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“Criticism of our artistic judgement. I won't tolerate that”- updated

Theatre of Scotland

Artists, Critics, Parliamentarians versus Funding Body , Arts in Scotland , August-09-18
Theatre of Scotland by Artists, Critics, Parliamentarians versus Funding Body The article below was written mid-year, July 1st, in a period of lull when live theatre in Wales was quiet. A consequence ensued on July 17th. Creative Scotland announced that its Chief Executive was stepping down with immediate effect.

The language of the announcement is corporate-bland which reveals nothing. It is left to observers three hundred miles distant to make their own interpretation. That would appear to be that a grant-allocating body is an organisation in service. It is not a policy-creating executive body.

Theatre, to state the obvious, is made by its makers. The actors, designers, directors lead. There is hazard in turning that community of makers into an antagonist.

The article at mid-year read:

There is a combustibility to Scotland's public sphere. It is not always necessarily to the good. While its banks detonated, to the damage of us all, the Principality remained faithful to its founding principles of mutuality. But Holyrood has a zing to its debate where the Senedd is polite. The building of the Edinburgh tram system was a saga of budget over-run. It received its due in a lambasting piece of theatre satire at the Traverse. The Swansea lagoon, the Newport relief road will never, ever ever feature in theatre art of Wales. The men of power, authority, might possibly be upset, and that would never do.

In Scotland's climate of feistiness a theatre critic of twenty-years-plus standing published three years ago an open letter to Fiona Hyslop, Culture Minister. He declaimed that arts funding is in the hands of philistines and a cultural disgrace. True to this tradition, the arts in 2018 in Scotland have had an explosive first half of 2018.

On February 1st two members of Creative Scotland, Ruth Wishart and Maggie Kinloch, stepped down. Their move was in protest at the lack of time that had been allowed to debate which arts groups should be funded. (20 organisations were set to have their public funding removed entirely.) Ruth Wishart's departing statement: “dispiriting that Creative Scotland again finds itself a family at war with many of those it seeks to serve”.

In June a parliamentary enquiry reported. “MSPs said the organisation needed to urgently address strategic failings.” Committee convener Joan McAlpine MSP: “We received unprecedented levels of representations from within the sector following Creative Scotland's handling of regular funding for 2018-21. With more than 50 responses from artists and arts organisations, it is clear to us that the confidence of a significant element of the cultural sector in Creative Scotland's regular funding process has been badly damaged. In particular we felt that the handling of the process in relation to touring theatre and dance companies fell well below the standard that is expected from a non-departmental public body.”

In another tradition, bloodless corporate anonymity, Creative Scotland “praised its staff and said it was conducting a review of the funding process.” The relationship of funder to the wider culture was revealed in an email by Chief Executive Janet Archer: “There's been some media criticism of our artistic judgement. I won't tolerate that.”

Neil Cooper went on to write a stinger of an article for Bella Caledonia. His subject was the environmental arts company NVA “just been killed by Creative Scotland.” The killers in his view were “a government-sanctioned quango founded on a bureaucratic, managerialist New Labour ideology which an SNP government – an SNP government – has quietly acquiesced to.

“At that funding organisation’s head are a coterie of middle managers, desperately out of their depth after being parachuted in equipped with little save a passed-down hand-book of the sort of loveless jargon that makes leadership training course graduates feel clever. It takes two minutes, however, to realise that those boardroom-friendly phrases are actually meaningless. Despite a catalogue of ineptitude, jaw-droppingly bad decision making and an apparent ignorance of the constituency they are supposed to be serving that borders on self-parody, those at the very top of that funding organisation somewhat miraculously still have jobs. Those working for NVA don’t.”

The force of polemic is not entirely accurate- by definition middle managers cannot be at an organisation's helm. But this explosion of 2018 is a repetition of another from just a few years back, mentioned on this site January 2nd 2013. Neil Cooper alludes to the last row: “it’s an organisation that’s never been fit for purpose, and has been a dead quango walking for at least half a decade now. Time to put it out of its misery, rip it up and start again.”

This might be just knockabout stuff in a world of instant opinion and information overkill. But Joyce McMillan is an arts critic of national stature. Last time in 2012 the language she used was “A blather of mind-numbing policy-speak… mutton-headed bureaucrats”. So this year on June 6th she wrote: “Scotland's failed arts funding agency, Time for a new start, please. This has gone on long enough.”

The context is of course complex. But organisations that change their name from a descriptive activity, courtesy of an identity consultancy, have a track record of decline. Creative Scotland itself is beneficiary of a letter of remit from the Culture Minister, a densely composed government letter barely comprehensible to a lay person. What it does communicate is a sense of ownership by government. The organisation is perceived less as a nourisher of artistic talent, activity and organisation than as an incremental agent for state policy.

That muddles the role, so that rancour is inevitable. A former regime at the Arts Council of Wales put it neatly. The role of artists, it said, in a submission was “to question issues of state and to offer critiques of public policy.” That is the point of the arms-length principle: “this is particularly important in Wales”, continued ACW “where visceral issues of language and identity are contested issues.”

To return to Scotland and Mark Brown, the critic in the first paragraph, funding should be “returned to first principles: quietly going about the business of promoting excellence and innovation in the Scottish arts.” Simples.

Neil Cooper can be read in full at:

https://bellacaledonia.org.uk/2018/06/06/a-new-dawn-fades-creative-scotlands-killing-of-nva/

Reviewed by: Adam Somerset

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