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In appointing Liz Lochhead as the Makar of Scotland, the Scottish Government has not only selected a popular and accessible poet but has also defined the role. Liz Lochhead will have a role in promoting Scottish literature at home and internationally as announced by Scottish Culture Minister Fiona Hyslop . This makes absolute sense and Liz Lochhead, modest, personable and very much her own person, should be brilliant at this.  In her first offical engagement,  she opened  the Robert Burns  Birthplace Museum in Alloway, and read not one of her own poems but brought to life Burns’ own  epitomal Tae a Mouse through reciting it.  And, as she wrote, poets need no laurels..

Poets need not

be garlanded;
the poet’s head
should be innocent of the leaves of the sweet bay tree,
twisted. All honour goes to poetry…. (more)

The announcement of the details of her role has been made at the same time as the rejection of some of the proposals made by Scottish Literature Working Group.  This group was convened before Creative Scotland was established and before the full implications of our empty public coffers were understood. It had some good ideas, strongly waved the flag for literature but got a bit tangled up in its ideas for structures.  One of its key proposals was for a Scottish Academy for Literature but this has been shelved in favour of a suite of activities and advocacy by Creative Scotland working with Liz Lochhead in her role as Makar.

The power of the single artist, the poet, the piper, the painter is often greater than that of the public policy or institution.  Scotland should empower its artists and the public agencies should work alongside and behind them. For the Makar to play a role as a champion for literature in Scotland makes more sense than new structures and institutions for now.


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.

samuelbecketbrindge

Those of us in the arts and creative industries in Scotland often gaze wistfully across the Irish sea.  We see a nation where writers, artists and filmmakers in particular are recognised, valued and celebrated by the people and state.  We see the Irish film industry thriving and supported through tax breaks, we see artists of all types living in Ireland, and we see Irish writers and artists celebrated. That recognition comes from the state and also from the public.  A radio phone in on the future of the Abbey Theatre, the national theatre of Ireland, during a relatively recent crisis, demonstrated 94% support for it.

The Government supports its artists and creative enterprises through a variety of mechanisms including tax incentives for the film industry and tax exemption on some artists’ earnings.  It also supports Aosdána, an affiliation of creative artists established in  1981 “to honour those artists whose work has made an outstanding contribution to the arts in Ireland, and to encourage and assist members in devoting their energies fully to their art”.   Membership includes writers, musicians, artists, choreographers and architects and membership is widely recognised as an honour and mark of respect.  Some of the members of Aosdana also draw down a stipend,  Cnuas, but not all.

Last week’s announcement by Mike Russell of a Literature Working Group for Scotland may help focus on the opportunities to better support our writers, literature and publishing sector in and for Scotland.  Authors Alastair Gray and James Kelman are among those seeking support for writers in Scotland as it is in Ireland.  But the answers are not all to be found in Ireland.

Aosdana itself is not without its limitations, and its total membership across the arts is 233.  Artists, including writers, who are not in Aosdana can be awarded a bursary by the Arts Council. In addition, there is a degree of tax exemption on income earned for sales of art.  But the amount of funding available for the individual artist is subject to significant reductions at this time in the Irish economy.  The Arts Council, in common with other public agencies in Ireland, has already taken a cut in its funding for 2009 equivalent to 10% less than 2008.  Inevitably, because individual bursaries and projects tend to be considered later in the planning cycle than grants to organisations, there is likely to be a disproportionate cut to individuals. Further, the Arts Council is bracing itself for a further cut to 2009 budgets later this week.  This is all bad news for the artist.

A survey I directed in 2003 for the Scottish Arts Council about economic conditions for artists in Scotland showed that 70% of visual artists earned under £5000 from their practice – and its unlikely that that figure will have changed significantly.

At a time of recession it is essential that artists are supported through by the state and recognised as vital and important  in our society.  But Ireland doesnt have all the answers for Scotland.