The Scottish Cultural Commission

Feature by Alasdair Gillon | 15 Feb 2006

Scotland's arts community is still mulling over last month's major statement on culture policy from the Scottish Executive; increased investment from 2007, a restructuring of Scotland's arts funding bodies and new legislation to establish citizens' "cultural rights" were the main features of the review. Initial responses were mixed, however, and working details of some of the new policies are not yet decided.

First Minister Jack McConnell called for the review two years ago, saying he wanted to make culture a priority for Scotland, "on a par" with health and education. The Executive, he said, was committed to enabling "creative expression for all" and he established a board of experts (the Cultural Commission) to gather ideas and make recommendations.

The board included James Boyle, ex-chair of the Scottish Arts Council, Lucy Mason, Edinburgh's Dance Base chief executive and Sheena Wellington, traditional Scots singer. Other members were drawn from business, media and civil service roles. The Commission's 540-page report was delivered last July and suggested new policy across all the arts in Scotland. It also considered the Executive's "access for all" agenda, which insisted that people outside city centres and the central belt should feel the full benefit of artistic activity.

So, what will change? Instead of the £100 million per year requested, only £20m was granted, taking the annual total to £234m. Most of the new funding goes to the five national companies (Scottish Ballet, Scottish Opera, the Royal Scottish National Orchestra, Scottish Chamber Orchestra and Scottish National Theatre) who were clearly in need before the review. These companies currently receive funding from the Scottish Arts Council, but from 2007 it will come directly from the Scottish Executive, a move which some believe could threaten the companies' artistic independence, though others see it as a gesture of confidence from the government.

Meanwhile the Scottish Arts Council is to dissolve and merge with Scottish Screen to form a new arts development agency – Creative Scotland. Areas set to benefit include literature and publishing, which together accounted for only 4% of SAC funding before the review.

The Executive's statement is full of praise for the "creative industries" – self-employed Scottish artists and micro-businesses which populate the contemporary music scene, performing arts, design, video game development and the visual arts. Yet policy for the sector is still unclear; the Executive agrees that those seeking support are failed by a confusing array of organisations (enterprise, arts and skills agencies) and local and central government, but refuses to re-organise the infrastructure. It only promises: "to start to identify the best way to give creative industries advice." While the proposed £100m would have boosted the sector, the Executive will instead seek "a more cost-effective manner" of delivery, although Culture MSP Patricia Ferguson hinted that extra funding may arrive from private sources and local authorities.

Sheena Wellington of the board was unconvinced, "I think the devil is going to be in the detail." Graeme Murdoch, head of the proposed Scottish National Photography Centre (not mentioned in the Executive's statement) said: "I'm not clear how the overall climate is improved by this 'vision'."

For the national companies (which felt poorly treated before) the statement is encouraging. The Executive was once reluctant to speak of "nurturing excellence" but now seems persuaded otherwise, promising to encourage outstanding talent in schools. A lack of details elsewhere, however, leaves doubt in the air. Patricia Ferguson says it "is the start, not the end, of a new journey", but hopeful talk of a new 'golden age' for the arts has been tempered considerably, and many in the arts are being asked to again wait and see.