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synchonised swimming bejing 2008

Those of us in the arts and cultural community are in the vanguard of change as we tip over from the noughties into the next decade. The climactic changes of the first decade of the new millennium swept us up, sucked us in and tossed us about in tempests, new waves and whirlwinds creating massive new opportunities. The internet and technological advances in communication have changed fundamentally our engagement in creative experiences and our ability to collaborate. New platforms and interactivity have unleashed more multifaceted creative experiences and enterprises. Against this,  the collapse of the holy cow of ‘financial services’ and the sudden shrinkage of our economy has not only severely reduced the cash in public coffers for years to come but has forced a fundamental reappraisal of the value of  the arts, culture and creativity by the politicians whom we elected to lead us.

And this has led inexorably to tuggings of the rugs underneath the arts and cultural edifices which we have built up over the last 50 years.  Some of the tugs on the rugs have been gentle, with a raft of discretionary projects across the British Isles where major cultural institutions sit round the table and look at sharing services.  Some have been full frontal assaults, like the Irish  An Bord Snip report targeting Culture Ireland and the Irish Film Board.  This, along with other cuts to the arts was seen off by a brilliantly mobilised National Campaign for the Arts which, unlike the UK permanent organisation, was a collaborative campaign involving artists speaking from the heart and armed by evidence of economic impact, politicians and Facebook .   But more attacks are to come.  With political power in the balance, politicians are vying to be the toughest on the public sector, on a competitive crusade to ‘simplify’ the public sector, reduce the number of quangos, cut any pay and benefits seen to be excessive in the current climes and to make sure that our cash gets into front line services.

As we head into 2010, we may expect a Conservative government in the UK which is likely, according to Ed Vaizey, to target the Arts Council of England for at the very least a further reduction in its costs. ACE has already begun to dismantle its substantial regional machinery and the BFI and UK Film Council are already looking to merge in order to achieve the ‘efficiencies’ sought by the current government.  More than that, strategists recognise that its time to use the opportunities of web collaboration, and to reduce the costs and size of complex machinery and streamline support to artists, creative enterprises and participants and consumers. This could mean smaller cross – sectoral agencies, like Creative Scotland.  And in England it could mean a drastic reduction or even dismantling of regional intermediaries.

At the turn of the century the  English regional cultural machinery was at its peak, with regional screen agencies, regional arts councils, multiple local authorities, regional development agencies as well as audience development agencies and the like, all populated by public servants and paid for by the public purse.  And often working together through regional cultural consortia, also staffed by public servants, and the like. Those were in the past days of plenty and before the internet was harnessed for collaboration.  So its logical that  collaboration across the arts, culture and creative industries might be supported more effectively -cheaper on administration and more on the arts – this decade.  Its all a bit uncomfortable for those who could change things as they are the public servants with public sector terms and conditions who have the most to lose.

But things have changed big time over the last 30 years.  30 years ago the arts were thought of narrowly, as traditional, top down even elitist activities for the few.  Three decades of investment in activity, infrastructure and research and advocacy work have changed not only the perception but the reality. State support for the arts, culture and creativity is understood by all political parties in the British Isles as being an essential investment in our cultural identity, creative lives, community cohesion and in our global competitiveness.

State support for the arts, culture and creativity is understood by all political parties in the British Isles as being an essential investment in our cultural identity, creative lives, community cohesion and in our global competitiveness. So its time to stop splashing and take  serious action to best to support art, artists and creative experiences in this internet age.

Perhaps its about more effective agencies – a single screen agency, a smaller arts council. Intermediaries between government policy and the sector are required to make judgements, administer funds, champion the sector and research, develop and innovate.

In Scotland, the new agency Creative Scotland has the potential to be fit for purpose for 2010 and beyond with a remit across the arts, culture and creative industries, a broker, advisor, champion and investor, leaner than its two antecedent agencies Scottish Arts Council and Scottish Screen.  Its had a long gestation and the benefit of many influencing its final form as  governments, culture ministers, boards, civil servants and directors have changed.  Assuming a safe passage through the Scottish Parliament, a board and CEO can be appointed at last and then change can begin.

Creative Scotland, arts councils and other cultural intermediaries are all faced with similar challenges and opportunities, to get more support to the sector at less cost, to be more strategic and fleeter of foot and to collaborate continuously with other partners – and all in the context of politicians determined to reduce the cost of the public sector.  So why not make our cultural intermediaries even leaner and contract out more and more to the independent sector or regional or local agencies, creative organisations or social enterprises?  Like Channel 4 commissioning programmes or like the licence to Creative and Cultural Skills to provide strategic leadership and support in their sector?

That  would mean even less of us with final salary pensions and other benefits, but more transparency and accountability,  better value for  tax payers and more in tune with the majority of arts, culture and creative workers out there.

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Melina Mercouri

To lose one culture minister may be regarded as a misfortune.  To lose nine in ten years looks like carelessness.  In the latest round of musical chairs, we have lost a minister who was in command of the culture brief and have reverted to what looks like the latest in a round of temporary incumbents who no sooner begin to understand culture before they are moved on.  Successive First Ministers from Jack McConnell in his St Andrew’s Day Speech in 2003 to Alex Salmond now have been passionate about the vital importance of the arts, culture and creative industries to our success as a nation. If the latest change is not to be regarded as a lack of commitment to culture then it signals a lack of understanding about the pivotal importance as to how the role is discharged.

Mike Russell was the best culture minister we have had, with a firm grasp not only of the issues in his portfolio but with a fluency in the language of the arts and creativity without which no culture minister can expect to engage with and lead the sector.  That fluency comes both from his own experience in the arts, as a writer and filmmaker and through long term relationships with people in the arts community.  These are characteristics of successful culture ministers across the world. They are not things that can be achieved during one of the cursory tours of duty undertaken by other ministers.   The cultural community doesn’t fit neatly into the public sector boxes which characterise the landscape of most ministerial portfolios, like education, health and justice.  The powerful voices  – those who command respect locally, nationally and internationally – include independent and freelance artists, games designers, architects,  writers, broadcasters, performers, composers, entrepreneurs and volunteers as well as the more orderly national cultural institutions. Russell built up trust with the sector –  a trust that is not easily transferable to a new Culture Minister perceived to have been demoted.  The cultural community will of course welcome Fiona Hyslop, induct her into their world and explain their agendas in what might be seen as a further diversion from getting on with generating great art and creative experiences.   And as a seasoned politician and theatre attender, there is no reason why she should not be good at the job   – until the next reshuffle.

Successful culture ministers must have both legitimacy and authority.  What previous Culture Minister would have had the clout demonstrated by Mike Russell as he quashed in one fell swoop years of arguing by firmly stating to the cultural community that  “Creative Scotland must put behind it the old and false dichotomy of culture and the economy as both are essential” ? None.

If he is serious about Scotland’s success as one of the world’s most creative nations, the First Minister must appoint a credible leader for a reasonable tenure. That person should have legitimacy – so perhaps should be an artist or creative entrepreneur.  That is certainly what other, culturally confident, nations have done.

The culture minister with most credibility internationally now is perhaps Australia’s Peter Garrett, former member of the band Midnight Oil,  renowned for  its protest shows, notably the anti- Exxon performance on a truck top in New York.

Nicolas Sarkozy, recognising the need for cultural cred, has appointed Frédéric Mitterand, TV showman, writer, film producer and gay activist.   Mitterand has already created controversy not least because of a colourful personal life.  He follows in the tradition of the film goddess Melina Mercouri, who ruffled British feathers with her impassioned demands for the return of the Elgin marbles during her tenure as Greek Culture Minister.  Jack Lang, theatre and festival director, during his tenure as Culture Minister, created the Lang Law, fixing the price of books.  The Brazilian musician and activist Gilberto Gil, as Culture Minister, pioneered programmes to increase access through technology and music.

Of course the Culture Minister should not be the only champion and leader of  the arts, culture and creative industries in Scotland  This is a role for Creative Scotland but the timing is such that the Chair of the statutory body cannot be appointed until the Public Services Reform Bill is passed by Parliament, and neither has the first  CEO been appointed. These vacancies only exacerbate the void left by Russell.

What Scotland needs now is a Cultural Leader in the Scottish Government who will be in it for the long term, speak the language, maintain the relationships – and then be bold.  When artists take the helm it might not be plain sailing –but they may stay the course.