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Scottish arts funding is precarious, but at least people are engaged enough to get cross about it

19 January 2017

To make any sort of decision in Scottish arts funding is to make enemies. Either you are seen to be giving money to the wrong people, or not to be giving money to the right ones.

When Creative Scotland awarded Ellie Harrison a £15,000 Open Project grant not to leave Glasgow for a year, in January 2016, they provoked a social media furore. Later in the year, the closure of the permanent gallery at Inverleith House, by Royal Botanic Gardens Edinburgh, after the failure of its application for three years worth of funding as one of Creative Scotland’s Regularly Funded Organisations (RFOs), prompted understandable outrage. It was ‘an extreme act of vandalism’ according to former Turner Prize-winner Richard Wright; writing for Apollo, Catherine Spencer was less censorious, describing the decision as ‘shocking and sad’.

The situation, one suspects as we head into the new year, will only get worse. The £100,000 cut in Creative Scotland’s budget for 2017/2018 (equivalent to 0.31 per cent of its revenue) announced by the SNP government last December, was not as dramatic as the £500,000 that had earlier been reported. But even to stand still is to lose ground at a time of rising costs.

Funding for cultural collections, which includes the National Galleries of Scotland, has also been cut, by £3.6 million, at a time of increased footfall and increasing costs of protecting existing collections. Sir John Leighton, the director-general of National Galleries Scotland, pointed out as much, but nevertheless pronounced himself pleased, through clenched teeth perhaps, that the ‘Scottish Government continues to recognise the importance of the national art collections for culture, well-being and for economic growth in this country’, adding that ‘we welcome [their] continued support for the principle of free admission…as a means to promote wider access.’

His position is an impossible but familiar one: that of being asked to do more with less.

It is hard not to feel sorry also for Creative Scotland. Harrison’s controversial project, entitled The Glasgow Effect, a common term used to refer to low life-expectancy in the city, was intended to explore what life is like for those people who can’t afford to leave Glasgow. Members of the public were nevertheless upset at the prospect of Harrison indulging in what one commentator called a ‘poverty safari’.

A more nuanced understanding of what Harrison’s Open Project grant was supposed to achieve became lost in this uproar. Last year’s Creative Scotland Sector Review highlighted the financial precariousness of working within the visual arts: average earnings are some £9,000 below Scotland’s median wage, with many artists forced to take on other jobs to get by. Awards like Harrison’s are in part meant to provide an artist with a degree of financial security, affording them the time to concentrate on their work as well as the freedom to make mistakes. Still, you can see why this all might stick in the craw of Glasgow residents who are forced to work more than one job, and aren’t paid £15,000 by the government for the privilege of living there. One of Creative Scotland’s aims for the coming year, that of ensuring the ‘quality, breadth, and public reach’ of the visual arts in Scotland gets ‘more effectively communicated’, appears in this context well chosen.

As for Inverleith House, there are already two Edinburgh contemporary art galleries on the list of Regularly Funded Organisations (Fruitmarket and Collective). The decision by a public body to fund one organisation is always by implication the decision not to fund another, and since there are more organisations applying for funding than there is money to fund, you will always upset more people than you please. The particularly fierce backlashes in Scotland are evidence of the vibrancy of its cultural sector: people are engaged enough with art to get cross about it. Nor is there any shortage of public figures willing to enter the lists. (I think of Alasdair Gray making trouble with his 2012 essay ‘Settlers and Colonists’, railing against colonising English arts administrators, who come up to Scotland as a temporary career move, with what he claims is no interest or investment in Scottish culture.)

Creative Scotland’s most sensible investments, therefore, are likely those projects intended to help artists work without the need for state support: Scotland + Venice, which will promote contemporary Scottish artists within this year’s Biennale, say; or the Scottish Contemporary Art Network, which provides professional development opportunities for emerging artists. Good funding bodies, like good parents, prepare their charges for a time when they are no longer around.