cultural sector to show themselves at work, and bathing hundreds of venues in red light.

A few weeks ahead of what would normally be the start of the main Edinburgh festival season, there was something quietly inspiring about the idea of highlighting venues as varied as Sneaky Pete’s, the Voodoo Rooms, the King’s Theatre and The Hub, as a reminder of what the city will be missing next month.

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Scottish culture gets £97 million rescue package from UK Government

Of course, the last few days have also seen both the Scottish and UK Governments finally make significant pledges of dedicated funding to help arts organisations and companies withstand the impact of Covid-19. Growing warnings of mass insolvencies and closures had been led by the theatre sector, but the music industry, which does not rely on public funding to anything like the same extent, has also been warning of an entire sector on the brink of collapse.

The demands for action and pleas for help for the arts seemed to intensify with moves to relax the controversial two-metre social distancing rule on either side of the border and hype around the opening of pubs and beer gardens. There was certainly a furious reaction to the photographs and video in Soho on Saturday of crowds gathering against a backdrop of locked-up theatres. The previous day the Scottish Government had announced its £10 million “lifeline” fund for performing arts venues, aimed at helping them avoid the threat of redundancy, bring staff back off furlough and get freelance artists working again. At the time, Culture Secretary Fiona Hylsop urged the UK Government to “back the culture and creative industries with major investment” so that her administration could step up its efforts to support the sector. I don’t suppose I’ll ever know whether the Scottish Government was tipped off about the UK’s Government’s big announcement of a £1.57 billion rescue package for the arts – including a £97 million share for Scotland – a couple of days later, but it was a cute politics by the SNP to look as if it had made the running and applied crucial pressure on Westminster.

There is no question that having a £107 million coronavirus war chest puts Scottish culture in a far better position than it was in a week ago. But now tough decisions and hard questions are looming for both the government and funding body Creative Scotland. Deciding priorities for action will need to be done within weeks rather than months. Once you start to count up the number of arts sectors affected by social-distancing restrictions – live music, theatre, comedy and festivals for starters – it soon becomes clear that will be no easy task given the lost box office income that will have been tallied up. Businesses and sectors which have never previously asked for or relied on public funding are queuing up for help. And as bars, restaurants and cafes put people back to work, the entire arts sector is still waiting to hear how and when it will be allowed to stage the first events.

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