James MacConochie – 25th August 2022
A Vision for Scotland’s Creative Sector Post-Independence
Creative Scotland, Scotland’s national arts funding and advisory body, has a small Wikipedia page. Even then, half of it is dedicated to its failings and controversies. To explain this, one need look no further than poet Don Paterson’s excellent open letter in The Herald back in 2012. It describes an organisation stuffed to the brim with ‘trained officials’ rather than artists, granting only short-term funds for specific artistic projects that meet pre-stated objectives. These objectives focus mainly on an abstract, backwards celebration of Scottish heritage and culture (‘self-congratulatory meta-appreciation’) and is assessed not by genuine artistic merit, but via extensive and ‘incomprehensible’ form-filling. This apparent fear of failure – and of allowing artists to just ‘get on with it’ – is neatly summarised: “Let me spell it out for those still confused: investing in art has no guaranteed return. If it does, it isn’t art.” And, ten years on, besides new chief executives and an ‘Action Plan’, there has been next to no change in fundamental structure or approach.
If a Scottish government wanted to fundamentally overhaul both Creative Scotland and the creative sector more generally, much could be done – both currently, and in a post-Independence scenario. Firstly, to regain the trust of the profession it serves, a newly-renamed ‘Scottish Arts Council’ would do well to have a board comprised solely of artists themselves. The board would be elected regularly between all ‘registered artists’ in the country, ensuring that the organisation puts their needs before anyone else’s. Immediately, the Council would stop funding art and start funding artists. This would be achieved by replacing the current funding schemes (regular long-term funding for organisations, but only one-off grants for individual artists) with a Universal Basic Income for all registered artists. Scotland would finally have a hands-off arts funding body, that minimises paperwork and acknowledges that, when it comes to art, the artists know best.
However, the arts organisations that are currently funded by Creative Scotland in the long-term would of course still need a funding source. We would therefore propose that the interests of businesses in the national culture sector be handled by a number of further discipline-specific councils: the Literature Council, the Music Council, the Film Council, and so on. The boards of these councils would once again reflect the sector they are serving – in this case, including trade and business representatives – and would sustain the current long-term funding scheme. The councils would also have the ability to recommend new national trade and culture initiatives to the Scottish Government, such as national arts festivals, and purchasing schemes that promote little-known or local art over international favourites.
On to the regional level. A crucial problem with Scotland’s current culture landscape is that it exists as a sort of one-rung ladder: funding and support generally ends at the national level. The Scottish Government is yet to define the regional authorities’ role in arts policy – as culture consultant Andrew Ormston finds, “there is no statutory obligation [for regional authorities] to support culture”. We believe that such a statutory obligation should exist. The current picture of national-level funding stifles community art projects, best funded at the regional level but often with no regional infrastructure to supply that funding. Each regional authority must therefore have a Department for Arts and Culture, funded by the Scottish Arts Council, to provide this funding for the regional arts scene, and to devise the region’s major public engagement programmes. This would have great positive benefits for local communities, allowing for grassroots, vibrant local art scenes.
However, arguably the most important de-centralising of Creative Scotland’s current remit would happen another rung further down the ladder. Scotland currently lacks truly local governance – community councils, with very loose links to any national schemes, is the closest we come. An Independent Scotland would greatly benefit from the creation of local councils, genuinely linked-up to national and regional policy, as exists right now in countries with similar demographics such as Norway. If each locality (defined by a fixed population figure – 10,000?) was required to sustain and run a Culture Centre, funded by the Scottish Arts Council, the results on a truly local level would be transformative. The Scottish Government would require these centres to provide a place in the local community where arts may be practiced: a venue that can double-up as a performing space, a practice space and a meeting hub for local amateur dramatics, musical societies, literature clubs, and so on. Such an investment in truly local arts wouldn’t cost the Earth either – the committee running the local Culture Centre would be allocated a small amount of funding to buy a building in the area, and to furnish it however the community wanted it to be furnished. This would be the completion of a three-stage culture policy – national funding, regional funding and infrastructure, and local activity and engagement – that would comprehensively realise Creative Scotland’s current aims: to preserve and advance Scottish culture.
However, one final area of culture policy remains undiscussed. Creative Scotland includes ‘international’ as only one of its Culture Strategy’s five loose aims – we think that Scotland can do better than that. Looking beyond our shores, two examples of international culture policy seem relevant. First is Culture Ireland, an organisation separate from Creative Ireland, and with specific responsibility to fund Irish artists internationally, and to promote Irish culture worldwide in expositions, Irish ‘weeks’, showcases, and festivals such as the Edinburgh Fringe. New Zealand have a different approach: their Cultural Diplomacy International Programme focuses on the links between culture, business and trade, and is formed of a Steering Group comprising multiple national government departments and arms-length organisations. After consulting both public- and private-sector interests, the Steering Group reports back to the Minister for Arts, Culture and Heritage, who acts on their recommendations.
Taking these approaches into account, an Independent Scotland could establish Scottish Culture International: an agency responsible for supporting touring artists, organising Scottish Culture Festivals worldwide, and exporting Scottish art to international exhibitions – all the while recommending international cultural trade initiatives back to the national government. As such, the board of such an organisation would comprise artists as well as business and trade representatives.
Just one recommendation that such a body could make would be the establishment of Scottish Cultural Centres worldwide. Partially modelled on the success of the ‘Irish Pub’ franchise, a series of financially self-sustaining Scottish Cafés in key cities around the world would serve authentic Scottish food and drink, but also act as a point of contact with Scottish culture. Here the city’s Scottish Tourist Board could be located, as well as a Scottish bookshop, and a space for Scottish poetry readings and other arts performances. Indeed, a wealth of other successful Scottish cultural business ventures could be envisaged – all made possible by Scottish Culture International.
With an incredibly wide remit and hundreds of administrators pushing paper, Creative Scotland clearly needs urgent reform. Central to our proposal is the body’s decentralisation: splitting the international from the national, splitting the national into artists and organisations, and finally evolving regional and local culture away from the national body. The vast sums allocated for ‘Culture and Major Events’ (£207M in 2022-3) must now be restructured: to better support artists themselves; to transform Scotland’s idea of ‘community engagement’; and to finally establish a permanent international cultural presence that goes beyond the August festivals.