A Cultural Assembly for Argyll: the Case for taking Ourselves Seriously

As proprietor of Dunans Castle and also as a director of The Walking Theatre Company, not to mentioned being publisher of ForArgyll.com, on Wednesday [18th June 2014] I spent an interesting few hours in the company of assorted artists, creators, curators, social entrepreneurs, producers and third sector professionals, all wanting to progress the idea of a cultural assembly for the Creative sector.

Facilitated by Argyll and Bute Council through the good offices of Kevin Baker, encouraged by Highland and Islands Enterprise and inspired by the excellent example of the Argyll and the Isle Tourism Co-op, the day promised to take the first steps towards creating an organisation to act as a voice for the sector, encourage communications and networking among its members, share best practice and deliver sustainability. All good stuff. You’d think.

This is not to say progress wasn’t made, and that the contributions from the likes of Connie Lovell and Carron Tobin weren’t worthwhile – in fact, in my humble opinion, they were inspirational. Their message was that we, as a sector should focus on the strategic goal and work towards that. Set aside our own agendas, and move towards a sustainable future. Kevin himself gave us a final characteristically humourous take on where we can get to and how we might do it. The problem was that in between, during the rest of the day, the group, of say one hundred, found it very difficult to focus on the agenda – which was to decide on governance, general principles and membership issues, particularly with regard to the issue of sustainability through a relationship between the creative sector and tourism.

Why? Well, because when we did seem to be making progress toward forming a consensus we’d let ourselves be diverted. And it wasn’t just the potential assembly members who wanted to have their ha’penny’s worth and advertise their successes. A representative of a key agency, which shall remain nameless, made a quite egregious interlocution as we moved towards make a decision on the type of governance structure we should adopt. She said, and I’m not quoting just summarising, “The thing that we haven’t heard about today, and which I am most concerned that we haven’t heard about, is the creative process outside of its economic benefit. Surely art is enough in itself?”

Now I am all for the idea of art being a thing in itself, that the practice of it is in itself enough. But I can’t and won’t countenance the idea that the making of art is compromised by the imperative to make money, to earn a living, to be sustainable. I have vast respect for professional creatives making a living from working with their talent. My partner is a playwright, I’ve a brother who is an artist, a mother who is a garden designer – all have committed fully to their practice and earned a living from it. To discount their work because they actually use it to put food on the table seems to me to be utterly ridiculous. When did we start thinking that a measure of success in the creative sector was how much you sacrifice rather than how popular your work is?

I suspect that part of this is to do with the dialectic in the creative sector between professional and amateur, between paid and volunteer. As far as I could see the movement toward this idea of a sustainable creative sector through tourism was broadly supported by those organisations and individuals who are paid or earn a living directly from their practice . Those who objected were perhaps less concerned with creating a livelihood through their creative endeavour and more with maintaining their practice as a lifestyle.

Or am I being a bit harsh? And herein lies the danger, by articulating these differences we move further away from consensus.

The conclusion I have come to is that the Cultural Assembly needs to be:

  • A broad church with space for the professional, the amateur, the paid and the volunteer.
  • It has to engage with sustainability and funding streams to maintain viability in the longterm, and involvement with tourism and communities will provide this.
  • The assembly should encourage and support artistic practice, and in all cases, help raise the skill and practice level for everyone.
  • It must show how arts and heritage can be sustainable in the longterm without compromising the value of those practices and assets
  • It must have robust, transparent governance structures – and here I agree with Bob who recommended a SCIO …

Aboveall, it needs clear, impartial and effective facilitation to get through the next stages – and this should delivered by someone outside of the sector. I am sure James Hilder of An Roth would be available if asked.

For those of you who are interested in BTS’s conclusions on how the sector should be organised, here is the report.

And to become part of the assembly email mailing list, please contact Aileen


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