Better funding deal for Scottish culture long overdue - Brian Ferguson

A baptism of fire a few days into pounding the culture beat for The Scotsman means I share a work anniversary with a memorable artistic rebellion in Scotland.

Scottish contemporary dance artist Charlotte Mclean presented the world premiere of her solo work 'And' at Dance Base is Edinburgh as part of the Made in Scotland Showcase at the Fringe. Picture: Jane Barlow/PA Wire
Scottish contemporary dance artist Charlotte Mclean presented the world premiere of her solo work 'And' at Dance Base is Edinburgh as part of the Made in Scotland Showcase at the Fringe. Picture: Jane Barlow/PA Wire

It’s certainly been a rollercoaster since a damning open letter 10 years ago, backed by 100 of the nation's leading artists, attacked the way the country’s long-awaited new arts quango, Creative Scotland, was being run.

It didn't feel like it back then, when the rebels’ campaign eventually led to the resignation of Creative Scotland chief executive Andrew Dixon before Christmas, but those now seem like much simpler times.

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Back then, it seemed all that Creative Scotland had to do was allocate millions of pounds of funding to organisations which had traditionally relied on such support.

Within five years of the rebellion, Creative Scotland was back in the headlines again for all the wrong reasons and under fire in all directions from artists, companies and even the Scottish Government when demand for funding hugely outstripped available money. A clutch of high-profile organisations were completely cut adrift and a ministerial intervention led to some decisions being overturned. Within months, Mr Dixon's replacement, Janet Archer, had gone.

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Back then, it felt like a fatal blunder from Creative Scotland to lavish praise on the Scottish Government for its funding settlement weeks before it had to take brutally difficult decisions.

At the time, it felt to me like the government had escaped criticism for failing to provide adequate resources to Creative Scotland – not helped when it said its funding settlement “underlines the Scottish Government’s commitment to the pivotal role that culture and creativity plays in people’s lives across Scotland”.

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It has taken almost another five years, but the mood music has finally changed. But only because the entire cultural landscape itself appears to be under real threat.

Years of standstill funding, at best, for arts organisations has left them exposed in the face of what Creative Scotland and other arts organisations have described as a “perfect storm” of external factors.

The most serious of these is rising costs faced by building-based companies, when audience numbers have not fully recovered and the cost of living crisis is dampening future ticket sales.

Belatedly, Creative Scotland, which has had £32 million in core government funding for years, has found a voice to highlight a pretty bleak outlook for a sector which only began to emerge from Covid restrictions in the spring.

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The previously praised principle of standstill funding is now described as “an increasing year-on-year cut” and a level of support that is “increasingly unviable” for organisations grappling with rising costs and inflation, and falling income.

Perhaps most significantly, questions are finally being asked of why the government has consistently allocated less than one per cent of its budget to a sector which has supported more than 90,000 jobs and generated more than £4.6 billion for the Scottish economy.

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But is also worth questioning why more of a fuss was not made about this before now, given that significant additional funding seems way overdue.

There certainly seems a need for intense and urgent government lobbying – before it is too late for some organisations – over a proposed £4 million cut in its £177m culture budget, when what is clearly required is radical new thinking rather than managed decline.

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