Poor Mozart. Dead at 35. Health and money problems meant he never played nor composed music for the sheer joy of it.
200 years later, there he (well, his portrait) was, on the 5000 Austrian schilling note. A handful of these would have transformed his life – and art.
Take out the notes from your purse, wallet or pocket. You’ll see Robert Burns, Walter Scott, Nan Shepherd, Jane Austen and JMW Turner.
So, some artists eventually make it to the money, but gey few, and they’re a’ deid. Most living creatives today struggle financially. Like Mozart.
The relationship between art and money remains a fascinating one. Who creates? Who pays? Why?
And how to make the best of the money available to get the best art? For the most people?
Apart from the audience paying for tickets out of their pockets, the main source of finance for culture comes from the state.
This fundamental principle – that central and local governments should fund the arts – has long been established in most European countries.
It’s encouraging to look abroad, especially Scandinavia where there seem to be some refreshing changes.
Finland has a new governing coalition led by women, all but one of them under 35. The principle of male/female equality has been pioneered in Sweden, with many arts institutions having a strict 50-50 policy. Compared with Scotland, both Denmark and Sweden pay better salaries to arts workers.
It’s also telling to see how much goes on direct artistic activity in proportion to administration. Norway – population about the same as ours – has increased direct funding to musicians by 150% in 6 years.
In France the funding system allows for proper holiday and sick pay and a greater system of benefits for artists than in Scotland.
In the UK, state funding of the arts has a good track record as an effective investment. It improves cities and communities, increases social mobility and makes the arts more democratic. It’s also an efficient way to boost employment. Much cheaper than, say, nuclear weapons.
A recent manifesto to Creative Scotland, the country’s arts funding body, comes from Scotland’s leading theatre critic and political commentator, Joyce McMillan. She writes: Scotland’s artists and arts organisations are spending far too much time filling in forms, and too little time making good art.
The focus of cash support should turn to artists and their output, working with the creative process rather than staying aloof, fruitlessly gauging achievement with a snare of irrelevant measurements.
MSPs on the Scottish Parliament’s Culture, Tourism, Europe and External Affairs Committee have just published a report recommending that the funding system is reset.
They say: Public funding of Scotland’s arts and culture will only become sustainable if artists are at the centre of policy and paid the fair wage they deserve. The current model is bureaucratic.
Like Joyce’s manifesto, the MSPs want Creative Scotland to take urgent, robust action.
I think we should go further.
The present set-up has never worked and it never can.
It’s facing the wrong way. It can’t judge the arts because it can’t see them. This is the experience of thousands who create and produce artistically.
So, what’s to be done?
The temptation has been – wrongly, in my view – to go first for a structure, an administrative mechanism.
I don’t think the system matters nearly as much as ensuring that money is part of the creative process. The application of cash should be as ingenious as the artistic endeavours it supports.
Art starts, works and succeeds with people and ideas. Shouldn’t funding do likewise?
Let’s try 3 principles on which a new state funding set-up could be based.
First, those who create should determine, from the start, how money is allocated. In my experience, nobody’s better at making resources stretch than the people producing artistic work. Let the artists decide – and assess. Peer group scrutiny should be the rock on which the allocation of funds rests.
Second, ensure that the creative work is well-known to those deciding on who, and how much, to support. Simples. Everyone involved should go and see the exhibitions, watch the shows, listen to the concerts and read the poetry.
Occasionally, the old ways are the best. I did precisely that, in the late 80’s, as a member of the Drama Committee of the Scottish Arts Council. It was time-consuming, but I saw a lot of theatre before helping to make decisions about who got what.
Third, nothing beats dialogue between funding deciders and practitioners – who in any case would tend to be the same kind of people, with a creative urge and a stake in the quality of the output. Exchanges and encounters needn’t be cumbersome or bugged by fussy rules. They can be informal, short and frequent. People talking to each other. A stimulating, enriching and dynamic process.
This blog is not in the business of drawing up a blueprint. But, in advocating the creation of a new system to replace the existing failed one, it might help to offer some steps towards the next stage.
Joyce McMillan, in her manifesto, suggests a parliament for the arts. A good starting point. I’d suggest that assemblies of painters, sculptors, writers, performers, designers, musicians, producers, audiences and critics be convened.
A working group could be elected from these assemblies. About 10, mostly practising artists and producers, plus a couple of audience/public representatives. I’m confident that such a group, charged with creating a new structure to distribute state money could come up with something workable within a few months.
The only stipulation would be that they steer clear of consultants! Of course, there’d have to be safeguards about self-interest, or not helping your pals, but these are fairly minor.
The new system would have to be democratic, open and accountable to artists, producers and audiences. A minimum of forms and a maximum of discussion about creative production.
Whatever new structure was devised, it would have to be introduced underneath the present one, until it was ready.
And, ultimately, Creative Scotland would have to go.
Fiona Hyslop – in her role as Secretary for Culture – must be weary of trying to improve things by endless tinkering and personnel changes.
All the evidence shows it isn’t going to work.
Creative Scotland has become Westminster to artists’ Scotland. There’s only one way forward.
Like Medea, in order to move on, you have to kill your offspring. Start again. A new direction entirely.
The system is beyond repair. We need to focus on the creation of a new one.
by Paul Bassett, Glasgow, December 2019.
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