15th November 2018
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Arts: Creative accounting

Public spending on the arts in Shetland has become an issue of increasing controversy, and a recent Althing debate found only a slim majority in favour of maintaining current levels of funding. Neil Riddell examines the issues and the figures.

Arts administrations are never going to be universally popular. To many culturally-inclined folk, the very notion of “pen-pushers” swallowing up arts funding, the setting up of a “creative industries unit”, ten-year plans, strategies and the like are the very anathema of what art is meant to be all about. And there are undoubtedly some jobbing officials up and down the country who give off the impression that they’ve never once been moved by an arresting piece of music, a delightful painting or a powerful piece of cinema or theatre in their lives.

It is equally true, however, that bureaucracy is always an easy target for mass righteous anger. There are always going to be detractors in the wider populace – and many who believe that public money spent on arts should be going to more important, and statutory, duties like healthcare and education. That was never more apparent than in the fractious debates over Mareel, but now that the cinema and music venue has got the go-ahead the time seems right to examine the issue of arts spending more generally.

There is a fairly widespread view among some culturally literate people in the isles that the three quarters of a million or so spent on staff and administration by Shetland Arts is simply too much, and that grants to artists and the like are suffering as a result. So is the public purse financing a needless army of employees chained to their desks, or are these people in fact providing a vital crutch for the arts scene from Sumburgh Head to Norwick?

First, it’s well worth starting off with some straightforward facts and figures. The development agency will this year get a grant of £773,376 from the oil-funded coffers of Shetland Charitable Trust (roughly in line with inflation, increased from £754,513 in 2008/9) towards its running costs and, once Mareel opens its doors, any running cost deficit will be funded by the trust for the first year. It is understood that even some Shetland Arts employees realise a subsidy for future years will be required and it remains to be seen where the money will come from. There is already tremendous pressure on the charitable trust’s pot, not least in the wake of the almost unprecedented financial crisis enveloping the world in recent months, and trustees were told last month that they continue to spend far more than is sustainable in the long run. That has led some to conclude that any extra subsidy for Mareel will have to come at the expense of other spending on arts, with the spectre of job cuts being raised.

The remainder of the organisation’s £1.3 million annual spend comes from Scottish Arts Council grants and money recouped via tickets and other sales from its various shows and exhibitions. In 2008/9 it received £156,803 from the Scottish Arts Council and is projected to recoup just over £260,000 from tickets and other proceeds. The bulk of expenditure goes on staffing costs, totalling £784,895, with an additional £201,750 spent on overheads for the organisation’s different premises at the Garrison Theatre, Bonhoga Gallery, its Toll Clock offices and the Weisdale Mill. A further £202,922 is spent on educational purposes related to visual arts, drama, music, film, craft, literature and dance.

According to a report by consultants EKOS in 2008, the creative industries provide around 400 jobs in Shetland, with an annual turnover of around £25 million, and though it is not clear either how those numbers were arrived at or their veracity, the recent success of TS Elliot prize-winning poet Jen Hadfield and the chance to witness wonderful concerts like that of Gilad Atzmon at the Town Hall in February are pointers to an arts community that, in some ways at least, is very much thriving.

A recent, and by all accounts well-mannered, Althing debate on whether too much money is spent on the arts in Shetland ended with the audience 28-24 against a motion to that effect, with 16 abstentions. On one side of the argument was writer and prominent independent councillor Jonathan Wills, who seems at times a lone voice in the chamber attempting to get the SIC and charitable trust to live within their means now that oil revenues are no longer so plentiful.

Dr Wills is at pains to point out that, having been involved in the arts community in the isles since the age of 15, he is by no means singling it out for cavalier excess but believes that public spending in Shetland is out of control in most areas. “I’m all for spending on the arts – I’m a supporter of Shetland Arts,” he said. “I think it does a lot of good work. But they have more staff per head than anywhere in Scotland – it’s over the top, it’s too much. As the council comes to terms with the overspending, some cutbacks are inevitable; it doesn’t mean Shetland will become a cultural desert, far from it.”

Estimates suggest a per head spend of £62 in the isles each year, spectacularly dwarfing the £10 per head spend in Scotland on average. Dr Wills says that particularly in light of Mareel, whose business plan has been greeted with scepticism even by many supporters of the project, the amount spent on other things will simply have to be cut – and that may well mean redundancies. He sees Shetland Arts’ role as being a public patron and also advocates setting up a £100,000 bursary scheme “for young artists to hold their first exhibitions, young musicians to cut their first discs, or whatever they cut these days”, to be funded by cuts in administration. The bursary would allow budding artists to “quit worrying” and take three, or maybe six, months to “do what they do”. Some of them might produce “absolute garbage”, he is happy to concede, but many would produce work well worth seeing, reading or hearing and, in any case, that verdict would be for the public to deliver.

Lewis-born chairman of Shetland Arts Donald Murray, who arrived in the isles four years ago to teach English at Sandwick Junior High School, and is also a successful published author who last year found acclaim with his book The Guga Hunters, defends the size of the wage bill. He argues it is necessary to support the arts community and pay for running its various premises. “If you look at the amount of money spent, I think it’s a very lean machine compared to most places; there isn’t a great deal of money spent on administration. My argument would be that it’s brought tremendous economic benefits to Shetland. Culture is what actually draws people here – certainly it’s a very important factor – [and] you have to use as a selling point your distinctive culture. It’s always struck me as very odd that nobody quibbles about the amount of money spent on sport.”

The latter point is one which has exercised many supporters of Mareel and the arts more generally, and it does seem odd that the array of sports centres throughout Shetland, along with brand new squash courts and an indoor bowling hall at Clickimin (which were built at a time when the oil funds were plentiful and councillors scarcely knew what to do with all the cash at their disposal) all gravitated to the top of the priorities list before a dedicated cinema and music venue. The SIC’s support for Mareel eventually scraped through by virtue of the convener’s casting vote in June last year – if it hadn’t, any such facility would surely have been out of the window for at least a generation – but it had been the political will of successive councils to see such a project go ahead since the halcyon days of the early 1990s.

Revenue spending on sport, too, is extremely high – the charitable trust spends somewhere in the region of £3 million funding Shetland Recreational Trust’s activities. Mr Murray, a respectful and sharp individual who clearly does not relish intellectual jousts becoming too combative, stresses that he thinks there is room for public money to be spent on both sport and art, and does not want to set the two up in opposition to one another, but points to a host of economic spin-offs in all sorts of different areas and other intrinsic benefits brought about by spending on culture, highlighting young people and their willingness to mock their rural heritage. “Even the way the kids have the confidence to parody their own identity, they have the courage and self-confidence to do that.” He is, however, aware of spending constraints on the council and trust – which could create huge problems for Shetland Arts in the future. “Clearly that must be of some concern, as it is to anybody in the present economic climate,” said Mr Murray. “A percentage cut would obviously be felt very heavily in our case.”

But for argument’s sake, if you accept that the amount of public subsidy going to Shetland Arts is fair, that still leaves the question of whether it is being spent in the right way. There have been sporadic voices of protest about how the organisation favours one artists or another, for instance the suggestion that it shuns many other forms of music in favour of traditional artists, with one particular hard rock group taking it upon themselves to publicly criticise former music development officer Davie Gardner at every possible opportunity for what they perceived to be a slavish adherence to promoting fiddle-based music.

Privately, a number of artists across a variety of different art forms have voiced their dissatisfaction at what is perceived to be a “clique” which favours a select band of artists. Of course, it is difficult to say how many disgruntled members of the arts community there are and, further, if resentment is purely personal, then it is not necessarily a good barometer of how Shetland Arts is performing as an organisation. But one moderately-spoken artist, who asked not to be named, said that while it was clear that Shetland Arts “had an impossible job to do”, it must also do more to “reach out” to upcoming artists. He said: “They can’t please everyone all of the time, particularly with such limited budgets for each department. But there is a general feeling that not enough effort is being made to reach out to artists. Those who are prepared to ingratiate themselves with staff, by whatever means, are rewarded for it, while those who are not willing to beg for help are essentially ignored. I’m not entirely sure how the system could be made to work better, but Shetland Arts certainly needs to dispel the widespread belief that it is guilty of systematic favouritism if it is to be fully trusted by the arts community.”

Mr Murray concedes that, as a writer himself, there are other arts organisations which have left him feeling disappointed. “Have I ever felt let down? Yes, clearly,” he said. “But that’s part and parcel – you’re not going to get your own way all of the time. I think it’s sometimes inevitable in a small area, you’re going to get a touch of that. Clearly no institution is perfect, there will be times when we make mistakes, but the general thrust is fine.”

He is a big believer in the “healing power” of culture, particularly in an age of broken homes, and says he feels facilities like Mareel will play an important role in retaining our young people and making Shetland the envy of many other remote communities. “That’s what you have to do if you’re living on the periphery these days – you have to use as a selling point your distinctive culture. Now we’re having kids leaving home who don’t want to come back – we have to have a way to try and draw young people back by having many of the facilities they would have on the mainland.”

Shetland Arts trustee Joanne Jamieson, for many years a staunch defender of the organisation in the pages of The Shetland Times and elsewhere, also took part in the Althing debate, and is wholly dismissive of any notion of a “clique”, pointing to over 1000 events staged during 2008 with over 100,000 attendees. “Shetland Arts repeatedly invites anyone that wants information or help with an arts project, idea or event to come and speak to us. We will try to help, we can either do the work, help someone else do it, advise whether we think it is possible, where you can get professional assistance, funding, premises etc.,” she says. “Shetland Arts staff work incredibly hard at getting the most ‘bang for every buck’. The organisation’s purpose is arts development, and this couldn’t happen without staff.”

Ms. Jamieson points out that the organisation gets “by far the smallest piece of the charitable trust financial pie” by comparison with the amenity and recreational trusts, and that it earns or fund-raises £1 for every £1 received locally – and they have the ambitious aim of raising that to £2 for every £1. She also stresses its independence from the council – since the “matter of conscience” resignation of Gussie Angus last year there are no councillors sitting on its board. “We are also the only trust that chooses not to pay ourselves any meeting allowance. We believe that every penny that is awarded to the arts should go to the arts.”

One example of the funding model she raises is the annual Fiddle Frenzy music festival, held every August and nominated in the Scottish Traditional Music Awards’ best event category last year, which is coordinated by Shetland Arts staff. Last year almost £9000 was taken at the box office, along with £4000 from the Scottish Arts Council and £15,500 from student fees – with Shetland Arts itself only contributing £2000 along with staff time. Ms Jamieson also highlights less publicly visible work such as the restorative justice project, a collaboration with the SIC’s social work department and the children’s reporter, which involves working alongside people under 30 who are at risk of offending or have already done so. It costs Shetland Arts £3000 and brings in more than double that in external funding. She says: “Many of these people struggle with issues of alcohol, anger and rejection, sometimes leading to crime and antisocial behaviour. The reasons behind such behaviour are complex, born out of chaotic lives and involving things that are difficult to articulate verbally. Difficult issues can be expressed more easily through the arts, and the process of externalising thoughts and feelings can help them become less harmful.”

There is no doubt those involved in Shetland Arts have been deeply hurt by the level of criticism and public opprobrium to which they have been subject in the past couple of years. Compare the amount of flak the organisation’s director Gwilym Gibbons has had to put up with to that of figureheads of similar trusts. In the infinite wisdom of many of our councillors, for instance, the amenity trust’s Jimmy Moncrieff is seen as virtually untouchable. Why? Perhaps there is a slightly unsavoury element of “outsider” suspicion that too many born and bred in these isles are prone to harbour from time to time, and many others see the arts per se as a self-indulgent, lily-livered and pretentious pursuit. As Mr Murray rightly says, no organisation is perfect and, in many ways, Shetland Arts is on a hiding to nothing. There are also annoying habits, such as the printing of unnecessarily lavish, glossy brochures, and at times a lack of public engagement, but lots of good work goes on too.

The small matter of a wind farm notwithstanding, those we have placed in charge of this community will soon have to come to terms with the fact that the current level of opulence cannot continue indefinitely. If the powers-that-be do decree that a change of tack on spending and maintaining jobs is the best way forward more generally, that may mean cuts for Shetland Arts but, in the meantime, it is hard to find compelling evidence that they are any more profligate or wasteful than any other public body, trust or quango in the isles. In many ways, it is difficult to quibble with Dr Wills’ assertion that too much money is being spent on everything in Shetland, not just the arts, and the sooner some of his fellow politicians reach the same conclusion the better. We could still have the best of both worlds however, if the trust can somehow manage to achieve its laudable aim of doubling – or even substantially increasing – the sourcing of external funding, allowing it to maintain its existing services while reducing the drain on the public purse at a local level.

Neil Riddell