Friday, 18 February 2011

Idea 13: "Portrait of the artist as a valued resource"

Published in the Scotsman, 18/2/11

All artists who are supported by the public purse should repay that investment with energetic and enthusiastic interest.

"In the run-up to the election, Ross Martin will look at options for the new Scottish Government. Here he outlines how to get better value from arts grants and improve education at the same time.

ALL artists who are supported by the public purse should repay that investment, with energetic and enthusiastic interest. Art is heavily subsidised by the public pound. We should view that sizeable financial contribution as something upon which the public can see a real return. Just as we expect publicly funded enterprise to contribute to economic growth, so too should we expect a community, as well as a cultural return on our investment in all forms of art.

In addition to recognising the inherent individual and societal value in art - art for art's sake - so should we develop ways in which we can build in a better deal for state investment. For example, we should demand that all artists who benefit from financial support from the public purse should put an equivalent value back into our public services.

That is the principle. What of the detail? As we debate the role of public services, their funding and their reform; where does art fit within that developing picture? What contribution can and should art play? Can we ensure, for example, that all painters, sculptors, actors, dancers, musicians, writers and all others involved in the arts community who benefit from public financial support, return the favour?

If so, what form might that take?

As a starter, let's go back to school. Imagine a world where our leading players in the Edinburgh International Festival and Fringe take to the school stage as an integral part of their time in the capital. How exhilarating, inspiring and yes, educational, would that opportunity prove for the primary pupils across the city, and perhaps beyond, especially in areas such as my home housing estate, Wester Hailes?

Picture if you will the scenes in Scottish secondary schools if the stars of the silver screen who annually grace the Edinburgh Film Festival, were to spend time coaching our kids on the finer points of method acting. Play out in your mind the very notion of our leading musicians strumming their stuff in school halls the length and breadth of the land as part of an orchestrated campaign to support music tuition, which is increasingly a target for budget cuts.

I have witnessed myself the benefit of listening to, and learning from, great artists such as the entertaining and engaging writer Alan Spence.

I have even basked in the reflective glow of a school mate, Tommy Smith, jazz saxophonist, as he practised his way on those first crucial steps towards critical acclaim and commercial success. This is mental nutrition of the very best kind.

I have attended many a Fringe performance and the occasional Festival concert enjoying the undoubted benefits to my own personal cultural development, but I can't help thinking that in all of these cases, wherever public money is used, there must be a better way to reach a wider audience base. As we approach the 5 May Holyrood election, we should remind ourselves that the audience in question also plays a role in a political performance - that of the electorate.

It is surely possible to conceive of a system of public funding for all of these, for sculptors and other artistic specialists too, where they give back to the public some of the very thing that the public pound has enabled and encouraged them to develop - their talent.

All of these artists must pass on their incredible, sometimes traditional, skills to school students eager to learn and develop a way in which to differentiate themselves in an increasingly competitive labour market. It must also be possible for them to think a little differently and devise ways in which their public funding can be valued by those in whose name the cheques are signed - the public.

It is easy to envisage a way in which that publicly celebrated talent can celebrate the public that nurtured it. It is of course possible to put in place simple mechanisms by which actors, singers and dancers who rely on public funding to pursue their chosen career paths use a small part of their publicly funded time entertaining the elderly. It would be fantastic if we could structure a programme of entertainment for those who most deserve to be looked after and entertained, our senior citizens, around the general programme of arts entertainment which is simply not accessible to them.

Additionally, it is now quite common practice for famous actors, artists, singers and dancers to "do their duty" entertaining front line troops. Well, what about the veterans back home, and the families, without whose support these brave men and women would have foundered? It must be possible, in all good conscience, to put together a programme for the families of our brave and dedicated service personnel, as a matter of course, at least each year we remain at war.

In Scotland, we do none of this. We spend millions of pounds supporting "art", in all its forms, without a single thought of how to make that spend sustainable. We must devise a mechanism by which we ensure that art is indeed a public good. We must be able to put in place funding systems that deliver public benefit for every public pound invested. Otherwise public funding for art will exit stage left.

The purists will, no doubt, label me a Philistine.

Who cares? Not me, and certainly not, I would suggest, those members of our communities who either can't get access to the arts, or perhaps more importantly, those who simply do not see the benefit of engaging with our artists. In other words, the people who would most benefit from an active arts policy of public engagement.

Far from being a threat to public funding of the arts, this proposal could be an integral part of their survival. By locking an artist's participation into not only the delivery, but also the design of public services, our artistic community can truly weave themselves into the fabric of Scottish society. In so doing, our actors will be playing out a sustainable funding mechanism that benefits them in the longer term, protecting them from the spending cuts that currently threaten their existence.

We operate in what people call "silos", each contained in our own world. We put needless barriers in between different sectors. Public or private. Voluntary organisation or social enterprise, we love to categorise and keep control by maintaining degrees of separation that do not need to exist. The arts are for all. In the current economic climate it is essential that we ensure that the public are not only the audience but that they play their part alongside the professionals.

It was all too easy to run separate organisations, separate structures, with separate funding streams when the cash kept flowing from both the public purse and private sector sponsorship. Those days are over and we must now work creatively to nurture and develop all forms of art if we are to avoid a descent into an abyss.

Let me finish by slightly mixing my metaphors but, I hope, to effect. The stage is set. There is pretty much a blank political canvass on which to paint. This is a huge opportunity to sing a song of support for our arts community. We can't sit back awaiting a policy idea to applaud. It is time to put in place a self-sustaining funding model that celebrates all that is good about the arts in Scotland. It's in our genetic make-up".

• Ross Martin is policy director of the Centre for Scottish Public Policy

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