Rebecca Gordon Nesbitt: I’m delighted to be here this evening and thanks to Kuba for inviting me.
In 2005, a group of interested parties looked around at cultural policy in Europe and didn’t like what they saw. In my case, writing from a base inGlasgow, despite Scotland having gained its own parliament in 1998, it was clear that cultural policy was largely being determined by Tony Blair’s government at Westminster. As such, it was following a neoliberal trajectory of private sector involvement in the arts. Throughout the 1990s,UK arts institutions had been systematically opened up to corporate interventions through sponsorship programmes, which involved businesses forming high-profile synergies with museums and galleries as part of the hype around ‘Cool Britannia’.
As this model lost its exclusive cachet at the start of this millennium, it was time for those involved in shaping policy to look for other models of aligning the arts with state-capitalist priorities. One major development was the use of public funds to fuel the private market for art, with the arts councils producing elaborate justifications for such an ideological shift, while launching the Own Art scheme, which continues to allocate interest-free loans to individuals wanting to collect works of contemporary art. In Glasgow, this focus on the private market by public sector funders saw the main commercial gallery (the Modern Institute) being subsidised to the tune of £50,000 per year and artist-run galleries being forced to re-orientate their research and networking towards attendance at art fairs while the Scottish Arts Council launched the.
At the same time, governments were forced to examine the other instrumental benefits of involvement in the arts in order to justify their funding of it, and a spate of rhetoric around social inclusion began to crop up in official documents. On closer examination, this seemed to be an attempt to encourage people to play an active part in the economy, primarily through the job market, via empowerment through the arts. All things considered, artists were the losers, with few of them able to sustain themselves from their practice. And, in 2005, my confident prediction was that the role of the private sector would have strengthened and that the market would have replaced the public sector as the main source of funding for artists.
So, here we are, nearly half way to 2015, and I must confess to feeling slightly embarrassed, standing here in front of you with my predictions falling far short of reality. In fairness to myself, who could have predicted the strength and depth of the financial meltdown that is being hailed in certain quarters as the end of capitalism? This has certainly seen the private market for art shrink immeasurably, with some of the smaller galleries talking of merely ‘breaking even’ at some of the major art fairs. The flip-side of my prediction – that the state would diminish in importance at the same rate as the market expanded – has proven equally flawed. Scotlandin general and Glasgow in particular have remained interesting sites for examining trends in the public sector.
In some respects, 2005 now seems to have been a moment of quiet optimism as the arts communities in Scotland awaited the outcome of the Cultural Commission. This was a year-long consultancy process, instigated in 2004 by Scottish Labour’s First Minister, Jack McConnell, which sought the opinions of various stakeholders as part of what was supposed to be a ‘thorough’ review of cultural provision, paving the way for its radical overhaul as part of ‘a generational opportunity – to look seriously and maturely at our culture and decide the framework for its support in the future.’ Many of us in the cultural field invested a significant amount of time in making representations to the Commission but, had we looked a little more closely at the accompanying documents, we might have found the key to this process in the Culture Minister’s explicit focus on ‘how to use public spend to lever growth in the cultural and creative industries’. In other words, how could creative practice be made more entrepreneurial in order to give Scotland a competitive edge. I’ll return to the Cultural Commission in a moment because the outcomes of these manoeuvrings are only just becoming apparent.
In 2005, it seemed by no means clear whether national or local government would emerge victorious in the struggle to control cultural provision, and in April 2007, Glasgow City Council (the largest branch of local government in Scotland) made the shocking decision to allow the First Minister’s wife, Bridget McConnell, to turn the cultural and leisure services department into two private companies – one with charitable status and one without – both boards of which were populated by bankers and intellectual property experts alongside market-friendly councillors to provide a veneer of accountability. I won’t bore you with too much detail about this development as I’ve written about it at length elsewhere; suffice it to say that the arrival of Culture and Sport Glasgow has given a very clear indication of the direction in which culture is being taken in the city. It would now seem irrefutable that culture is being instrumentalised as part of a deliberate tourism and regeneration strategy in the run-up to Glasgow’s hosting of the 2014 Commonwealth Games.
To return to the Cultural Commission, organised at the national level by the Scottish Government, this process has rather laboriously resulted in a new organisation being proposed, as a hybrid of the existing funding bodies – Scottish Arts Council and Scottish Screen – to be called Creative Scotland. However, looking back at the minutes of meetings between those who make and implement cultural policy inScotland, it can be found that the idea of Creative Scotland was first proposed in January 2003, more than a year before the Commission was announced. This makes a mockery of the nearly £½ million of public funding that was spent on it, and raises serious doubts about the openness and accountability of our government. But, perhaps even more worryingly, Creative Scotland effectively removes the ‘arms-length’ principle that has characterised public funding bodies in the UK since the Second World War. Scottish Ministers are in the process of inscribing into law the power to direct Creative Scotland as they see fit and there are no prizes for guessing that the creative industries are at the heart of its plans, with loans and venture capital being proposed for artists in the midst of financial meltdown.
The first time the Culture Scotland Bill was presented in parliament, it was rejected on financial grounds (not the wisdom of introducing loans for artists, but a small technicality). In typically democratic fashion, the Scottish Nationalists (who currently hold power in the Scottish Government) have smuggled this legislation into a Bill aimed at reducing public sector institutions throughout Scotland. Just asScotland provided a test-bed for the implementation of Margaret Thatcher’s universally unpopular poll tax before being implemented in the rest of the UK, the worry is that these measures will be rolled out into any country whose government still favours the neoliberal way, which could bring increased poverty to many creative practitioners. Perhaps we should take the opportunity of our coming together to find ways of joining forces to resist this imperative.
//text translated by Łukasz Mojsak//