Creative Skintland

And while we, as we were yesterday, are on the topic of the arts and creativity in Scotland, today’s Herald carries a piece on how Creative Scotland is shaking up the way it disburses the £50-or-so-million of their largesse to various artists and organisations. Precipitated by a cut in government funding, to be offset in part by an increase in lottery funding (now that the endelss drain of London Olympics is being plugged), this nonetheless racks up a level of uncertainty that is unprecedented in the hand-to-mouth world of the arts.

Creative Scotland is a new quango, created in July 2010 by rolling Scottish Screen in with the Arts Council. Although a new quango, it is pretty standard-issue in terms of its structure. It has an (unremunerated) board of worthies of whom Ruth Wishart is probably the best known and chaired by the usual business heavyweight in the form of Sir Sandy Crombie who was previously Chief Exec of Standard Life Investments.

Under the board, the senior management team of six pulls down £440k between them and a group of 13 ‘portfolio holders‘ heads up the rest of the 137 staff. Through them a variety of arts projects across Scotland was being given financial support through a mechanism called ‘flexible funding’. This was not as solid as ‘foundation funding’ but did allow organisations to plan shows, pay bills, hire staff and breathe easily.

But lottery funding cannot be used for anything that looks like stable and permanent support. To be moved on to a project-by-project funding basis will be onerous to funded organisations because they will have to apply for project funds before flexible funding expires each year. In effect, it puts CS even more in the driving seat than it was because everyone from the Edinburgh Festival to Mull Little Theatre will be coming, cap in hand, on an annual basis.

Creative Scotland disburses the arts support money across Scotland, so it is reasonable to secure professional management of that money. But, with most of the arts ‘industry’ up in arms about developments (and individual artists being especially derisory about ‘nomeklatura’ and/or a ‘Glasgow Mafia’ making key grant decisions) just who is watching whether public money is being directed and used wisely. Attending a recent CS event in Dovecote Studios (I remember them as the Infirmary Street Baths) in Edinburgh, I was impressed with the canapes, glitz and flummery, but little else.

It reminded me very much of fundraisers I once attended for the San Jose Symphony at which Silicon Valley names like Intel’s Moore or AMD’s Sanders would be entertained and fleeced for fat cheques in exchange for founder’s status plaques being nailed up in their box. But—penguin suit or no—that was private money and theirs to disburse. Every penny of CS’s largesse started off in the public purse.

The whole shebang started off poorly, with Morag Hay being pulled in as a ‘bridging’ Chief Exec and getting a brisk £15k for 60 days’ work. All in all, just rolling the two quangos into one cost Joe Public £838,475 in severances last year. In all, CS received £52m of public money from Holyrood last year and disbursed £45m of it, leaving a nice little cushion of £9.5m in the bank. And, in doing that, its 137 staff pulled down £5.821m in total.

Far be it from me to question in detail which of the 40+ arts organisations got how much CS money last year. But to have 13% of funding monies drained off by the very organisation that dispenses their funding seems excessive—especially when its events would put some private sector shindigs to shame. It has moved up to the split new and prestigious Waverley Gate office complex (the old GPO) where it joins Amazon, Balfour Beatty, Microsoft and NHS Lothian (whereby hangs another tail). What was wrong with their more modest quarters in Moray Place is unclear.

Canada has a population of 34.8m (roughly seven times as many people as Scotland) Their Canada Council for the Arts disbursed CAN$205m for a total administration overhead of CAN$14m, which translates to a much more reasonable 6.8%—or about half of what the CS prestige machine skims off the top.

How do they do it? Well, for a start, they don’t have an SMT that costs £1/2m, nor 13 ‘portfolio holders’ each keeping a serious mortgage going. The Canadians recruit a dozen practicing artists for a year on a board, chaired by a civil servant. Decisions are made by those who’ve lived the life and, although they get little in the year they serve, they play fair because next year it will be someone else’s turn to vet their application.

When Lord Robertson of Port Ellen promised a ‘bonfire of the quangos’ over a decade ago, who would have thought that by now and in the midst of a recession it would be the quangos turning up their own heat while the public purse shivers out in the cold?

About davidsberry

Local councillor, tour guide and database designer. Keen on wildlife, history, boats and music. Stood for the Scottish Parliament 2011; lost by 151 votes.
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