Friday, 12 October 2012

Eye northwards


I remember two things about my induction into what was then referred to as ‘the arts funding system’, when I joined Northern Arts as Head of Film, Media and Literature in 2000. One was a picture of a rapturous audience of young people at an outdoor festival event, and the emphasis laid on the experiences we supported through our work, and the excitement of spreading those experiences beyond those already ‘into the arts’.

The other was that as funders we had triple responsibilities: to artists, to audiences and to the wider public who were not currently engaged in the arts. (They may have been ‘the public’, they certainly weren’t the ‘tax payer’.) We needed to remember all three in our work, and may have to stand up for the interests of one in relation to others at times. That difficult but creative balancing act remains, to my mind, one of the essential arts of the funder.

The person giving me that induction was Andrew Dixon, who has been taking a bit of flack in Scotland recently, to put it mildly. I don’t think it’s my place to get into the details of the Creative Scotland situation. It sounds like mistakes have been made, and not just ones of 'manner'. I don’t want simply to stick up for an old friend and colleague, ‘right or wrong’. But at the risk of never being able to go North again, I do feel compelled to say a couple of things I've been thinking on, inspired by that memory.

Firstly that arts funding is not there purely for artists, although artists are central to it. I say this both pragmatically – this is not a period the argument of ‘artists for arts sake’ can win enough ground – and with conviction: I believe in public funding to help artists make work, but not on any terms. (By which I don’t mean there needs to be direct public benefit via every project grant.) I also believe funding systems have historically failed to reach many artists and audiences they should have served better and that systems based purely on ‘trust’ and relationships tend to favour those ‘we’ know. To portray Creative Scotland as simply 'administrating' funds on behalf of government, and therefore not needing to ask questions about potential results and make choices between projects, artists and organisations - because you can't fund without doing that, one way or the other - is surely both inaccurate and a recipe for an inert body.

Secondly, to portray Andrew Dixon as a craven bureaucrat is to misunderstand the man. I can honestly say I have met few people who are more passionate about art, artists and the role the arts can play in places than Andrew. Yes, his vision of that role includes attracting tourists to places, includes an emphasis on ‘profile’, and being part of the broader economy in ways which some artists, many even, might not agree with. The language which one uses to talk about art can be helpful or off-putting, even damaging. But as Kenneth Roy puts it in his piece about this subject today, artists v funders on this is an odd fight: 'Will the pot ever recover from this vicious attack by the kettle?'

Andrew and I worked together for a number of years at Northern Arts and Arts Council, and then, after he left, in his role at NewcastleGateshead Initiative, and we disagreed (productively and supportively, in the main) on plenty of issues of both substance and style in that time. I also learnt a huge amount from Andrew - some things to emulate in my own way, one or two to avoid. I never doubted his commitment to the arts, and to artists and how they had to work to create great work. I also know that the North East arts world would look very difficult if it were not for his energy, passion and skills over his years at Northern Arts and ACE – and what Ian Dowie might have called his bouncebackability - and that plenty of people here have good cause to be very grateful to him.

All I would say to Scottish colleagues (if I were asked) is to make every attempt to find a positive way forward. I cannot see much strategic profit (pun intended, forgive me) in unpicking what took so long to put together. The posts by Matt Baker and Kenneth Roy (a very clear critic of Creative Scotland) are well worth a read in this respect.

(Just for the avoidance of doubt: I haven't spoken to Andrew about this post, or indeed this subject, bar a brief 'how's it going' conversation some months ago.)

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