Wednesday, 23 April 2014

Hoping for a Cultural Feast in a year of challenges

Rows over Creative Scotland and accusations of political bias aren’t the whole story, says CHRIS BARTTER

This is my Voices of Scotland feature for Tuesday's Morning Star.

AS WE begin to hit the busiest time of the cultural year in Scotland, it’s worthwhile to take a look around the scene in this year of referendum, war anniversary and Commonwealth Games.

After huge political furore over funding and direction at Creative Scotland resulted in a change of director, has that resulted in a change of direction?

A similar change at the top of the National Theatre of Scotland (NToS) seems at least in part to have been prompted by criticisms of the ethnic origins of the founding artistic director.

And how have the nascent cultural initiatives begun by the Scottish trade union and labour movement at May Day and elsewhere been holding up?

The — still relatively new — attempts by the STUC and local trade union councils to build up the celebration side of May Day seems to be increasing in its reach and support.

The programme produced by Glasgow Friends of May Day, the body set up to channel those
initiatives, shows an increase in its coverage, running cabarets in Dumfries and Blantyre with singer-songwriter Rab Noakes as well as a repeat of last year’s successful Oran Mor production, where Mark Thomas headlines a superb line-up.

While this carefully avoids being seen as a replacement for the much-lamented MayFest, started by former STUC arts officer Alex Clark, there is no doubt that the base threads of trade union and local community involvement in the programme have similarities to the aims of that festival.

There are no overt references to this year’s independence referendum in the May Day celebrations — possibly marking the decision of many unions and the STUC to concentrate on using the debate to argue for the kind of Scotland they want rather then engage in the constitutional bitterness.

But we might well expect some references in the Scottish Left Review’s comedy fundraiser. It stars one of the Yes campaign’s leading cheerleaders in Elaine C Smith.

Similarly, last year’s furore over Sir Jonathan Mills’s claimed exclusion of referendum material from August’s Edinburgh International Festival seems now to have been a tad misplaced.
Laurie Sansom. NToS

A major production of Scottish playwright Rona Munro’s James work, directed by new NToS artistic director Laurie Sansom, will put Scottish identity and the governance of the nation front and centre-stage.

Both Edinburgh’s Book Festival and a major fringe venue, the Assembly Rooms, have promised more referendum material this year, although whether this proves overkill remains to be seen. Certainly, the Yes campaign has largely captured Scotland’s artists, with only a small handful declaring for No.

Sansom himself has been easing himself into the hot seat at NToS. As the second English artistic director he has already been the subject of warning shots from bloggers on the pro-independence Bella Caledonia site.

However, he has managed to commission pro- and anti- theatre practitioners David Greig and Dave
Dave MacLennan
MacLennan to curate The Yes, No, Don’t Know 5 Minute Theatre Show, and promises a revival of Joe Corrie’s In Time of Strife, a seminal Scottish play last revived by 7:84 Theatre Company in 1982.

Creative Scotland’s new chief executive faced an even more difficult baptism. Janet Archer followed the much-harassed Andrew Dixon after funding withdrawal from a large number of companies prompted a furious response in 2012.

Like him — and Laurie Sansom — she too was from south of the border. While ethnic origin shouldn’t matter, in the current febrile atmosphere it does (thank you Alasdair Gray).
Janet Archer

Rightly divining that funding was at the root of the crisis, Archer spent some time “crowd-sourcing” views on a(nother) new funding structure. This was finally revealed recently,and seems to be a bit of a return to the past. The reintroduction of a regular three-year funding for companies will be welcomed, at least by those that get it.

A successful first step perhaps, yet there is still much to do to rebuild fences. For example, previous funding and artistic decisions led to a virtual demise of Scottish touring theatre — especially those companies with a social message.

We have had to rely on NToS commissions and the occasional project-funded tour by venue-based companies. Is it too much to hope that along with longer-term funding we could see a return to regular Scottish touring companies bringing theatre to the village halls and pubs of Scotland?

Ironically the companies least caught up in the furore over funding are those companies that used to form the nexus of the debate.

The removal of the five “national” Scottish companies — NToS, Scottish Opera, Scottish Ballet, the Royal Scottish National Orchestra and the Scottish Chamber Orchestra — from then Scottish Arts Council funding in 2007 to direct Scottish government funding seems to have given the lie to the truism that politicians shouldn’t get directly involved in the issuing of grants.

Cultural decisions are still a source of huge interest in Scotland. And where people get it wrong they are told so. Most recently the bizarre decision to use the demolition of people’s homes as a centrepiece of the Commonwealth Games opening ceremony was overturned following an outcry from local people and commentators.

The jury is still out on Creative Scotland’s future direction and whether a plethora of pro-independence shows would be a blessing or a curse.

Chris Bartter chairs Glasgow Friends of May Day. He blogs on political and cultural issues at

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