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Monthly Archives: February 2010

Vivid Purple from Joachim Kreamer’s Behance portfolio

The Literature Working Group, set up by Scotland’s Culture Minister,  has delivered its report.  And, as befits a membership which includes writers, academics and publishers with impeccable literary credentials, the report is written directly and with technicoloured  arguments and some purple prose.

Its terms of reference wide ” To recommend a new approach to public sector support of literature, focusing particularly on writing and publishing, and to report to the Minister for Culture and the Chair of Creative Scotland”, the group has published what it describes as a Policy for literature.

The report is proudly partisan, arguing for a bigger slice of the public sector cake on the basis that more people read than attend the opera.  The group is not obliged to take into account the complexities of the cultural economy, the differences between creating live performance and writing, and the vast difference between the business models  and markets for opera and literature.  Rather, it waves the flag for literature and writers and advocates change.

The group comes up with some really sensible suggestions based on the extensive experience that the members have  and some of these could equally be applied  to other sectors under the aegis of  Creative Scotland, for example:

  • moving away from a purely grant-giving  financing model, including soft loans;  and  an investment model whereby a small royalty on profits from a successful publication be put back into the public subsidy pot, in the way that Scottish Screen invests in films
  • simplified systems for awarding, assessing and managing financial support
  • a far greater role for artists in selection, appraisal and promotional work than in the current system

It makes the case for minimum intervention from Creative Scotland in the influencing of  artistic ideas, railing against what it calls the ‘PR-driven models such as the Creative Scotland awards” . Rather, it recommends that Creative Scotland should direct its support to largely established writers.

Having made a robust case on policy and practical suggestionson policy on  funding, based on the group’s expertise, the report then strays into areas  of structures, both with regard to Creative Scotland and also literature organisations.

 It proposes a formal relationship between its own proposed Literature Academy, Literature Forum and Creative Scotland which blurs accountability. There has to be some clear water between Creative Scotland and the artists and agencies it supports.  Creative Scotland is an intermediary, balancing the needs of artists, audiences and government policy. So it can’t be tangled up in a structure whereby its staff report jointly to literature organisations which it funds, as well as reporting to the board of Creative Scotland.

The group further recommends the streamlining of the plethora of Scottish publicly funded support agencies in publishing and literature, in a fresh display  of arguments rehearsed over many years and in several publicly funded reports and consultancy projects.  All the players are aware that streamlining is required, but none will take the lead in change whilst all are funded to stay the same.  Creative Scotland should show leadership in sorting out these structures where the Scottish Arts Council couldn’t, or wouldn’t.  To do this, it needs to keep its head above the water and not tangled up in murky structures.

The Literature Working Group, as with its sister  Traditional Arts Working Group, have both delivered some good ideas  in their areas of expertise but both have become unstuck when looking at structures.  The problem is that the wide terms of reference for both groups has  tempted experts in the arts to stray into areas where they are not, largely in matters of governance and structures.

The good news that Creative Scotland has appointed its first CEO in Andrew Dixon marks the moment when that agency can get motoring.  Andrew Dixon has wide experience across the arts, film, cultural regeneration and policy.  And some of that experience is going to be particularly useful for Creative Scotland.  Dixon was CEO of  Northern Arts, in the days of largesse from the lottery and EU and other public purses, and when regional arts boards had a fair degree of autonomy from the Arts Council of England.  Furthest away from the mother ship in London, Northern Arts was possibly the most independent of the regional arts board.  Under Dixon’s leadership, and Peters Hewit and Stark before him, Northern Arts proactively advocated and brokered a raft of regenerative cultural projects including Angel of the North, the Baltic and the Sage. He also initiated the merger of three funded film agencies to create the Northern Film and Media Agency.

Why thats good for Creative Scotland is because the agency’s roles will be as champion, broker, supporter and investor, where Dixon has delivered.

There have been some murmurings from small-minded people that he is not Scottish.  No, but he is also not a one man band.  He will be working with a team of people who are embedded in Scotland’s culture and with a board and chair whom we hope will be widely and deeply connected and expert in Scotland’s arts and creative industries and their global connections.

In the bad old days, when we in Scotland were less confident about ourselves as a creative nation, there was criticism from mealy mouthed miseries every time a new cultural leader was appointed, because they were, more often than not, not Scottish.  The carping has quietened as the fruits of   higher risk appointments have been harvested.

But there is a residual chauvinism that borders on racism which has no place in a creative Scotland. One of the last undignified gasps was breathed last week at a National Library of Scotland event about the birth of the National Theatre of Scotland where a platform was provided for an old guard to bang on about the need to present old Scottish plays and to repeat them as an act of heritable homage.  Five years ago, this position had many more supporters than it does now. Now, with a generational shift and a more confident nation, we have moved on and need to shut the door firmly on the last remnants of cultural racism.

Andy Field’s blog in the Guardian about the National Theatre is provoking lively debate, much of it because the subbed headline Why We Should Really Demolish the National Theatre is, according to Andy, not what he means at all.  The main thrust of his argument is that a national theatre should not be chained to a concrete mass.  His desire for the National to work across England, free of buildings, is the latest expression of the current theatrical vogue for producing theatre outside of conventional spaces and for encouraging the audience to become more active players.

In fact, the National has pioneered national engagement with its work with NT Live which reaches a new and broader audience throughout Britain and overseas.  This will deliver wider and more far reaching  benefits than packing up the NT shows and touring them throughout the land.

Andy is also a fan of the new models for national theatres, in particular The National Theatre of Scotland which is not boxed in by bricks and mortar, and the National Theatre of Wales which launches this year.  But, to make an obvious point, England is not Scotland.  There is the issue of scale.  Scotland does not have the mega regional producing venues of Leeds, Manchester and the like.  At 5m, the population of Scotland is just less than that of the North West of England.

NToS was initiated by the Scottish Government at the behest of the theatre community, to work with it in partnership and not to compete with it.  And we didn’t need another building, as we have lots already.  This model is not without its problems as the very success of NToS  means that it can hoover up talent, attention and resources but the success of NToS is highly dependent on a healthy Scottish theatre sector.

Scotland is a small country where the national theatre is a crucial expression of cultural identity and is then more similar to other small nations where the national theatre,  of whatever model, has a particularly significant role as a national cultural institution.  In Ireland, the current proposals to re-house the Abbey in the GPO building rather than in a new one reflects its primary importance as a cultural institution.

The Royal National Theatre has a greater role than as a national theatre of England and it has responsibilities  as a national cultural institution.  It has a perfectly serviceable building and does a great job .  Yes theatre should take place everywhere, but sending the National out all over England when there are so many other major players cant really make sense.

New Romance by Email from Mathew Billingtons portfolio

Being a woman who is interested in the way that digital media influences the art of conversation, I am excited at the prospect of the collaboration between Scottish writer and artist Alastair Gray and Turner prize winner Douglas Gordon. They want to make The Email a 21st century documentary in homage to the classic John Grierson short The Night Mail, based on the poem by WH Auden.

Douglas Gordon has created art in digital media for years including his portrait of Zidane. But what is fascinating is Alasdair Gray’s take on this. The Times report states:

“Part of the creative challenge for Gray is to discover all he can about e-mail, a subject of which he is cheerfully ignorant. “I don’t handle it myself, I have a secretary who does it for me,” he said. “The main thing would be to discover enough about the technical process to find a kind of rhythm. Auden’s text: ‘This is the Night Mail, crossing the border/ Bringing the cheque and the postal order’ has the definite rhythm of a steam train.”

“Discovering the different clickety-click rhythm to accompany an e-mail documentary will be a matter requiring some research.”

The project is is crammed with creative powers and distinctive voices. Auden, Gordon, Gray, Greirson – what a a mash up. Its up for the Creative Scotland Vital Spark awards, created for just such projects.

Producer John Archer also has an interesting take. He says:
“We want to find examples of how people have used e-mail for the big turning points in their lives,” Archer said. “It’s easy to use e-mail to say ‘I love you’, but a lot tougher to say: ‘I’m leaving’.””

A rich seam, huh?

But is it the concept already passed its sell by date? The Iphone has superceded email for intimate conversations and the Ipad will take collobarative, intimate communication into new territory.

Graven Images Lampshade for Harris Tweed Hebrides

The traditional arts became increasingly uncool during the last century in Scotland, along with learning Scottish history and using Scottish words.  Largely ignored by professional arts organisations and funders, much of the song, dance and storytelling was left to a handful of individuals and membership organisations.  We nearly lost Hebridean step dancing all together and it had to be reintroduced  in some area from Cape Breton by a Swede, Mats Melin. The problem with these years of snobbery and denial is not only that, as a nation, we don’t experience and value them enough  but also that the traditional arts sector has felt marginalised and disgruntled.   These factors compounded, we run the risk of the traditional arts becoming preserved in too stiff an aspic, listed as heritage and not a vital part of contemporary Scotland.

So a Traditional Arts Working Group was set up to ‘consider  the future support arrangements for Scotland’s traditional arts’  and now it has reported.

Its major beef is the lack of esteem in which some traditional arts are held in Scotland. Only some, because literature, some music, visual arts and crafts have avoided this, largely through creating products for which there is a market.  So we are mostly talking about traditional dance forms and some traditional ‘folk’ music.    And storytelling, which has been preserved, refreshed and re-energised  by the leadership, focus and activities of the Scottish Storytelling Centre.

The Working Group seeks ‘parity of esteem’ for the traditional arts with the contemporary culture which it sees valued by holders of the public purse strings.  Some of the gulf stems from old divisions of class and  the ancient highlands/lowlands divide.  Most people in the Highlands and Islands would not recognise the bleak picture painted in the report – with a vibrant culture which includes and often majors on the traditional and the huge success of the feisan.

The report makes comprehensive recommendations for interventions to improve esteem, information and conservation, teaching and learning and performance and contains some good ideas.

Take the suggestion for mentoring  – great – and thats more than for the traditional arts.  What we need throughout the cultural life of Scotland is a system whereby members of the community with expertise and, more importantly, the passion for theatre, dance, photography, step dancing or singing can inspire and mentor the young, through going to their local schools.  This happens in primary schools in small communities but we need to open up the system in the bigger anonymous towns where skills and passions lay undetected and unsolicited.  Likewise, we need to encourage volunteers out of school and extend the skills and expertise of accredited dance teachers.

This is a better recommendation than the suggestion that every child should have access to education in the traditional arts, provided in the traditional ways of the Scottish public sector – more demands on teachers and/or more money for blanket programmes like the Youth Music Initiative, costing some £10m a year.  The country can’t afford it and such initiatives are never sustained.

As is so often the case with working groups where collegiate working rules, with a need to involve everyone and without an independent strategist, the report is all inclusive and also gets tangled up in structures.  It is keen to recommend that the traditional arts of all cultures which make up a modern Scotland should be included.  Its recommendations are for the Government, Historic Scotland, Creative Scotland, local authorities, Learning and Teaching Scotland and Uncle Tom Cobbleigh and all.

There is a suggestion of both a new national performance company and an independent trust which gives out grants, while Creative Scotland, the Government and others will deliver on strategy, research and coordination, while preserving and strengthening the existing agencies in dance and music.   The structures suggested are convoluted and there is a much simpler solution, lighter touch, single agency approach which is easier to see from the outside when you don’t have to worry about ruffling feathers, breaking eggs or in any other ways challenging the status quo.  What’s needed is a small single agency which shines a spotlight on Traditional Arts against a tapestry of integrated support, which advocates, partners and delivers high profile traditional arts events.

The Working Group follows the well trodden path of other groups and commissions including the Cultural Commission, which had some very good ideas but got tangled up in structures and universality.  The Scottish Executive took a hatchet to it and embarked upon a streamlined Cultural Strategy leading to either a castration or a simplified version of the 121 recommendations of that report, depending on who you listen to, and Creative Scotland.

So over to the Government to respond to the report and to cherry pick or distill.

We have got to get beyond the snobbery we inherited from decades of denial of Scottish culture, language and history.  We need to preserve the traditions of the past.  But then we need to move on.  The traditional value and craft of Harris Tweed is being re-energised  through contemporary culture. Storytelling is growing as a medium of today.  For our traditional arts to be relevant today, they need to be more than preserved.  Recognising their value and safeguarding them is the first step towards   celebrating them  and developing them in a focussed way relevant to today’s, and tomorrow’s culture.