A belated write-up of Creative Scotland’s Open Session in Edinburgh

It has been over a week since the Creative Scotland Open Session in Edinburgh. I’ve been meaning to write about it since then, but every time I start a draft I get exasperated and abandon it in favour of the work I actually get paid to do.

The official write-up of the day is here, just so you know: http://www.csopensessions.com/pat-kanes-blog/edinburgh/

The session was 4 hours long, 12 – 4, but nothing actually happened until 1pm. That was far too long to leave people sitting around. I understand the value of chat and know that there’s always a certain amount of time set aside for meet and greet, but 25% of the overall event time was too much. It might have been more useful to have this unstructured time at the end of the session rather than the beginning. That said, the catering was very nice…

The structure of the event was as follows: an hour of dithering, three speakers, a Q&A with the speakers, then 45 minutes of discussion at our tables and a short presentation of what we found. Apart from the first hour, it was all structured and guided in a way that served to kill off any spontaneity or organic discussion.

I’m not convinced by the idea of having three speakers at each event. This is partly because I get bored very easily if I’m watching people who lack public speaking skills. Only Hannah McGill was a particularly engaging speaker. I’m also sceptical about the selection of speakers. I can see that CS is trying hard to bring in voices from all areas of the arts (no, I’m not adding “and creative industries” because I don’t see them as separate entities, that’s an argument for another post) and has invited some outspoken critics of the organisation. However, the very fact that only selected speakers have a voice rankles with me. There are so many people within the arts who will speak not because they have something to say, but because a platform has been offered and god forbid they should ever pass up such an opportunity to be in the spotlight. (Actually, I’m not convinced that’s limited to the arts. I suspect that’s just a human thing.) Add in a fee and few people will turn it down.

One of the speakers, Ed Stack of indie music download company Ten Tracks, chose to show part of a TED talk by Amanda Palmer. Pat Kane, who was chairing the Open Session, describes her as “US indie rock goddess”. If you consider a goddess as an entity that demands endless amounts of attention and tribute from group of fanatical worshippers, that sounds about accurate. I watched that TED talk in its entirety when it came out, and it puts an extremely disingenuous spin on Ms Palmer’s exploitative behaviour towards her fellow artists (again, future post) and completely disregards the fact that her “art of asking” only works if you start from a position of considerable privilege. We should not be basing our ideas about being a working artist on the assumption that everyone has a typical middle-class support system in place. Showing videos made by people who donated their labour for free is all very nice, but it doesn’t help me as a working artist unless you tell me how they’re paying their bills while they give everything away.

Anyway, by the time the speakers had finished I had nearly worn out the battery on my phone by having Twitter conversations, many of which were with people who were actually in the room with me. Since there wasn’t a way for us to talk to each other as part of the event, we found out own damn way. I do hope CS is keeping a record of the Twitter conversations – they’ll find more in-depth discussions there than those that I was privy to in the room.

The Q&A with the speakers was derailed by the very first question. Apparently someone thought it necessary to ask “how Scottish” Creative Scotland should be, plunging us back into the pointless circular debate of the Alasdair Gray stooshie from last December. Suddenly everyone had to prove their Scottish credentials and how non-anti-English they are. Useful conversation ground to a halt. I had a sore tongue for two days from biting it really, really hard. I’m still not sure what the point of that question was.

Tim Licata from Plutot la Vie brought up an interesting point in his question about whether CS needs a “vision” or might be better off having a “purpose”. This is actually the kind of discussion that helps, because it lets us get closer to the fundamental problems that have to be addressed first in theoretical then in practical terms if we are ever to see genuine change. Alas, this was a Q&A with selected speakers, not a free-flowing discussion amongst equals, and the room was still suffused with the energy from the last question – not the kind of energy that encourages debate or diversity of opinion. Although Tim’s question may well have been the most important one asked that day, the response was little more than “hmm, yeah, suppose so”.

Arguing about language doesn’t feel like it should be difficult, but it is. When you actually start picking apart the things that people say (and the things that you say yourself), you start to make discoveries about the ways of thinking that underpin the language. It’s easy to dismiss it as semantics and claim that it’s not action, it’s not important. It is. You can’t change how people think unless you engage with it and attempt to understand it. You can’t do that without looking at how their behaviour is expressed in language, it’s like wanting to see the whole dinosaur skeleton while claiming that sweeping away the first layer of dirt is pointless. We should be prepared to have our words challenged and to defend out use of them. I’ve argued for this throughout my involvement in this conversation.

However, challenge really wasn’t a part of the Open Session format. After the Q&A we were shuffled into groups sitting round tables, being asked to discuss a central question. By the time the shuffling was done, no-one at my table could remember what the question was. We discussed what we’d like to see from the new, improved Creative Scotland and some points were written down on a large flipchart that had been left with a single pen in the centre of the table. So rather than a record of the diversity of ideas and opinions around the table, we had a sanitised version that said all the things you’d expect it to say. On the surface, it looked like consensus. In reality, it was the result of voices being stifled so that we could get some dinky phrases down on paper by the end of our 45 minutes, to be shared with the other groups as someone from each table got up and explained that they had reached more or less the same conclusion as everyone else.  CS should be nice and supportive and understand us and help us. It should nurture this delicate ecology. Pat Kane asked the question about whether Creative Scotland should resemble a gardener, trying to control said “ecology”. As he notes in his blog, someone piped up to say that trying to control ecology doesn’t make you a gardener, it makes you a god. Perhaps unsurprisingly, that was me. Gardeners don’t control ecology, they understand it. They learn how to work within it to bring about change. That’s not the same as control. By all means, let Creative Scotland be a gardener, but it must not be a god. That’s how we got here in the first place.

Afterwards, on Twitter, there was a bit of a discussion about the word “ecology”. I don’t like it much, mostly because I hear it used in an attempt to sound scientific and intelligent and to conceal a lack of content or substance. It is difficult, perhaps impossible, to quantify the value of art – but I don’t believe we do ourselves any favours by borrowing the language of science (or business, or anything else) without being willing to interrogate it. Also, “ecology” and “ecosystem” are not quite the same thing, and they shouldn’t be used interchangeably just because “ecology” sounds a bit more natural and friendly than “ecosystem”.

Anyway… by the end of the Open Session I felt frustrated and angry. The discussions that we had there were discussions that have already been had, over and over again, online and off. Perhaps the fact that we needed to have them again is indicative of new people joining the conversation, in which case it’s not necessarily a bad thing, just a frustrating thing. But perhaps it’s indicative that while there has been some change at CS, it’s not going deep enough yet.

That same day, the advertisement for the new Chief Executive was posted. The language is more promising – at least it features the word “integrity” – and we know there will be artists involved in the decision-making process, including Vicky Featherstone who seems unlikely to refrain from speaking her mind. However, the salary appears unchanged, and I question the integrity of anyone willing to accept a salary more than ten times in excess of what most artists earn. I question what it means that Creative Scotland still sees that disparity as acceptable. (Someone at the Open Session tried to defend the salary to me on the grounds that being Chief Exec is a difficult job involving long hours. Want to talk about difficult jobs with long hours? My mother was a nurse. She was not on £120K/year. Even without the apples to oranges comparison of arts and medicine, I am a writer and director. I regularly do 16 hour days. I never get paid to sit in meetings. I have coffee with people on my own time and money. My skills have to be extremely sharp and constantly honed if I am to find work in a highly competitive environment. Forgive me if I don’t shed a tear for the terribly hard life of a heftily-salaried arts exec.)

I believe in the need for the Open Sessions, but I think the purpose is currently incorrect. Artists need a forum through which they can talk to CS. It needs to be less structured. We don’t need to be talked at, we need to have conversations. We need to meet the people who make up the organisation, put faces to them, let them put faces to us. We need to see that they are people and let them see that we are people. This is how you build relationships. Give us something truly open, where we can bring our concerns (whether “we” are artists, CS, audience or other), meet each other, respond to issues as they come up. Basically, look at the Devoted & Disgruntled model and do that. Not just because it works, but also because it’s an exercise in humility – by relinquishing control and trusting to those present, you make an admission that you do not know best. If CS knew both what it needs to do and how to do it, change would be happening already. It doesn’t. Perhaps no individual or formal organisation does. That’s not going to change without people being brave enough to admit that they don’t know.

That said, I believe that Kenneth Fowler – CS’ head of communication and external relations – actually gets this. I’ve always felt quite hopeful after talking to him. He seemed aware that the format wasn’t quite working and was asking people directly for their thoughts at the end of the session. He said it would evolve. I believe it will, and that’s why I’ve taken the time to write all this. I have no desire simply to be negative about the whole thing. Everything that I’ve brought up in this post has been mentioned because I think there’s a possibility for change. I hope that the attitude that I see in Kenneth and believe to be present in some of the other CS employees will spread and eventually become normal within the organisation. Believe it or not, I don’t write these blog posts just to get things off my chest. I do it because I still believe that thing can change. More than that, in fact. I still believe they must. Which is why, in spite of everything, I’m glad I went.

About jenbitespeople

Edinburgh-based writer, dramaturg and director. Here you'll find posts about my work, mental health, arts politics and whatever else happens to catch my attention. View all posts by jenbitespeople

5 responses to “A belated write-up of Creative Scotland’s Open Session in Edinburgh

  • May Miles Thomas

    Jen – thanks for a thoughtful post. I agree – the format of the Open Sessions – three speakers, a Q&A and a round table exercise – isn’t ideal and should perhaps have included some CS officers rather than rely on outside commentators. I agreed to speak at the Glasgow session because I want a platform to say what I’m certain some will regard as unsayable. The matter of a fee is moot because I haven’t been advised of how much they can afford, apart from ‘it depends on how much prep you do’ which is not helpful. I’m speaking about my own sector – film – but since CS is already conducting a review of the film sector (using no less than 3 consultancy firms, CS Board members and officers) I begin to wonder why I’ve been asked to speak, since what I say is unlikely to influence the outcome – not due until September. Go figure.

  • shelagh c

    Jen – this is great. One criticism I had was that though great to have the soundtrack on the website with so many refeences to what was on the speakers’ powerpoints it was a little diff to follow. Do you think that CS deliberately used this format in order to quell too much criticism? To an outsider it seemed odd to have the speakers (some of whom just semed to be banging their own drum). It’s a 2-way conversation between the org and artists not being talked at. The org’s comms (of which the sessions are clearly a part) needs to be a whole lot slicker. They have so much ground to make-up and repairing a tattered reputation takes hard, focussed and imaginative thinking. Thanks again. Sorry if I have sounded negative in the past – like you i am angry and disappointed, dazed and confused about the backwash of last year..

  • Edward Harkins

    Jennie many thanks for the effort put into this I know from experience how much that will have been. Several observations from someone who was not at the open session (going to a future one) but followed it throughout via twitter etc.

    1. Having attended three not-dissimilar events in other fields in the past couple of months I was again struck by how incapable institutional Scotland is on the engagement and consultation fronts (some do not even know the difference). As you suggest this is not restricted to the Arts – I can verify that from my own experience in urban regeneration, econ dev and housing. Especially on planning; give ‘em a platform & off they go (however irrelevant what they go on). But we know all that, and that it all comes down to: purpose and objectives setting; agenda setting; means of engagement; and – above all – clarity upfront about all of that.
    2. I did wince when I heard that the TED talk by Amanda Palmer was being covered. That ‘kind of thing’ appeals to a very specific audience, and also literally repels another type of audience. The model is anyway subject to much revisionism and controversy. Many of us players in the social enterprise sector here in Scotland are already engaged in seeking to protect the ethos and model from the depredations of the professionalised and ‘monitised’ advisors; now peddling suspect matters such as ‘SIBS’ (Social Investment Bonds – health warning: Beware Of). A great pity because, IMO, social enterprise can be one of the significant channels forward for the Arts & Culture sector.
    3. The ‘Scottish’ question and whole farrago of ‘I’m very Scottish but I’m not anti English’ was seemingly, thankfully, universally panned as a misguided waste of time and energy.
    4. I liked your dwelling on the theme of ‘instead of “vision” or might be better off having a “purpose” ‘. Equally for me is discussion around why bother with the angst of “definition” when it might be more purposeful to talk about “characteristics”. Also agree on the importance of talking about language I think I’m agreeing with you when I say that the term ‘ecology’ is problematic. I always anyway have to be persuaded on the value and purpose of new ‘inventions’ of terms or their use. In almost all cases I have found the inventions to be device of control and directing – rather than anything to do with better communication or visualising.
    5. Lots more I could say (e.g. on chairing?) but should end soon. So I nearly end by saying that I think we probably disagree on the matter of salary. I had some good robust exchanges post-event on this – especially with David Hutchinson; to whom thanks again. But that is only an indicator for my final, stronger, point. The ‘Arts & Culture Sector’ has now ‘seen-off’ a friendly supportive Scottish Govt Minister (Fabiani) and an otherwise internationally respected Chief Executive. Perceived problems of communication, process, means and ends and ‘personalities’ seem to have been carried on regardless from the SAC days to the existence of CS. So what is it the sector actually wants, and what is it itself going to do about that? (alongside that has go a pragmatic recognition that the receipt of public funding comes, routinely, with externally prescribed conditions and expectations)
    6. Big positive hope has to be that CS has come out and attempted these events. Despite all the caveats and criticisms, mine included, that has to be a very good thing.

  • Edward Harkins

    Jennie just been advised that Kenneth Fowler has posted his thoughts online. I have, after a little initial difficulty, posted my own brief responses there – positive and supportive as he does commendably seem to have picked up on many of the issues with the Open Sessions and on ‘how to do next ones better’. I don’t know if the link will show here but its:
    http://www.csopensessions.com/kenneth-fowlers-blog/the-first-two-sessions/

  • Edward Harkins

    Useful further (unintended?) useful contribution today to the debate from metro-London elites land? RSA a few years back produced a tome of a paper on the factors around how public funding for ‘the arts’. IMO it was a robust piece of work, but my impression is that because of the, seemingly, deep-seated antipathy in the sector towards any discussion of such matters it just faded out of the scene. Then, of course, in came the UK Coalition, Government and its draconian cuts on arts & culture in England – perhaps an interesting and instructive chronology there?
    My impression is still that there are much under-addressed issues around this whole theme in Scotland.
    http://m.guardian.co.uk/commentisfree/2013/apr/07/nicholas-hytner-national-theatre-success

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