The power of words
It’s certainly been a tumultuous few days. Since the blog went live on Tuesday there has been a sudden outpouring of articulate and impassioned comment about the situation in Scotland. David Greig and Roanne Dods have both made important contributions to the debate, with Roanne’s blog post eliciting a direct response from Andrew Dixon (CS’s Chief Executive).
Here at Stramash we owe David a particular thank you – his ringing endorsement of our first post led to the blog receiving 1,500 hits in it’s first 36 hours. However I’m afraid that the responses that we’ve received in that time have confirmed my original suspicion that Scotland’s artistic community is in a pretty bad place right now.
The comments, tweets and Direct Messages that I’ve received in the last two days make for some depressing reading. Particular words and phrases crop up time and again; fear, apprehension, insecurity, exploitation, oblivion, vindictiveness, destruction.
Did any of us ever think that these would be words that we would be using to describe the Scottish arts scene?
I’d really like to change the way that people are talking about the arts in Scotland just now. And in order to do that I think that it’s important to understand where Creative Scotland’s critics are coming from.
Words carry a lot of power. Possessing an understanding of that power is an essential prerequisite to becoming an artist. People take up art because they have a burning need to express something. They don’t generally take up art in order to become rich or famous. Very few people who harbour that sort of impression wind up lasting very long in the profession.
That is part of the reason why people in the arts world are highly suspicious of any discourse that attempts to express the value of what they do in purely economic terms. For artists it simply isn’t about money.
Artists also like to ask questions. I have never met an artist who sets out to create a new piece of work believing that they already have all of the answers at the outset. In the theatre world it is impossible to for us make work without constantly asking questions of each other. Good theatre attempts to ask its audience a constant stream of questions.
So perhaps it’s understandable that artists should get very, very nervous when they are confronted with a system that seems to believe that it already has all of the answers.
More than anything else this crisis has been prompted by an almost complete breakdown in communication between the arts sector and the people who govern it. If any good is to come out of this situation there needs to be a radical shift in the terms of the conversation, and fast.
Anne Bonnar has just published a blog with the constructive suggestion that this whole debate needs to move out from behind closed doors and into the light. To me it seems like good advice, but in order for it to be successful I believe that Creative Scotland needs to really look at the way it approaches the debate.
I believe that Creative Scotland’s communications over the last few weeks have left a lot to be desired. I’d particularly like to look at two aspects of those communications that I think need to change if we’re going to make any progress.
One of the central questions that I asked last time around was how Creative Scotland was able to move the FXOs from Grant-in-Aid funds to Lottery Funds without falling foul of the ‘additionality’ clauses contained in the Lottery Acts.
In his response to Roanne’s posting Andrew Dixon provided an explanation of how CS are justifying this approach:
We are not replacing treasury money with lottery as these bodies never had revenue. They are currently funded for two year programmes of work.
If grant-in-aid funding does not originate from taxes raised by the treasury then where does it originate from? No matter what name we give it this money was grant-in-aid funding that, according to Creative Scotland’s own announcements, has now been replaced using Lottery funding.
A similar variety of double-think was evident in Fiona Hyslop’s statement on the decisions:
It should be remembered that no organisation is getting their funding cut, and in our climate where clearly public finances are limited, it is very re-assuring to know that no organisation is to get their funding cut.
There was no way that I could allow this statement to pass without comment, and so I tried requesting an explanation from the Minister via Twitter. I’m pleased to say that she actually responded pretty swiftly.
I appreciate the fact that the Minister took the time to reply, but I’m afraid to say that this seems like more semantics to me. The fact remains that an entire funding stream has been discontinued, and companies that were able to enjoy some form of stability thanks to that support are no longer able to do so. Trying to claim that those companies have not been cut because they were never actually receiving funding in the first place smacks of a complete re-writing of history.
I’m not a pedant and I don’t intend to labour these points. However I would suggest that using sophistry to justify the validity of your decisions is not the best way to encourage widespread confidence in your process.
So far Creative Scotland’s response to recent criticisms seems to be to continue progressing full steam ahead. All of their public statements indicate that CS is well aware that a debate is underway, but they show no signs of a willingness to publically engage with that debate.
I believe that hearing and listening are two very different things. Hearing is a passive process – something that happens to you without you having any say in the matter. Listening is an active process – it’s a two-way form of communication in which you absorb what you have heard and then respond and act accordingly.
Judging by Andrew Dixon’s two main public statements this week (one in response to Roanne Dods, the other on his own personal blog) Creative Scotland doesn’t have any problems hearing people, but it seems to have a pretty big problem when it comes to listening to them.
I’d just like to make a few points in response to the ways in which Andrew’s statements have been phrased:
Had we kept the FXO programme we would have had to cut 20% of the organisations we currently support and then open it up competitively to those who lost out in the Scottish Arts Council’s 2010 bidding round.
1) Andrew – I can make no rational sense of your assertion that CS would have had to cut 20% of the organisations that it currently supports, and I’d like to refer you to my original post for a discussion of facts and figures.
2) What would have been wrong with opening up a competitive application process? That was supposed to be the entire point of the Flexible Funding programme in the first place.
All that this re-organisation has done is increase the number of organisations that are now dependent on a constant stream of successful project funding applications. At one stroke you’ve placed every one of the FXOs in the very position you claim to be trying to avoid.
Our aim is a healthy, sustainable and creative sector. Of course, opinions differ about how we get there – particularly in the media, and some people are very vocally uncomfortable with change – but Scotland’s creative future is at the heart of our thinking.
1) This whole stramash hasn’t come about because Joyce McMillan said some unkind things in the Scotsman. It is the culmination of two years of mounting concern throughout every part of the Scottish arts world. The FXO decisions might be the catalyst that has brought this crisis to a head, but that doesn’t mean to say that the whole thing is going to blow over as soon those decisions have been pushed through.
2) When I first started working in Scotland a company that had long term funding status would be expected to submit one application for renewal of funding every three years. Over the course of my time there the company I worked for had to submit three such applications in the space of five years.
Since the early 2000s there have been multiple sector-wide consultations, one of which led to the complete re-organisation of how the whole cultural sector in Scotland is supported.
In the space of the last five years the companies that formed the FXO portfolio have been subjected to two complete restructurings of the way in which they are funded.
Artists in Scotland are not resistant to, or frightened of, change. Over the last decade they have already weathered a level of change that would have broken many organisations. And all through that time they have continued to create world-class work, increasing both audiences and turnover in the process.
This crisis has not come about because people feel threatened by change. It has come about as a result of the way in which Creative Scotland relates to the sector that it supposed to be promoting.
For me one of the most telling statements so far came in the opening of Andrew’s response to Roanne Dods:
Roanne. Your blog raises a range of issues and seems to add fuel to the fear generated by recent press and twitter comment.
I’ll say this again. The fear that is afflicting the Scottish arts sector isn’t something that has appeared overnight as a result of David Greig, Joyce McMillan or people like myself expressing their views. None of us has the power to be able change the opinions of the entire sector overnight. If people disagreed with what we have to say then I’m sure they’d be queing up to set us straight. So far nobody is.
The climate of fear that is afflicting the sector has been a constant feature of the landscape for several years and the seeds of it were already planted before Creative Scotland even came into being.
During my last few months in Scotland hundreds of industry representatives came together to fight a rearguard action to try and delay the launch of Creative Scotland. They did this believing that the proper foundations hadn’t been laid down and that a rethink was required. They were trying to ensure that the new organisation got off to a strong start, but they were also worried about the free market rhetoric that surrounded the discussion of the subject. In the event most people eventually chose to hold their tongues in order to give CS the time and space to get itself properly up and running. However it now seems that their worst fears have been well and truly confirmed.
I don’t envy people who work for the Arts Councils or development agencies. There are plenty of people at Creative Scotland that I have a great deal of respect for. The purpose of this blog isn’t just to sling mud for the sake of it. I’m writing this in order to provide people with an opportunity to have their own voices heard.
Sorry, I didn’t mean ‘heard’. I meant ‘listened to’.