Scottish Government must stop promising and start delivering for arts industry – Brian Ferguson
A huge, collective sigh of relief could be heard sweeping across the Scottish cultural landscape the other day.
It was not, unfortunately, a response to confirmation of a new funding deal for the arts in Scotland.
Instead, it simply marked the passing of the most crucial deadline for the vast majority of Scotland’s arts organisations for more than five years.
The Scottish Government’s arts agency now has official applications for long-term support totalling £96 million from 361 different organisations.
The fate of these funding bids – and the venues, events, festivals and arts groups behind them – will do much to shape the future of that landscape over the next decade when they are decided next year.
So much is riding on them that they have been an understandable source of anxiety as the deadline has loomed – partly because the outlook for the arts has been largely bleak and demoralising over the last year, but also because Creative Scotland only has around £40m in its budget to meet that demand.
On the face of it, a key promise from First Minister Humza Yousaf to “more than double” arts spending the week before the crucial deadline for applying to Creative Scotland for the three-year funding programme was a well-timed intervention.
It may come to be looked back on as the start of a new era for an industry which has grappled with countless challenges over the last three years and real-terms cuts for well over a decade.
But I doubt there are any Scottish arts organisations in the mood for celebrating at the moment.
As it stands, their sector is significantly worse off financially than it was a year ago.
Confidence and trust in the government has been seriously eroded, particularly over its indefensible decision to impose a 10 per cent budget cut on Creative Scotland, reinstate it and present it as an “uplift,”, then quietly reimposed the cut, leaving an unexpected £6.6m hole in the funding body’s financial reserves.
This would be bad enough if the government had been honest and transparent.
Instead, the industry have been left baffled by mixed messages which have continued to stress the importance of arts and culture, while increasingly undermining and threatening the future of arts organisations and their work.
The new promise of funding - announced during the SNP conference - has done little to restore levels of trust and confidence in the government, judging by the conversations I’ve had with arts organisations, who face a long wait to see if they will actually benefit from the additional support – or actually drop out of the funding picture.
The “more than doubling” pledge was immediately undermined by an accompanying commitment to provide an additional £100m a year by 2028.
Any reading of the government’s revised budget suggests that it currently spends more than £170m a year.
Given its own definition of culture spending includes support for Historic Environment Scotland, the overall tally is actually around £240m at present. The government might want to drop one of those pledges before its reputation slides even further.
Scottish culture has frankly had enough unrealised strategies, undelivered pledges and broken commitments to last the next decade.
The government needs to stop promising and start delivering, most immediately with its budget announcement in December, when the true financial outlook for arts organisations and actual meaningful government support should become clear.
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