Sunday, 15 August 2010

Arts Over Elbow

Less than a week after Aberdeen City Council decided to back Sir Ian Wood's plan's for a street-level piazza and ironic Garden on the site of Union Terrace Gardens and the Denburn Valley, necessitating the council to abandon a plan which had assured their backing, for a Contemporary Arts Centre spearheaded by Peacock Visual Arts, Andrew Dixon, newly appointed CEO of Creative Scotland stopped by Aberdeen on his grand tour of his new turf. After a number of positive and sympatheric meetings with cultural practicioners and organisations throughout the city, The Press and Journal and Evening Express triumphantly heralded his arrival, pulling him right into the debate over the future of Union Terrace Gardens, proclaiming :"Arts Centre should back world-class Garden's Bid: Culture Boss In Call to Peacock."

The Press and Journal, the less sensationalist of Aberdeen Journal's twins diabolique, claimed "Sir Ian Wood’s plans for Union Terrace Gardens in Aberdeen received a surprise boost last night after the incoming boss of Scotland’s new arts and culture body praised the project." Rightfully, given the years of trepidation and suspicion around the motives and realities of the new body, the reports caused a ripple through the damaged cultural community of Aberdeen, still licking those fresh wounds since the approval of the City Square which spread quickly throughout the wider Scottish Art Community, those confused and shocked by what had transpired in Aberdeen, and those anxiously waiting for indications of the working practices of Creative Scotland.

While Dixon was quick to cry "misquote" in The Herald podcast saying "I never said I am a supporter of the gardens project as such. What we are interested in is getting the right cultural facilities for Aberdeen" and giving the official advice to those involved that "They ought to take a little time now to see how we can harness the energy that’s there, the public interest there and get something that makes Aberdeen a better place to live.” Despite his apology, Dixon had already stepped on a cultural landmine by making any comment on the fiasco, something which the Scottish Arts Council had refrained from doing over the course of the previous eighteen months. The Times accused Mr Dixon of "lauding the “ambition and vision” shown by plans for the project, which has been promoted by Sir Ian Wood, the oil tycoon", indeed describing the City Square as "a real opportunity to do something interesting for the future of Aberdeen." This provides an interesting view on a project which has been described as "a mad idea underpinned by the offer of big money which is an illusion" by the RIAS, and criticized, ridiculed and debunked by a long line of cultural practitioners, architects and critics.

Andrew Dixon's apparent lack of knowledge concerning the perspective of the cultural practitioners his organisation is supposed to support and represent is not suprising given the emergence of a email to an artist which suggests that he harbours "confusion over the role and responsibilities of the new national funding body Creative Scotland." Kenneth Roy of Scottish Review's analysis of the aforementioned email finds him "still no clearer what the chief executive of Creative Scotland is trying to say about his own organisation." Said email, directly from Dixon to an unnamed artist, writing to CS with frustration surrounding a funding refusal is as follows:

'I am sorry that you didn't find my answer convincing but perhaps you misunderstand that we will not be a funding body in the old sense of the Arts Council but a strategic body,. There will no no point in making multiple applications to us as we will be working more strategically with others agencies.'
In his editorial, Roy rightfully points out that the statement is in direct contradiction to a statement on Creative Scotland's own website to the effect that "Creative Scotland inherits the investment commitment of the Scottish Arts Council and Scottish Screen." The sense of confusion coming from the very head of this new organisation is indeed alarming. In an attempt to belay concerns expressed by artist groups, journalists and the individual artist (who may or may not be able to secure funding from the organisation to support their practice), Mr Dixon has been writing to those expressing concern. One such correspondence, sent to The Guardian's Charlotte Higgins:
"As a new organisation it is inevitable that there will be changes in both the way Creative Scotland operate and what we support from both predecessor organisations. That is what the organisation was created to do and I intend to put that into practice to the benefit of Scotland and its artistic and creative community."
going on to say:
"Creative Scotland launched on 1st July and the board met for the first time on 12th August and is beginning to develop the first corporate plan for the new organisation for 2011/12 in line with an agreed timetable with the Scottish Government by the end of the year."
This ties in with a reported comment from CS chair Sir Sandy Crosby, in relation to the role of the organisation that "he wasn't sure since there hadn't been a board meeting yet." Fair enough, one might think considering the relative infancy of the organisation, however the concept, and even the name "Creative Scotland" is not that new, having been on the Scottish Government's agenda since 2006 when introduced by the previous Labour/Lib Dem administration.

While the original Creative Scotland Bill failed to pass the finance committee in June 2008 with Labour MSP Ken MacIntosh stating "In her [Linda Fabiana, then-Culture Minister] opening statement, she led members to believe that the budget for the creative industries would be transferred from Scottish Enterprise to Creative Scotland. In her summing-up she then clarified that no such budget would be transferred. This is a total shambles and gross incompetence.”

However, the minority SNP administration were not to be perturbed with Ms Fabiani stating that "I am 100 per cent committed to establishing Creative Scotland to bring benefit to our arts and cultural sector as soon as possible. The Scottish Parliament has unanimously endorsed the principles of Creative Scotland, even though that bill did not pass in June." going on to describe how the Government "are ensuring this happens through the Public Services Reform Bill", which passed in March this year, with current Culture Minister, Fiona Hislop, describing how Creative Scotland "will build on the successes of the Scottish Arts Council and Scottish Screen, putting artists and creative practitioners at the heart of all its activities, enhancing Scotland's international reputation for cultural excellence, and enabling more people in Scotland to enjoy and take part in cultural activities."

Swiftly, Creative Scotland, and its £35,000 Logo were launched in the following months, with the Scottish Arts Council and Scottish Screen as swifly making way for the new organisation. Given the long and difficult process in establishing the new quango, you would suspect that over this time Ministers would have some ideas of certainty over the roles and responsibilities of the new organisation, and that perhaps its newly appointed board could have met and decided on its activities going forward, possibly before the dissolution of its predecessor bodies to inspire confidence in the agency, especially given the growing mass of critics throughout Scotland's Cultural community, which The Times described as a "state of near-mutiny and rebellion among the cultural establishment."

The confusion and uncertainty surrounding the newly-founded organisation has not just caused concern for those it is designed to support. Green MSP Robin Harper who tabled a motion in the Scottish Parliament setting out "That the Parliament notes that the full board of Creative Scotland has yet to meet and believes that this has led to a remarkable degree of uncertainty about that organisation’s function;" and asked that "Scottish Government to meet representatives of Creative Scotland as soon as possible and demand sight of its strategic plan and mission statement within a reasonable timescale and for Creative Scotland to undertake minimum expenditure on offices, staff and equipment until such time as its function can be fully defined." Creative Scotland's current expendature, in addition to the £60 Million budget it has been granted to fulfil obligations already allocated through the Scottish Arts Council, has included an the alarming aforementioned £35,000 paid to the Leith Agency for a logo described as "absolutely awful, uninspiring, doomy. A symbol for the times maybe but surely not what is wanted" among other, harsher, insults, a "launch" ceremony in WASP's new Briggait Initiative costing £17,ooo and £3.3 Million in administrative fees to cover the merger. All is not lost, however as "the merger of the arts council and Scottish Screen had led to a 20% reduction in staff numbers", not a sign of remorse or mention of the human aspect of this 20% reduction being people's jobs and livlihoods, people who were often artists, filmmakers or other creatives or professionals actively involved in the cultural sector.

One of the few things that is certain is that "The agency is to review its £18m core funding for 52 "foundation" arts and drama companies, theatres, cinemas and festivals from Shetland to Glasgow as the public sector braces itself for heavy and long-term cuts in government spending." which has caused a ripple of uncertainty through cultural professionals and organisations across Scotland unsure of what the future holds. One almost certainty with possible devastating implications, is "that direct funding to help make new Scottish films would end", given that "18,000 people are employed in Scotland’s screen industries" this certainly raises alarm bells.

Scottish Screen was established in 1997 as a merger of the Scottish Film Council, Scottish Screen Locations, Scottish Broadcast and Film Training and distributors of the Scottish Film Production Fund. Said Production Fund "initially set up in 1982 by the Scottish Film Council and the Scottish Arts Council" has been responsible for directly funding of countless feature and short films which otherwise would probably never get off the ground in Scotland. The support provided: "Maximum Investment - £300,000 - Feature Films (budgets over £500,000); £100,000 - Feature Films (budgets under £500,000); £250,000 - TV Series; £50,000 - Short Films" is integral to ensuring films are made, that filmmakers whose films may not be able to get funding in a conventional manner are supported and developed and ensures that the screen industry in Scotland is healthy and allows a huge portion of those 18,000 people working in the screen industries to remain in employment. If this direct funding for the production of Scottish films is to end, then it leaves one wondering what has become of the Scottish Film Production Fund and what will become of the Scottish Film Industry, the many short films schemes, such as Tartan Shorts, which have over the years allowed internationally acclaimed and award-winning Scottish filmmakers such as Peter Mullan, David MacKenzie, Kevin MacDonald et all have their films made.

Unfortunately Creative Scotland's apparent direction is leading by example brought forwards by our new Conservative Overlords in Government. Jeremy Hunt, the new Culture Minister announced in July the Government intent to scrap the UK Film Council, a move motivated through "our drive to increase openness and efficiency across Whitehall, it is the right time to look again at the role, size and scope of these organisations."
The move was quickly condemned by Tim Bevan, the body's chair claiming that the move "has been imposed with no notice and no consultation... I think we can all agree that this is short-sighted and potentially very damaging, especially as there is at present no roadmap setting out where the UK Film Council’s responsibilities and funding will be placed in the future.” While assurances have been made that committments to the financing of new British Films will not be cut, and that the UK Film Tax Credits will remain in place, there has been no indication as to who will now administer and distribute the cash and under what criteria future applications will be judged under.

Further alarm bells begin ringing with the abolition of the Film Council, as it came alongside assurances from Mr Hunt that "16 public bodies, including the Museums, Libraries and Archives Council (MLA) would lose their funding as the government committed to "increasing the transparency and accountability of its public bodies, while at the same time reducing their number and cost."
This move spells out categorically that the country's cultural industries and communities are in for a huge hit as part of the cuts planned by the new Government in an attempt to ride out the recession, amid a review of arms-length organisations which could threaten the integrity and critical autonomy the arts represent within society.

Andrew Dixon's response in the face of possible funding cuts and a "tough" immediate future is to "try to increase private funding and sponsorship, form alliances and share resources", which could be seen as essentially privitising the arts. Private funding and backing is an uneasy bedfellow with creative and expressive arts, which could challenge the aforementioned integrity and critical autonomy, the age of decent philanthropy is long dead and these days companies and individuals who invest wish to see a return in their investments, to see what's in it for them, and not simply for an artist. Keen sensible business sense means that a company would require to invest in a well established "brand", an internationally successful and acclaimed Artist, or Filmmaker, or play, one that will definately bring them a return. However these success stories are already made, they don't necessarily need investment in a way in which the unknown, struggling "emerging" artist does.

In the face of the 25% cuts which have been proposed across all public bodies, a survey carried out by The Threadneedle Prize emerged that "And a fifth of the 2,022 British adults questioned said visual arts should not be given any government funding" while a blog by Jonathon Jones claims "it's no use the art community complaining about this image when it has spent the last few years extravagantly vaunting connections with big money." However, Samuel West, of the London Evening Standard spells it out perfectly:

"The arts cost only 0.07 per cent of total public spending — 7p in every £100. The Arts Council theatre budget for 2008 was £54 million; in return, the theatre paid back £76 million in VAT in London alone. That's a 40 per cent dividend.

Why doesn't the Chancellor want to fund that level of return? £54 million is one 30,000th of the sum used to bail out the banks."
As does Glasgow-based Artist David Shrigley:

Shrigley's film was used to launch an artist led campaign to Save The Arts amid the cuts, and has a petition which you MUST SIGN. A further group I Value The Arts is also giving information and putting pressure on the Government to go easy on the cuts to culture to ensure that the vibrant, diverse and unrivaled strength we have in terms of culture within the UK which has built up over the last fifty years is not sacrificed by short-sighted beurocrats and politicians in a party-political blame game and a vain attempt to save face.

Petty squabbles over who is to blame for the current economic situation, or indeed simply returning to the greed-based globalist society which lead us to the situation we find ourselves in is not the way forward. Culture, the arts, free expression and creativity, something that is built not from capital gain or commercial worth, something universally inclusive, something which comes from the soul and enriches life without asking for anything in return should not be a victim of a system which sets out to exclude and create divisions.


J. Hamlyn said...

Great to see that poison pen is still full of ink Fraser!

kosovohp said...

Great to see that poison pen is still full of ink Fraser!
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