Wednesday, 7 July 2010

Creative Scotland Dialogue Event, The Briggait, Glasgow 25.05.10

An article commissioned for publication in a-n Magazine July/August 2010 issue and on

Creative Scotland Dialogue Event, The Briggait, Glasgow 25.05.10

The forth and final Creative Scotland Dialogue Event was held at the impressively refurbished Briggait building, originally a nineteenth century fishmarket, on the banks of the River Clyde, in Glasgow. This was a high profile showcase event to introduce Creative Scotland to the arts communities of Scotland, giving a platform for Culture Minister, Fiona Hyslop and Chief Executive Designate of CS, Andrew Dixon, to outline the progress made towards establishing the new organization that will replace the Scottish Arts Council and Scottish Screen, with Creative Scotland set to be in charge of 30% of the Scottish cultural budget.

Fiona Hyslop began the proceedings by highlighted the strengths and achievements of what has gone before, commending the high levels of innovation, creative genius and contemporary nature of the art scene in Scotland, calling Creative Scotland “a great opportunity for a fresh agenda for culture and the arts, and for creativity and innovation to become a key focus for the economy and society across Scotland”. She was keen to emphasize Scotland’s role as a modern, ambitious, progressive nation, and how she sees creativity and innovation as a key to its continuing success, with the ability to benefit health, education and the economy.

Amongst a list of credits she thanked the SAC and SS for their “patience and perseverance” over the past year, “in being asked to do the impossible”, I presume by this she meant merging together as one organization, with a smaller overall budget but with a far wider remit.

Next up was Andrew Dixon, describing the new organization as a “rallying call” to Scotland’s creative community rather than an institution, assuring us we would start to “notice a change in pace, language and culture”.

He also outlined the achievements of Scotland, the need to champion everything that is good in the sector; to build on the strengths of both organizations, considering the SAC and SS as the most innovative organizations of their kind in Europe, seeing Scotland as a creative nation that punches well above its weight, whose position is currently ranked 18th out of 60 countries, in a cultural branding list.

The quantitative approach is obviously important to AD, seemingly picked up during his six years with a marketing company, as he was proud to recount that in his previous position at the Newcastle Gateshead Initiative, he apparently visited 100 artists in 100 days. Similarly he was eager to list the places, arts organizations, and numbers of artists he had encountered in his three weeks in post, brandishing a couple of artist’s postcards as if to prove the genuine nature of his involvement.

He emphasized the need to focus on a few priorities, to set targets, and objectives. Those priorities have already been identified as “Internationalism and Traditional Arts ”, obviously extending the idea of cultural branding and cultural tourism. “Creative Scotland will be testing a new language, not of funding and subsidy but of investment.”

A chance for the assembled audience to ‘participate’ came in the form of round table discussions of three prescribed questions on the subject of new models of support for investing in the arts; of how to encourage the Scottish people to champion their culture and how to promote these successes internationally. These collective responses were read out from six selected tables with further responses from Dixon and Hyslop.

During these discussions Hyslop and Dixon mingled briefly with the audience in order to show that they were genuinely getting involved in discussion. Andrew Dixon sat at our table and we took the chance to remind him that different areas of the arts need different types of funding, that one size does not necessarily fit all and that organizations need a degree of stability and security in order to create innovative high quality projects. We remonstrated that private sector intervention and philanthropic investments are not always going to have the best interests of the cultural sector at heart, with contributors inevitably expecting a return on their investment. We voiced concerns that there has so far been no Visual Arts Reference group, with what seems like no demarcation of departments within the new organization.

While promising to focus not on organizations but on artists, recognizing creative practice, valuing artists, his outpourings seemed strangely contradictory and misguided. The notion of partnership funding and philanthropy was repeatedly mentioned as a good thing, with Dixon citing examples of his own donations, and how good he felt being able to watch his investment grow etc. This proved to be incredibly bad timing with press coverage the same day of Dixon’s support for Sir John Wood’s proposal to create a shopping centre and car-park in place of Aberdeen’s much loved Union Terrace Gardens. This puts the kai bosch on agreed SAC funding for the development of a new Art Centre for Peacock Visual Arts, with Aberdeen Council cow-towing to Wood’s £50 million investment in his own proposal, despite a public consultation to the contrary.

Obviously aiming to give a positive spin to the whole proceedings, Richard Holloway, Chair of the joint Board of SAC and SS, managed to give a spectacularly misjudged performance in the form of a speech that encouraged us “to play more”, to “have more fun” and “to do more skipping”. This seemed a shockingly inappropriate approach to take in the light of the package of sweeping cuts to the arts sector, announced the day before by Jeremy Hunt, at Westminster.

Initial comments by Dixon about inheriting the current incarnation of Creative Scotland from a banker and a bishop so “it couldn’t have been in safer hands” and a throwaway comment as he left our table “Its always the Visual Artists.....”, later referring to us as the visual arts table, as if we were the trouble makers, left us in varying levels of disbelief. Having witnessed the spin, and what seemed like fairly predictable political maneuverings, I was left feeling short changed and wondering where was the real chance for dialogue, who is the captain of this ship, and how rough is the voyage ahead.