Reviews & Arguments

ArtsRant: Arts Funding

An essay for Hi-Arts - February 2004

Not subsidy, but investment

hymns to a young demonThe Arts should be part of the national infrastructure, like education, health and roads, and funded accordingly. So argues poet and writer AONGHAS MacNEACAIL as he casts an eye over the current furore surrounding funding the arts and cultural policy.
ANYONE WHO HAS read the Scottish daily broadsheets recently will have found it hard to avoid a sense of the Scottish arts community engaged in its own wee civil war. Quite how the stooshie arose in the first place has become a bit obscure by now: a bit like sailing a small boat in an expanse of choppy water, squalls around making visibility something of a moveable snack.
What’s clear is that certain trigger words – ‘Scottish Opera, for example – as well as variants on ‘funding’, ‘spending’ and ‘overspending’ – though not, apparently ‘underfunding’ – seem to have an explosive effect on the otherwise equable temperament of a spread of individuals, some active in the arts, as practitioners or administrators, others seemingly just happy to grind their own particular axes on a conveniently spinning subject.
The most coherent (usually), and on the surface most justifiable, objections have risen from contributors involved in the “traditional” arts (quotation marks intended not to belittle the sector, but acknowledging that, while rooted in the tradition, it’s currently a source of much exciting innovation.) Bill Macaskill, in particular, drew our attention to the disgraceful failure of various potential funders to help secure a future for Balnain House, a magnificent source, resource and social centre, which gave traditional music a locus from which to energise the Highland area and a focus for the wider world to observe the effects of that energy at work.
Where I think Bill, among others, is mistaken is in blaming Scottish Opera for Balnain’s failure to secure funding. The opera company may seem to be receiving a disproportionate amount, but the two realities that must be taken on board are, firstly, that opera is expensive - more so than Scottish politicians seem willing to accept as yet - and secondly, that traditional music, after many years of neglect, is only beginning to receive the recognition it deserves: and there’s a long way to go yet. But a culturally healthy and confident Scotland will see that both opera and traditional music, as well as theatre and all the other art forms, are adequately funded, not just to continue but to develop and grow.
The saga of arts funding in Scotland has been a depressing story for some time now. Theatre companies like Wildcat had the plug pulled on them, essentially because their message was judged unfashionable: the late John McGrath had previously been squeezed out of 7:84, the company he founded, for similar reasons. A number of theatre companies, including 7:84, have been advised their revenue funding is under threat, again. Scottish Ballet has had its troubles. And Scottish Opera regularly tilts from cash crisis to cash crisis. So, it might be asked, what’s new?
As I recall, what most recently fanned the flames of controversy, in the letters pages at least, was a Herald opinion poll which placed opera below a range of other artforms including traditional music, with theatre gaining most support. What nobody has yet, to my knowledge, publicly observed is that the poll was curiously skewed in the first place, making no reference whatsoever to the visual arts or literature. But, of course, opera’s low rating was highlighted by the paper, coupled with the news that Scottish Opera were seeking an advance on next year’s grant. Music critic Michael Tumelty declared his firm support for the company.
There followed a correspondence indicting Scottish Opera for gross extravagance, with extortionate seat prices perpetuating a cult of elitism – all at the expense of other artforms, particularly traditional music. The assumption appears to be that the company’s work is confined to opulent main-stage productions that only the wealthiest can attend. It should be acknowledged that full-scale grand opera is not cheap to mount, featuring, as it must, a cast of soloists, chorus and large orchestra, professional musicians employed in, and contributing to the economy of, Scotland. Perhaps admission charges should be reduced across the board – which would require increased funding…
But Scottish Opera’s remit isn’t just to serve the central belt bourgeoisie in Glasgow’s Theatre Royal and the Festival Theatre in Edinburgh. Full-scale productions do travel to venues as far afield as Inverness, Elgin, Dumfries, Ayr and Kelso. Scottish Opera Go Round tours full-length operas with reduced companies and a piano replacing the orchestra, while Essential Scottish Opera brings highlights throughout mainland Scotland and as far North as Kirkwall, with Skye and Mull also on the itinerary.
The company’s educational wing, Scottish Opera for All, lists around 170 schools in 28 of Scotland’s 32 local authorities, visiting such evocative locations as Lochpots, Fox Covert, Onthank, Carlibar, Seaview, Sunnyside and Touch, where they conduct workshops and classes and occasionally create “site specific community operas”. We should acknowledge that this not quite undercover - but not overpublicised - work touches on the lives of thousands of Scots, young and old, of all social classes, employing the skills of many highly trained practitioners.
I should make it clear that I am not an “opera buff”, though I’ve enjoyed the few live performances I’ve seen. Nor am I in the pay of Scottish Opera. I’ve written two librettos; neither was commissioned or performed by Scottish Opera. The first, a community project, was set to the music of Black Isle man Alasdair Nicolson, and brought around 100 performers from Skye on to the Eden Court stage before packed houses. William Sweeney’s opera, professionally produced by Paragon Ensemble, had performances in Inverness, Skye and Oban. But I’ve also enjoyed working with musicians in the folk tradition, of the stature of Phil Cunningham, Donald Shaw and Andy Thorburn, among others. There is no reason why the different musical styles can’t provide equal satisfaction to audiences as well as performers.
I think it is crucial to demand effective funding for every artform. That Opera is labour-intensive we must accept, insisting it is supported accordingly. But other musical forms must also be given the means to flourish. And what’s good for the musical goose must be equally palatable to the theatrical gander, as well as the literary and other goslings. We should also look to how others do it, when England’s home of opera, the London Coliseum, has been refurbished at a cost of £41 million, and Sweden’s National Touring Theatre receives £16.5 million per annum (without having to carry an orchestra and chorus), compared to the new “National Theatre of Scotland”, promised £7.5 million over three years.
The suspicion among practicing artists at the moment is that rather than counting geese, ganders or golden eggs, we are being herded toward a Peter and Paul scenario, where cuts at Scottish Opera and various theatre companies will fund Scotland’s “National Theatre” (which isn’t to be a real theatre company, but a commissioning body - but that’s another story...). There will be an abundance of sweet words, but no additional funding.
Stage magic can be claimed as a kind of artform, but sleight of hand, or tongue, as practised by our Scottish Executive, won’t do. We must get beyond the marvellous rhetoric of Jack McConnell’s St Andrews Day speech. His passionate eloquence may move hearts, but it’s not enough. What Scotland now needs is the eloquent deed.
Mr McConnell asked us to “agree first the importance and the centrality of cultural activity to all aspects of our lives...” For that to be fully realised, it seems to me, the intrinsic value of the arts to society has to be recognised for its own sake. There must be a willingness to trust the artists and invest in the arts, without qualification. Don’t expect the artist to be a teacher or social worker. There does appear to be a disconcerting subtext to the First Minister’s speech, imposing a “social value” factor on investment in the arts.
To insist on such conditions would, almost inevitably, exclude the quirky, misanthropic, difficult or reclusive individuals, whose work may not be accessible to the wider audience, but could nevertheless contribute an essential element to the perceptions of more “popular” artists. Equally, the work may, however problematic in other ways, simply be brilliant, at that level alone, an enhancement to our quality of life.
If the arts are to genuinely attain the “centrality” to which Jack McConnell refers, they should surely be incorporated - in funding terms - as part of the national infrastructure, like education, health and roads, for example. Let’s not talk of subsidising, but of investment in, the arts as an essential resource for the whole of society.
But while we may reject socio-educational strings to a policy of supporting artists as artists, there’s ample evidence that where an effectively funded programme is instituted, whether in schools, prisons, hospitals or corporate buildings, artists willing to bring their skills and creative enthusiasm into such a programme are readily found. Don’t tell - but most artists will happily engage with the community, if asked. We are all too aware that in offering our own skills to enable others, we are as often the beneficiaries as those we are presumed to be helping. We also tend to need an audience.
That art is necessary may be inferred from the cave paintings and figurines created by our earliest known ancestors. Even the hardest-line Presbyterian mother is likely to soothe a restless infant with rhyme or lullaby. And how many marvellous elegies and requiems have been created to see us off at the other end of life?
That art is necessary is acknowledged, at least partially, by our education system. It would be difficult to study any language, least of all the lingua franca, without engaging with its literature. All too often, any contact young people have with living writers is accidental and arbitrary. While I may insist on the right to practise my craft without pre-conditions, the better to hone that craft, I also believe in the value of allowing practitioners to bring those in the education system - which usually means the young - into contact with the work, the worker and the process by which the work is achieved. Seeing how it’s done, and having a go, can be a de-mystifying and enabling experience. But such associations, between professional and “laity”, to be truly effective, should be co-ordinated, sustained and properly funded.
That art is healing, and liberating, can also be persuasively argued: individual examples might include the succession of distinguished “graduates” from the Special Unit at Barlinnie Prison, including Jimmy Boyle, Hugh Collins and others. We have a small library of novels written by the likes of Agnes Owens, who came to writing at local adult education centres, where their early scripts were workshopped by established writers like Alasdair Gray and James Kelman.
While Beethoven, Burns, Shakespeare and Michaelangelo still have resonance for us, across the centuries, they were creating for their times. We also need the creators who will speak for our own generation, who, in making new through poem, performance or picture, provide the mirror through which we can define ourselves. Now that we have creative writing courses, an opera school, a traditional music degree course, as well as drama colleges, providing professional training, there is an assumption that arts practitioners will attain a professional standard. If the Executive values their skills, it must invest in their futures: more funding, not less, to the benefit of all - audiences have rights too, which can’t be got on the cheap.
As to where the cash might come from: restoring some sense of balance to the taxation system would be a start. Meantime, a recent article by Falkland Warrior Max Hastings – no Lefty subversive he – criticising waste in defence procurement spending highlights the fact that governments can burn money recklessly when disposed to: the arts represent not killing but living. Let’s burn some on that.

Aonghas MacNeacail was born and brought up on Skye, and now lives in Carlops. He is a poet, journalist, broadcaster, researcher, scriptwriter, and librettist.
© Aonghas MacNeacail, 2004