Creative Scotland, and its ‘crude ethic of sado-competition’

This piece appeared in the Scottish Review on May 31, 2012. For legal reasons, the last 2 pars were removed. They are reinstated here. Below is a photo of Creative Scotland execs in Cannes the same week they announced the end of flexible funding. Joyce McMillan knows what she is talking about when it comes to judging performances. The Scotsman’s theatre critic has spent a few years of her life rattling across Scotland on night trains from small towns – the proverbial ‘Shotts in the dark’ - writing reviews. The fact that she knows most of Scotland’s theatre people pretty well and in general is held in respect by them does not interfere with her ability to do her job. She can give a bad review if it’s required.
She gave a very bad review last week. Some readers will have noted her searing indictment of the performance of Scotland’s new arts funding quango ‘Creative Scotland’ (see her website She called it ‘disrespectful’ and ‘destructive’. She castigated its preference for ‘structural tinkering over core activity’.
Its thinking, she said, is infected by ‘a kind of undead Thatcherism, a half-baked, hollowed-out, public-sector version of market theory that reduces the language of creativity to a series of flat-footed business school slogans, and imposes a crude ethic of sado-competition – “this will make you sharper and more creative” – on areas of society where co-operation and mutual respect matter more.’
A two-year-old replacement for both the Scottish Arts Council and Scottish Screen, but with the big national companies like Scottish Opera taken out (their finding is now managed rather well it seems by civil servants) ‘Creative Scotland’ which occupies a splendid suite of offices in the shiny new Waverley Gate building in central Edinburgh, has annual running costs of more than £9 million.
McMillan’s damning blast – available on her website – was delivered in response to a CS announcement that an annual £7 million of ‘flexible funding’ which guaranteed money to 49 companies for two years at a time was to be abolished. This meant hundreds of artists, directors, musicians across the country experienced a lurch of the heart, a sick worry about their security and a panicky certainty that the future would hold still more of the intellectually incoherent and exhausting ‘buzzword bingo’ sessions that many of them have been experiencing with the self-styled ‘investment portfolio managers’ at regular intervals at Waverley Gate since 2010.
This announcement was conveyed to Tommy Smith, the leader of Scotland’s National Jazz Orchestra, a couple of hours after he left a French stage, where he had been filming a tour with trumpet player Randy Brecker for French national TV. Smith suffered, as well as the bad news about the funding, a nasty and deeply upsetting moment of public humiliation. He exploded and gave an angry interview to The Scotsman in which he threatened to resign.
Smith himself would probably accept that he is in part the product of past incarnations of arts funding in Scotland. Born in one of the most deprived areas of Europe, Wester Hailes, to a teenage single mother, he is now a saxophonist, composer, educator and band leader with a genuinely international profile. Introduced to his instrument though Edinburgh’s music education programmes, he won a scholarship to Berklee in the US. Signed by the worlds’ most famous jazz record label Blue Note in New York while a young man, he chose to return to Scotland where he has devoted most of his adult life to building a jazz infrastructure, creating as well as the SNJO a jazz course at the Conservatoire in Glasgow. It is easy for people to threaten to leave: Smith actually could. It would be our loss. It has taken Scotland 45 years to grow just this one Tommy Smith – it would not be easy to find another.
Musicians in jazz orchestras and youth jazz orchestras and school bands from Nairn to Fife aspire to be part of the SNJO. That is not because there is a lot of money to be made. It is no secret that many of Scotland’s best known jazz musicians and their families live below the poverty line. They are not doing it for the money. But they are immensely proud to be part of the SNJO because it is making such wonderful music – and achieving world wide recognition for it – just a couple of weeks ago, they won the Parliamentary Jazz Award at Westminster.
The pride and anger of the musicians and their supporters in the arts scene has been demonstrated over the last week in their blogs, emails, texts, and conversations. Double bass player Andrew Robb – who won young Scottish jazz musician of the year in 2009 – wrote on one: ‘As a younger aspiring musician from Scotland it’s really sad knowing that an ensemble that you look up to, have grown up with and respect highly is facing such farcical problems. This is the nation’s flagship jazz ensemble. As a young musicians it is THE band you aspire to be playing in some day and I can’t believe that it has come to this. What message does this decision give to young guys like us?’
On key player in the Scottish arts scene wrote in a private email: ‘Creative Scotland would rather support mediocre musicians performing on top of a Munro than world class musicians in a concert hall because they can issue a press release about the former but not the latter. Coupled with the undermining of specialist art form knowledge and the dysfunctionality of their decision making processes, a market culture now pervades that organisation.’
There is a general sense of disappointment: it was not supposed to be like this. Creative Scotland’s glossy brochures speak of ‘building on success’, of fostering ‘creative leadership’. In fact this is nothing to do with cuts: they will have more money to spend not less, as lottery funding is freed up by the end of the Olympic commitments.
This money comes with strings attached – it is not supposed to be spent on directly funding arts organisations, only on projects. However, over the last week, Creative Scotland have been back tracking and briefing heavily that most of the 49 organisations will be able to access the money they need, on a programme basis. The SNJO has been called in for a meeting.Tommy Smith blogged that he has received a message from Scottish culture secretary Fiona Hyslop but ‘is not at liberty to disclose its content’.
However if, as CS staff are now saying, the end of flexible funding will not lead to an increase in instability and uncertainty and a heaping on of administrative burdens on to artists’ shoulders, why on earth were the organisations not briefed about this before the announcement?
It seems that this is to do with the culture of Creative Scotland. CS is an organisation which prides itself on not being ‘too cosy’ with Scotland’s artistic communities.
Relaxing over a coffee in the grand ground floor court at Waverley Gate, commnications director Kenneth Fowler (salary £60,000 a year) explained “ In the past ther emight have been an idea that the arts council was there to serve the artists. That’s not the case any more. We are here to serve the Scottish people and we are accountable to them” Serving the Scottish people appears to require keeping the talented people CS is supposed to be managing at arms’ length.
Another major worry about project funding is that it hands artistic control to beaurocrats to decide what artistic direction or what projects artists should be working on. Artistic decisions, explains Fowler, will have to be made in “collaboration’ with CS portfolio managers. That, apparently is what the Scottish people demand. The implication is that organisations which are not willing to accept artistic direction from people whose expertise in their area may be limited or even non-existent won’t get funding.
The other implication of this is that mangers at CS will not simply be supporting artists and their organisations – they actually see themselves as having a role in creating the work. This marks a change in tone and a degree of hubris which for all its faults the old Scottish Arts Council did not display. There is evident in the culture of CS, a subtle distrust of the artists themselves, which is what McMillan was getting at when she called it ‘disrespectful’.
Photos of £130,000-a-year chief executive Andrew Dixon, posing with Ken Loach and Ewan McGregor recently appeared on the CS website. (They seem to have vanished after appearing on Facebook with different captions) Perhaps this is a sign of things to come. Like Hitchcock, he may demand a walk-on role in every CS-inspired production he co-authors.
No longer arts administrators or managers, the senior staff style themselves Creative Directors. There are three Creative Directors whose biographies and salaries are available to view on the website. The highest paid Venu Dhupa, on a salary of £74,000, mentions her previous role at the British Council on her profile on the CS web site. She does not mention however that controversial changes she introduced there were linked to what the Guardian called in 2008 ‘a breakdown of trust between artists and managers’ and upset among others, Peter Blake,, David Hockney and Lucian Freud.
Having taken their place in the limelight, the staff at Creative Scotland better prepare themselves for some more bad reviews – and they could find themselves fielding a few rotten tomatoes if the show does not improve.