Mark Brown[1]

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In Scotland, as in most European countries, the current economic crisis has led to a decrease in the amount of government money available to the arts. However, the Scottish case has been dominated, not by arguments about money, but by a cause célèbre which has been primarily political and ideological in nature.

In late 2011, it was announced that Scotland’s recently created, “arms length”[2] governmental arts funding body, or “quango,”[3] Creative Scotland (formed through the merger of the Scottish Arts Council and the film funding body Scottish Screen), would see a cut in its budget of two per cent. In tandem with that, a significant proportion of its finance would now come, not directly from government, but from cash raised by the National Lottery. The significance of this was that, under the rules related to the Lottery, such money could not be used for general funding of artists or artistic companies, but, rather, only for individual projects, open to all applicants.

As the leading Scottish theatre critic and social commentator Joyce McMillan wrote in The Scotsman newspaper, the reorganisation of priorities and reallocation of funds required by these changes was, “hardly rocket science… for any well-run arts agency.”[4] However, rather than the deft financial and organisational planning implied by the new circumstances, Creative Scotland announced, in May 2012, that it was removing its entire middle-tier flexible funding programme; a programme under which 49 small-to-medium-sized arts organisations (including the much loved Scottish National Jazz Orchestra, and acclaimed theatre companies Grid Iron and Vanishing Point) received funding for their general artistic work for two or three years. All 49 organisations were informed, with little or no consultation, that the degree of security they had been afforded by flexible funding had gone, to be replaced by a competition for individual project funding.

The outcry about this policy change – which favoured a kind of “survival of the fittest” cultural Darwinism over financial stability for artists, and gave Creative Scotland a massively increased power over artistic production – was widespread. Andrew Dixon[5] – who had been announced as Creative Scotland’s first chief executive, amid great fanfare, in February 2010 – was widely seen to be presiding over a policy which was entirely wrong in principle and (ironically, given CS’s apparently high regard for its public profile in what had been designated by the Scottish Government as the “Year of Creative Scotland”) a public relations disaster.

Artists made it clear that they were prepared to cut their metaphorical cloth to accommodate decreases in the overall arts budget. What they were not prepared to tolerate, however, was the extraordinary high-handedness of CS in suddenly removing the funding of 49 (many of them leading) arts organisations, to be replaced by a dog-eat-dog battle for project funding in which the all-powerful adjudicator would, Roman Emperor-style, be CS itself. Some artists talked of being forced out of the country or out of their companies,[6] others, privately, of being afraid to speak out against the policy for fear of being punished in future funding decisions. It is also worth noting that, amidst the protests by artists (some of which were made publicly, some privately to CS, and others privately to fellow artists, critics, journalists and, no doubt, politicians), the critics were, in general, openly supportive of the artists’ case; for example, the awards ceremony of the Critics’ Awards for Theatre in Scotland, at the Tron Theatre in Glasgow, in June 2012, was notable for the condemnation of CS by many of the country’s leading theatre critics.[7]

In the midst of this growing pressure, Dixon gave evidence to the Scottish parliament’s culture committee (made up of elected parliamentarians of various political parties) on September 18, 2012. The problem, he argued, was not one of policy, but of the manner in which CS had communicated that policy to arts organisations: “I don’t think we’ve got it right in terms of being clear and transparent,”[8] he said. “We’re doing a brilliant number of things but we’ve not been good enough at getting information out about change.” Speaking about the wider significance of CS as a potentially model arts quango, he continued: “Creative Scotland, on the face of it, might seem like a relatively simple organisation – it’s [actually] a very complex organisation. We’re [operating] an £80 million budget, we’re dealing with a very wide range of portfolios – wider than any other cultural organisation of its type in Europe,” adding, almost prophetically (given what many people considered to be the increasing untenability of his own position), “it’s a model other countries are watching.”

Whoever was watching in Europe, Scotland’s artists were certainly watching, and they were not impressed by Dixon’s explanations. On October 9, 2012, 100 artists, including many major figures,[9] signed an open letter to CS’s chairman, Sir Sandy Crombie.[10] The letter was unprecedented in the modern history of the Scottish arts, marking a new and (given the very recent formation of Creative Scotland) extremely rapid nadir in relations between artists and the national arts funding body. “Routinely, we see ill-conceived decision-making [from CS],” the artists wrote. CS’s communication with artists was characterised, they continued, by: “unclear language, [and] lack of empathy and regard for Scottish culture. We observe an organisation with a confused and intrusive management style married to a corporate ethos that seems designed to set artist against artist and company against company in the search for resources.” Crucially, they added: “This letter is not about money. This letter is about management.”

For the centrist Scottish National Party government in Edinburgh, the letter served as an alarm bell. Creative Scotland was a creation of the government, and it should, from its inception, have been a model of how an “arms length” arts funding organisation should operate within a 21st-century democracy. Indeed, CS should have been one of the symbols of the “new Scotland” the SNP was constructing in the hope of persuading the Scottish people to vote “yes” to independence from the United Kingdom in the referendum in September 2014. Instead, the public standing of CS had collapsed amidst widespread criticism and ridicule. “Arms length” from the SNP administration CS may have been, but its crisis threatened to do reputational damage to the government nevertheless.

Fiona Hyslop, the government’s Culture Secretary, was in a difficult position. Forbidden by law from intervening in matters of CS policy, she could not, however, be seen to be “fiddling while Rome burned” in relation to the apparent self-destruction of the funding body. In an official government news release on October 10, 2012 (the day after the publication of the artists’ open letter), Hyslop said:

The Scottish Government cannot and does not interfere in Creative Scotland’s artistic decisions – as set out in legislation. Sir Sandy Crombie and I have had constructive exchanges about the concerns of the sector [i.e. artists and artistic companies] and I know he understands what I expect of the organisation.

I recognise that developing new ways of cultural provision and funding alongside such a wide range of artists and other partners will inevitably bring challenges. It is now for Creative Scotland to work with the sector to address these challenges. I have made it clear it is imperative that these issues get sorted.[11]

Behind Hyslop’s carefully measured language lay real embarrassment and, one suspects, considerable anger on the part of the government. Dixon’s position did, indeed, prove to be untenable. On December 3, 2012, he announced that he would be leaving CS the following month. In his resignation statement, he acknowledged that he was, in effect, quitting at the behest of Scotland’s artists: “I have been disappointed, given my track record, not to gain the respect and support of some of the more established voices in Scottish culture,” he said, “and I hope that my resignation will clear the way for a new phase of collaboration between artists and Creative Scotland.”[12] The attempt to “clear the way” did not end with Dixon’s resignation, however. On December 20, 2012 (just 17 days after Dixon announced his departure), Venu Dhupa, CS’s director of creative development (who some believed to have borne at least as much responsibility for the policy debacle as Dixon himself) announced that she would be standing down in February 2013.[13]

The resignations of Dixon and Dhupa have cleared the air in what was an increasingly febrile and anxious atmosphere between Scotland’s artists and the organisation responsible for distributing state subsidies. However, it would be naive in the extreme to believe that the departures of these two individuals has solved the problem. The crisis in Scottish arts funding was, as the artists maintained throughout, never primarily an issue of money. Rather, it was one of policy and, ultimately, ideology. The name given to the funding body, Creative Scotland, is revealing in itself. The arts are no longer “the arts,” they are now referred to – in a phenomenon which extends far beyond Scotland and the United Kingdom – as “creative industries.” This nomenclature is neither arbitrary nor irrelevant. It is, rather, deeply ideological.

“Creative industries” is an ideology which, as its name suggests, considers the arts, first-and-foremost, from an economic perspective. More than that, it promotes the idea of competitive “free markets” in the arts precisely at a time when millions of people – from the United States to Japan, Greece, Portugal and Spain – can testify to the catastrophic failure of the free market capitalist model. As an ideology, creative industries is largely, if not entirely, unconcerned with the immeasurable (that is to say intellectual, emotional and, in the broadest sense of the word, spiritual) benefits to society and to individuals of the works created by free artists who are unencumbered by demands to make art which sits comfortably within the parameters set by the market. If the measure of the success of a “creative industrialist” (which is what an artist, by clear implication, must become) is commercial, then, it need hardly have to be said, funding policy will point increasingly towards the most financially profitable, populist works of art (if the word “art,” rather than mere “entertainment,” even continues to apply). If the commercial imperative grows increasingly into the arts funding policies of mature democracies such as Scotland,[14] we are faced with the prospect of artists having to compete with each other in an ever more ferocious battle for financial resources, with the “arms length” governmental bureaucrats as arbiters of what best fits the demands of “the market.”

I have firsthand experience of the ideology of creative industries at work in Scotland. Whilst applying for PhD funding from the UK-wide body the Economic and Social Research Council, for a Scottish theatre-related thesis, I had to justify, in my application, the benefit which my research would offer to “the industry” (i.e. Scottish theatre). The academic responsible for the ESRC funding then arranged a meeting with myself and a representative of the academic institution where I hoped to conduct the research. It did not go well. Within moments of the meeting beginning, the fund holder complained that she could not see what benefit my proposed PhD would bring to “management.” I countered that the ESRC documents stipulated that the research should be beneficial to the “industry” (which I took to mean everyone engaged in Scottish theatre, from playwrights, directors and actors through to audience members), and that no specific mention had been made of “management.” However, it became quickly, and depressingly, clear that the fund holder, if not ESRC itself, expected applicants’ research in the Scottish arts to be driven by commercial, “free market” imperatives. I am now pursuing my doctoral research at another institution, where the criteria for funding in theatre studies remains primarily intellectual, rather than commercial.

In the modern world, artists face many attempts to control or shape their work, ranging from the direct censorship of authoritarian regimes to the demands of liberal democratic governments, or their proxies, that artists fulfil the requirements of “social inclusion” (as if the arts have a special responsibility to address problems of social inequality or oppression which politics have signally failed to resolve). The commercialism and lowest common denominator populism inherent in the creative industries ideology is similarly inimical to the freedom of the artist. As the leading Polish theatre maker Grzegorz Bral (founder of the acclaimed Wroclaw-based company Teatr Piesn Kozla) says, in relation to the Polish arts’ emergence from decades of Stalinist censorship into a period of hyper-commercial, “free market” capitalism: “The very cheap American culture coming to Poland now – the cheap movies, cheap literature, cheap commercials, and so on – is a huge threat to metaphor, subtlety and symbolism. In some ways the enemy is still there. It’s just changed its face.”[51] In Scotland, as in many other countries, the “enemy” of free artistic expression has come recently in the guise of “creative industries.” The artists have won an important, initial victory.


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[1] Mark Brown is theatre critic of the Scottish national newspaper the Sunday Herald, a performing arts writer for the UK national newspaper the Daily Telegraph, and a doctoral researcher at the University of Dundee. He teaches in theatre studies at the Royal Conservatoire of Scotland, and is editor of the books Howard Barker Interviews 1980-2010: Conversations in Catastrophe (Intellect Books, 2011) and Oily Cart – all sorts of theatre for all sorts of kids (Trentham Books, 2012). He has two articles in the forthcoming book Howard Barker’s Art of Theatre (Manchester University Press), edited by David Ian Rabey and Sarah Goldingay. His critical writings have been translated into Farsi, Czech and Portuguese. He is a member of the executive committee of the International Association of Theatre Critics, for which he is also Adjunct Director of Young Critics’ Seminars. He is a member of the editorial board of Critical Stages.
[2] The Scottish parliament in Edinburgh controls policy in a number of areas in which power is devolved from the UK parliament in London; such as health, education and culture. The Scottish Government funds, and is ultimately responsible for, Creative Scotland. However, it refers to the organisation as “arms length” as CS’s policy must, by law, be developed and pursued independently of government.
[3] The popular term in the UK for such “arms length” bodies is “quango” (which is abbreviated from “quasi-non-governmental organisation”).
[4] Joyce McMillan, The Scotsman (Edinburgh), 25/5/12, reproduced on McMillan’s website: http://joycemcmillan.wordpress.com/2012/05/25/three-deadly-sins-of-creative-scotlands-bad-funding-review-column-25-5-12/ – last accessed 5/6/13.
[5] An arts administrator with more than 30 years experience, who had received widespread acclaim for his work at the head of the NewcastleGateshead Initiative over the previous five years.
[6] For example, internationally acclaimed musician Tommy Smith threatened to quit the renowned Scottish National Jazz Orchestra (which he founded in 1995) if it was forced to pursue a more “commercial” path by the funding changes, as The Scotsman newspaper reported on 24/5/12: http://www.scotsman.com/the-scotsman/scotland/jazz-orchestra-founder-tommy-smith-says-he-will-quit-over-funding-shake-up-1-2313818 – last accessed 5/6/13
[7] As Pauline McLean reported for the website of BBC Scotland on 11/6/12: http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/uk-scotland-18392089 – last accessed 5/6/13
[8] Quoted on the website of The List magazine (Edinburgh), 19/9/12: http://www.list.co.uk/article/45497-andrew-dixon-of-creative-scotland-speaks-to-parliament/ – last accessed 5/6/13
[9] The signatories to the letter included such leading names as: composers Peter Maxwell Davies and James MacMillan; Scotland’s makar (national poet) and playwright Liz Lochhead; dramatist and painter John Byrne; novelists Janice Galloway, AL Kennedy, James Kelman, Andrew O’Hagan and Ian Rankin; playwrights David Greig, Zinnie Harris and David Harrower; and theatre directors Ben Harrison (Grid Iron) and Gerry Mulgrew (Communicado).
[10] The full text of the letter can be read at the end of Charlotte Higgins’ report for the website of The Guardian newspaper on 9/10/12:
http://www.guardian.co.uk/culture/charlottehigginsblog/2012/oct/09/open-letter-creative-scotland – last accessed 5/6/13
[11] Scottish Government website, 10/10/12:
http://www.scotland.gov.uk/News/Releases/2012/10/creative-scotland10102012 – last accessed 5/6/13
[12] Quoted in report on BBC website, 3/12/12: http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/uk-scotland-20585715 – last accessed 5/6/13
[13] Reported on BBC website, 20/12/12: http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/uk-scotland-20802141- last accessed 5/6/13
[14] Which, although its own parliament is a recent development, has a democratic history which is continuous with that of the UK, of which it is still a part.
[15] Quoted in ‘Poetry in Motion,’ by Mark Brown, New Statesman (London), 2/8/07: http://www.newstatesman.com/arts-and-culture/2007/08/goat-theatre-poland-song – last accessed 5/6/13

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In Scotland: a Victory Against the Ideology of “Creative Industries” (Scotland)