At the start of February Creative Scotland announced the process for recruiting a new Chief Executive. The statement also confirmed that the organisation is about to announce a series of open meetings to ‘discuss the process of change’.
Since the resignations of Andrew Dixon and Venu Dhupa in December the #CSstooshie has fallen out of the headlines somewhat, but this doesn’t mean to say that discussions and debates around the subject aren’t still ongoing. In fact the next few months are without a doubt going to be the most important phase in the entire process. If Creative Scotland is to flourish then it needs to be open and responsive to different ideas.
As preparation for these open meetings I thought that it might be worthwhile to write up some of my thoughts regarding the original conception of Creative Scotland and the processes that brought it into being.
The aim of doing this is to try and help put a finger on some of the key issues and events that led to Creative Scotland evolving in the way that it did. If we can avoid repeating some of these mistakes again then we’re already on the way to shaping a better, stronger organisation – one that is capable of delivering not just for artists, or for politicians, but for everyone in Scotland.
In order to untangle some of these issues I thought it best to break them down into separate headings. The first set of issues concern the evolution of public policy relating to the arts, the second set of issues revolve around the interaction between politicians and the communities that they serve.
I’d like to start by going back and revisiting some of the first principles that have shaped the development of arts policy in the UK over the course of the 20th century.
‘The Arts’ vs ‘The Creative Industries’
One of the major driving forces behind the Creative Scotland debate has been the unresolved tension between the competing philosophies that shaped arts policy over the last 70 years.
Born out of policy ideas that developed rapidly over the course of the late 90s and early 2000s, Creative Scotland was supposed to be the country’s ‘one-stop-shop’ for the promotion of the whole of the creative industries in Scotland. Its overarching remit brought together support for business sectors as diverse as; Advertising, Architecture, Crafts, Design, Fashion, Photography, Publishing, Software and Computer Games and Television and Radio (as well as Music, Visual and Performing Arts).
In theory there is no reason why a single body shouldn’t be able to provide both financial support and business advice to all of these industries. When it came to the practice, however, any hopes that Creative Scotland could effectively promote all of these areas were already dashed before the organisation even came into being.
Back in 2005 the original plan had been that Creative Scotland would not just combine the responsibilities of the Scottish Arts Council and Scottish Screen, but that it would also take over responsibility for a number of sectors that already fell within the scope of Scottish Enterprise, Highlands and Islands Enterprise and, to a certain extent, CoSLA (the Convention of Scottish Local Authorities).
Originally the idea had been that a tranche of Scottish Enterprise staff would transfer over to Creative Scotland, taking elements of the Scottish Enterprise budget with them. In the event it transpired that Scotland’s business sector could prove even more intransigent than Scotland’s artistic community.
During the transitional phase that was supposed to lead to the establishment of Creative Scotland it gradually became clear that a three-way turf war was developing between the enterprise agencies, CoSLA and the people who were charged with leading the transition process. It rapidly became obvious that Scottish Enterprise had no interest in giving up its influence over spheres such as Software Development, Advertising, Design or Fashion.
Eventually Scottish Enterprise got its way and we were left with a Creative Scotland that had responsibility for the creative industries in name only. The whole project reverted back to a straightforward merger between SAC and SS, with the only difference being that the organisations that the new body supported were increasingly expected to conform to business models that were more appropriate to the kind of commercial enterprises that Creative Scotland no longer had influence over.
The inadequacy of this situation was flagged up last year when many in Scotland’s computer games sector took issue with a report that listed the economic value of their sector at £0. Even though Creative Scotland was not the sole author of the report they still wound up being the focus for much of the criticism. This was largely due to the fact that those working in the games sector had, quite understandably, come to believe that Creative Scotland was supposed to be their champion. The truth was that they were dealing with an organisation that had both hands tied behind it’s back and was thus unable to live up to the entirely reasonable expectations that they had for it.
There is no reason why a single body shouldn’t be able to support a range of different sectors built on a wide variety of business models. However that requires a great many staff with specialist knowledge of each field and in-depth expertise regarding the different ways in which each of those sectors operates.
The time has come to ask whether Creative Scotland’s main priority is to support the arts and screen industries, or whether it is to support the whole of the creative industries. If it’s the former then the organisations mission, policies and funding mechanisms need to reflect that. If it’s the latter then there now needs to be a fundamental restructuring of the whole organisations, built around a significant increase in both staffing levels and budgets.
The arms length principle
One of the biggest worries that faced the original founders of the Arts Council of Great Britain was the fear that state funding of the arts would inevitably lead to either the co-option or the coercion of artists, as politicians sought to dictate the kind of work that was created in furtherance of their own goals or agendas.
Their thinking was defined entirely by the immediate examples of how both Hitler and Stalin had harnessed the arts for propaganda purposes, ruthlessly purging anyone who failed to conform to their own ideological orthodoxy.
The solution that John Maynard Keynes put forward was that the Arts Council should be governed according to an ‘arms length principle’, in which politicians would commit to funding the arts but the Arts Council would be responsible for deciding which artists or projects should receive funding.
In more recent times we’ve seen a shift away from general support for the intrinsic value of the arts as a common good, and towards a greater focus on the instrumental benefits that the arts can provide in terms of promoting economic development and social improvement. This drift has gone hand-in-hand with the development of theories around the creative economy, and its potential to act as a replacement for the decline of manufacturing industry.
Discussion of the creative economy is nothing new, however in the last couple of years we have seen a major shift in the way in which politicians seem to understand and interpret the arms length principle.
During the course of the Creative Scotland saga there were a number of occasions where Fiona Hyslop invoked the arms length principle to explain why she would not intervene directly in the management and running of Creative Scotland. In the last couple of months we have also seen Maria Miller, the Conservative culture minister, invoke a similar interpretation of the principle in response to questions about redundancy deals for senior Arts Council England staff.
It’s important that we acknowledge this shift because it marks a complete reversal of the arms length principle as it was originally understood. In effect we now have a culture in which politicians are only too happy to issue directions as to what sort of work should be produced (through initiatives such as the Year of Creative Scotland, Year of Natural Scotland and some elements of the now defunct plans for strategic commissioning), but who rapidly invoke the arms length defence when it comes to addressing issues of policy or management competence.
One of the questions that we now have to ask ourselves is whether the arms length principle is still relevant. If it is then we need to have clear and consistent guidelines as to how it is applied, and we need to ensure these are fully understood by all concerned.
The Ivory Tower
The whole journey to Creative Scotland was an eye-opening experience for me. It was the first time that I’d been involved in any sort of public policy consultation and one particular moment has always stuck in my mind.
During the course of the Edinburgh Fringe I was invited to a consultancy session being carried out by one of the UK’s most cultural industries theorists. At the outset of the session we were encouraged to think creatively and open ourselves up to different ideas and possibilities.
At a certain point in the discussion we were asked what we thought of some of the potential alternatives to grant funding, such as loans or endowments. Entering into the spirit of the event several of us discussed the ideas and we all concluded that such mechanisms might be of benefit if, and only if, they were not used as an alternative to, or replacement for, sustained funding of the arts from central government.
Fast forward a couple of months and I was taking my seat at a major conference that had been convened to explore how Creative Scotland might operate. The consultant that had led our discussion was scheduled to appear early on in the programme and I waited eagerly to hear what they had to say.
Sure enough they were presenting the results of the consultation work that they had carried out with us. We heard about the potential for creating new models of finance for the arts. We heard about how keen artists were to embrace these new opportunities. We learned that actually artists were so keen on these ideas that they were way ahead of politicians or policy-makers in their enthusiasm and their thinking.
I kept waiting for the most important part of our discussion to be flagged up, but of course it never was. This was a version of our discussion that had been stripped of every ‘if’, ‘but’ and ‘maybe’ that had featured in our conversation. We were being presented with a conversation that had been neatly repackaged so that the people who had paid for the consultation to be carried out didn’t have to hear anything that they didn’t want to hear.
That was unfortunate because those of us who had given up our time to volunteer our views had raised those points, not because we were determined to stand in the way of progress, but because we viewed the ‘ifs’ the ‘buts’ and the ‘maybes’ as essential conditions for success.
Over the course of the last twenty years government, and government agencies, have come to rely on outside experts and consultants to do a great deal of their thinking for them. An entire class of professional thinkers has built up to cater for the demand, in most cases charging the kind of daily rates that even successful and well known artists would struggle to earn in a month.
Worse still is the fact that these consultants then take on the role of mediating a lot of the organisations key relationships. It’s a form of intellectual outsourcing that allows both politicians and civil servants to distance themselves from actual decision-making and, by extension, to absolve themselves from taking responsibility for the decisions that have been taken.
We don’t yet have a clear sense of what the precise objectives of Creative Scotland’s Open Meetings will be, but as far as I’m concerned the only way that they can be successful is if those involved in policy making at both Creative Scotland and the Scottish Government are actively involved in them and if they are willing to listen to people’s opinions directly, rather than through a filter. The question now is whether Creative Scotland has enough confidence and belief in it’s own staff to entrust them with managing that process.
The purpose of this piece has been to flag up some topics that I believe are worth discussing over the next few weeks and months. Now, as ever, it’s over to you.