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Creative Scotland – The Last Days?

The well paid bureaucrats currently in charge of Creative Scotland should be worried. Having made yet another pig’s ear of the latest round of Regularly Funded Organisations (RFOs) by inexplicably cutting valuable resources for some of Scotland’s world renowned artists, theatre-makers and musicians, they have put themselves in the firing line of a justifiable barrage of anger and frustration.
Cutting two major children’s theatre companies – Catherine Wheels and Visible Fictions – in the first month of Scotland’s dedicated Year of Young People – was at best insensitive, at worst gross stupidity. Slashing regular funding for disabled theatre companies Birds of Paradise, who are about to celebrate their twenty-fifth anniversary, and learning disabled pioneers Lung Ha’s was just as baffling.

It was odd too to see a cut too for Transmission, the artist-led committee-run Glasgow art-space which since the 1980s has pioneered a wave of grassroots visual arts activity. This helped foster and inspire a slew of other young artists seizing the means of production and setting up co-operatively run ventures. Others losing out include Glasgow-based purveyors of street-art spectacle, Mischief-la-bas, the Hebrides Ensemble and the Dunedin Consort. Other companies have been placed on stand-still funding or else maintained RFO status at a reduced level, as is the case with the women-centred Stellar Quines theatre company.

One of the other noticeable aspects of the RFO decisions is the amount of ‘umbrella’ bodies who were successful in their funding bids, while many companies who produce artistic work were rejected. While many of these such as the Federation of Scottish Theatre do significant work, the seeming imbalance between funding networking bodies while artists were turned down suggests that bureaucrats would rather fund other bureaucrats than artists themselves.

Two weeks ago it all looked so different. Having spent months arguing her case at Holyrood, Culture Secretary Fiona Hyslop announced an extra £6.6 million for Creative Scotland. Arts organisations and individuals had been wrestling for months with the draining job of having to fill in complex and at times according to some of those having to navigate them,  incomprehensible funding application forms. RFO announcements were supposed to be announced last autumn, but were stalled until the Scottish Government could announced their own budget.

This left many organisations unable to plan ahead, and there were private fears from some that they might not be able to continue. The announcement of extra funding, however belated, suggested everything was going to be alright. Snatching defeat from the jaws of victory, Creative Scotland has seriously wrong-footed such a rare display of unbridled optimism.

Such a wave of public spleen-letting by assorted artistic communities hasn’t been seen since CS last messed up in 2012. Back then, an artist’s revolt triggered the resignation of the arts funding quango’s two most senior staff, who had overseen a culture of poor communication, bureaucratic gobbledegook, top-down thinking and the apparent belief that Creative Scotland was somehow a producer-led organisation rather than a funding body set up to enable and administrate the brilliant ideas of Scottish artists. There have always been winners and losers in arts funding, usually to do with a lack of money caused by the miniscule amount of capital – currently less than 1% in Scotland – channelled into arts funding.

With a full-scale revolt averted with the appointment of Janet Archer as a new CEO who appeared to be more in tune with a modernising artist-led approach, everyone went quiet, and revolution was averted. The fact that Archer was steeped in exactly the same managerialist philosophy as her predecessor Andrew Dixon, to the extent that he had even referenced her during a speech in the early part of his calamitous tenure in Waverleygate seemed to go un-noticed.  

As with 2012, this latest and arguably more serious stooshie has exposed visible ideological cracks in an organisation which remains entrenched in the same bureaucratic, hierarchical managerialist philosophy that it was supposed to have done away with five years ago.

On Wednesday, Archer appeared on BBC Radio Scotland’s Janice Forsyth programme to discuss the debacle alongside the Herald’s arts news reporter Phil Miller. Sounding noticeably and perhaps understandably nervous, Archer talked soothingly about how CS were ‘listening hard’, which, given some of the decisions made on her watch, suggested they hadn’t been.

When asked about CS funding for the umbrella bodies, Archer answered saying that CS provided ‘bespoke business support for the creative sector’. That one ice-cold phrase summed up everything that is currently wrong with Creative Scotland. There is no love in a phrase like that, only fear of being found out that the organisation you represent has nothing to offer.

In this respect, Creative Scotland have become something akin to the Wizard of Oz, L Frank Baum’s much feared magician who projects a terrifying and alienating persona to keep people in their place. Once you get behind the veil, however, the Wizard turns out to be a little guy with as little clue about things as everybody else. It’s a suitably theatrical image, and one CS should learn from.

 The resignation this week of Ruth Wishart and Professor Maggie Kinloch from the Creative Scotland board is a clear pointer to the mess the organisation has made for itself. As did too Fiona Hyslop’s tweets on the matter last weekend, which suggested a diplomatic displeasure at what appears to be an ongoing lack of communication skills from CS. Wishart and Kinloch are two of the most experienced voices in Scotland’s arts scenes, and understand with a passion the importance of arts and culture at every level. The somewhat testy response to their resignations from CS’ interim Chair Ben Thomson did little to dent Wishart and Kinloch’s credibility.

Things are moving fast, and an emergency CS board meeting will by now have taken place with some serious fire-fighting required regarding a set of bewildering decisions. If any of those decisions are reversed, heads may roll. They might do anyway, perhaps deservedly so.  

But let’s be clear here. The dunder-headed managerialism Creative Scotland was founded on is a microcosm of a far greater global malaise which, like Creative Scotland, is in freefall as its arbiters attempt to shore up their botched system with increasing desperation. Creative Scotland was an ideological construct from the start. That was exposed five years ago, and despite the efforts of some dedicated staff, hasn’t changed one single iota.

If one wanted to be fanciful, one could liken Creative Scotland to the biblical myth of the Tower of Babel, in which a once unified people attempting to build a tower to heaven are divided from on high by a god who would rather no-one understood each other. Up until now, at least, Creative Scotland’s divide-and-rule tactics, whereby those who do well in various funding rounds are invariably silenced lest they risk rocking an already leaky boat, do much the same thing.

Scotland’s artists mustn’t fall for this any longer. A change of management won’t be enough to save CS this time. It’s time for artists to seize the power back from an organisation that has never been fit for purpose, to dismantle its unworkable structures from the top down, and to reimagine it from the ground up. Creative Scotland in its current guise is in its final days. It’s time for artists to speak up, and to speak loudly, with one voice.

Bella Caledonia, February 3rd 2018


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