Is too much spent on the arts? Althing audience vote no after lively speeches


The Althing debate on the question of whether “Too Much is Spent on the Arts in Shetland” attracted a full house on Saturday night and provoked lively discussion.

The four very capable speakers each interpreted the motion as referring to the fact that too much money was spent and not too much time or effort. At the start of the evening the votes were eight for the motion, 30 opposing and 23 abstaining.

The first speaker was councillor Jonathan Wills, who had chosen to get into the spirit of the evening by dressing as the artist Gauguin. The costume was authentic and he did well to brave wearing a light linen suit on such a cold and windy night.

Dr Wills began his paper by highlighting some of the artistic events that occur every year such as the Folk Festival, Fiddle Frenzy and the pantomime at the Garrison.

He went on to say: “Is not Up-Helly-A’ a huge artistic achievement in itself, incorporating as it does street theatre, music, crafted objects and so on.”

Dr Wills said many of the annual festivals received very little help from Shetland Arts and so maybe it was the case not that too much money was being spent on the arts in Shetland, rather that the money was being spent at the wrong time and in the wrong places.

He said Shetland Charitable Trust was the biggest source of funding for the arts in Shetland, and that a large percentage of money within Shetland Arts Development Agency (SADA) was used to pay staff salaries and wages – a sum amounting to £784,895 last year. This amounted to 57.53 per cent of Shetland Arts’ expenditure.

Arts expenditure in Shetland amounted to about £62 per head per annum. This could be seen as a good thing if you were “into” the arts in general. Arts spending in Scotland only amounted to about £10 per head per annum. The difference might be seen as excessive by those who would much rather see the money spent on other things.

Dr Wills raised the point that the money seemed to be rather unevenly distributed among Shetland Arts projects. The Bonhoga Gallery at Weisdale receives £60,000 a year in funding, the Auld Haa at Yell receives £5,000 and Hoswick Visitor Centre, which proves a popular attraction in the summer months, receives nothing.

Last year in Shetland only 30 arts awards were made to individuals, people who actually create the art for others to enjoy. Dr Wills said struggling artists needed support and encouragement and sponsorship from relevant bodies; sometimes direct patronage did not happen so artists were forced to seek spon­sorship and funding from other organisations.

At a recent meeting, staff were keen to point out that SADA has never ever gone over budget, but of course this will soon change with the arrival of Mareel.

Dr Wills was concerned that the running costs of Mareel would be extortionate and therefore money would need to be channelled away from other endeavours in order to prop up the venue.

He concluded by saying that in Shetland there was probably twice as much being spent on the arts as could reasonably be afforded, but in conclusion too much money was being spent on everything in Shetland.

Donald Murray, chairman of Shetland Arts, was the first speaker to oppose the motion. He chose an interesting analogy to put across his concern that not enough money was spent.

Mr Murray gave the example of the recent earth tremor that occurred in Shetland, a small thing in global terms but a real news item in Shetland and something for folk to talk about.

Jen Hadfield has just won the TS Eliot prize for poetry; Mr Murray recognised that such is Ms Hadfield’s talent she could have achieved the prize without the support of Shetland Arts, but the fact that she did win the prize gave her an opportunity to highlight the positive benefits of living in the islands as a writer, and that many writers, visual artists and photographers come to Shetland under their own steam using their own funds to travel to a place that has a rich and diverse artistic culture and which is not doing enough to promote that, so that even more artists come here and thus make an even greater contribution to art scene in Shetland.

Significant literary prizes send out a “tremor” in the art world, something that happens and then is quickly forgotten. Mr Murray was keen to point out that the shake-up of the tremor should be used to wake people up to the vibrant arts scene in Shetland but that it could be so much better with more official recognition and more financial input.

He said there were so many talented people in Shetland who deserved greater recognition for their artistic efforts and achievements and that it was unfortunate that as in many other fields Shetland could have even more artists if they did not choose to go and seek work else­where. He urged the audience to think about what might have happened and what might be if there was more money spent on the arts locally.

Mr Murray concluded by saying that everyone in Shetland needed to continue to recognise what a vital commodity the arts were to the isles, and that spending on this could only be beneficial in the long term.

Gordon Dargie seconded the motion and he was quick to back up Dr Wills’ earlier speech by stating that we spend too much money on everything. At the end of January, as the credit card statements come in, we all know that we have spent too much on Christmas, for example.

The main theme of Mr Dargie’s paper was that just because everyone does it, that doesn’t make it right. If you were to appear in court and said to the judge “it wasn’t only me”, that would be an admission of guilt, the point being that the arts were not unique in having too much money spent on them.

What we really needed to do was to learn to be more economical. Local authorities had been told this for years, but did they listen and did they ever learn?

Now, the credit crunch had come about because people had been spend­ing money that was not theirs.

Mr Dargie raised the concern that money spent on the arts was not always spent in the best possible interests of the art viewing public at large. He briefly took his argument away from Shetland and pointed out that last year £50 million was spent by public bodies in order to keep a Titian painting currently owned by the Duke of Sutherland in the UK and that the diamond encrusted skull created by Damien Hirst was bought by a private buyer also for £50 million. That meant £100 million pounds was spent and only two people really benefited financially. Taxpayers, while benefiting from being able to view the Titan painting, have all had to pay indirectly for the picture.

Mr Dargie said the Scottish Arts Council was about to merge with Scottish Screen in order to create Creative Scotland and £5 million will be required to cover the cost of the merger. Money would be diverted from the real artists who were struggling and who needed it.

Thinking along these lines, Mr Dargie concluded, it could be argued that the high running costs of Mareel would divert money away from individual artists so that money was seen to be spent on the arts, but not on the artists.

Joanne Jamieson was the last speaker of the evening and she brought to the table an impressive list of activities and projects that SADA was involved with and was currently promoting to show the wide range of the arts remit in Shetland.

As a mother, Mrs Jamieson was keen to highlight the fact that SADA recognised the need to nurture talent from a very young age, not only that but encourage all to participate in the arts regardless of their abilities. She mentioned valuable work done with supported living groups, and how a new project would bring a restorative justice project to Shetland which was aimed at helping dis­advantaged youngsters or those youngsters who might be in trouble to address their issues through using art as therapy.

Peerie Dancers was just one of several projects that encouraged youngsters to come along and get involved and as the children had to bring along an adult to accompany them, the arts were opened up to people who might not otherwise have got involved. It was to be hoped that by going along to these events, the relatives and friends might be encouraged to find out more about other arts activities.

Shetland’s musical heritage was actively supported and encouraged by SADA, Mrs Jamieson said. The national importance of the music industry as the third largest industry sector in the UK was not to be taken lightly and SADA did its own worthwhile work to promote local events such as the annual Fiddle Frenzy.

She said that not huge sums of money had been spent on lots of projects but rather than saying that not enough money was being spent wasn’t it better to look instead at what could be provided for £2,000 to £3,000 and see what fantastic value for money people could get from SADA?

Mrs Jamieson pointed out projects carried out by young film makers such as those involved in Maddrim Media who worked with SADA last year to make their own short films which were then shown at the Screenplay event to great acclaim by film critic Mark Kermode.

Considering the emotive topic and the large audience it was a little surprising that questions and com­ments from the floor were not very forthcoming after the break.

One or two questions were raised as to what would happen to the Garrison Theatre when Mareel opened and the audience was re-assured that the Garrison would remain and that plans were being put in place to ensure it continued for a long while yet.

Other comments centred around the fact that local events by local artists were often sold out, some­times on the day that tickets became available, and surely this was an indicator of the kind of entertainment local people wanted. Yet vast sums of money were often spent on bring­ing theatre and dance companies up from south to perform some dreadful dirge that would only be seen by 20 or 30 people.

Mr Dargie was quick to respond by stating that those 20 or 30 people had as much right as anyone on the mainland to see the performances in question, and that it was part of any arts organisation’s remit to make all art available to all people. Why should those 20 or 30 people be denied a performance just because they lived in Shetland?

In summing up Dr Wills defended comments that his paper had me­andered from the point and he gently reminded the audience that the money spent on Up-Helly-A’ each year probably exceeded £500,000. Mr Murray said there would always be nay sayers to big projects such as Mareel. The Eden Court Theatre had met with the same problems but was now a welcome part of Inverness. In Shetland the Clickimin Leisure Centre met with opposition in its initial stages but was now seen as an integral part of Lerwick’s infrastructure. Clickimin had also proved invaluable in providing a venue for arts events as Shetland has lacked a dedicated arts venue.

With the final vote the motion was defeated. The final result was 24 for, 28 opposing and 16 abstaining.

Laura Friedlander


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