This piece is part of a weekly series of articles curated by Voluntary Arts and authored by cultural thinkers and doers. The series will be published between November 2017 and February 2018. It is being shaped in response to the emerging practice of cultural commoning and as a way of articulating ideas that have arisen in conversations about Our Cultural Commons over the past two years across the UK and Republic of Ireland.

Our intention is that the series will help make visible the cultural commons in action and will encourage new approaches to sustaining creative cultural activity in local places. And we hope that the articles and the conversation they stimulate will contribute to the forming of ever more enabling cultural policy.

What does cultural democracy mean?

I believe passionately in the principle of Our Cultural Commons. Many disciplines - archaeology, anthropology, neurology, evolutionary psychology - combine to demonstrate how vital culture has been to our evolution as a species, to our personal sense of identity, and to our ability to act communally for the greater good. But, though ‘culture’ is something shared by every community on the planet, in the West it is only in the last two centuries that we have seen a true democratisation of culture, making it possible for anyone, regardless of background, to share in experiences that were previously the exclusive provinces of the aristocracy and the church. This is a phenomenon so recent that artforms like opera, poetry, visual arts, even theatre, can still face challenges of being elitist, and therefore irrelevant to the wider population. Unfortunately, such views only lend weight to what I consider to be a sustained and damaging erosion of the concept of cultural democracy, an erosion that is fuelled by some of the same negative forces that are undermining our wider concepts of political democracy.

Screen Machine on Barra by Gordon BrownBut what does ‘cultural democracy’ mean? For me, it is about being able to watch a new movie release, screened to the highest standards, on one of Orkney’s sparsely populated Outer Isles, in the Screen Machine mobile cinema (which I manage), thanks to support from local community development companies. Or enjoying a pianist of world-class ability playing in a community centre in Nairn, thanks to funding from Enterprise Music Scotland for a local voluntary promoting group. Or it means hearing, one recent New Year’s Day, a unique combination of traditional Gaelic singing and beat-boxing, in St Giles Cathedral, thanks to the Atlas team, supported by Creative Scotland, and their work with the creative community on Skye.

Those three examples are all illustrations of the fertile interaction between communities and the professional arts which are made possible by public funding. My life, like the lives of hundreds of thousands of others, has been enriched immeasurably by the cultural activities made possible by direct or indirect government funding. From my primary school days, when my class used to be taken across Glasgow every fortnight to the wonderful palace that is Kelvingrove Art Gallery and Museum, to be thrilled by films, lectures, and the chance to actually try on a suit of armour, through my entire professional life of more than forty years, I have been unendingly grateful for what public funding of the arts has made possible in Scotland. And I have had the pleasure of helping to disseminate the beneficial effects of that funding to many different parts of the country and in particular to rural communities across the Highlands and Islands.

In 2015 I had the good fortune to be commissioned by Voluntary Arts Scotland to undertake an audit of the community/voluntary arts sector in Perth and Kinross. What this fascinating exercise led me to understand is just how intricate an ecology the cultural environment is. The publicly-funded and the voluntary, the amateur and the professional - these are not distinct and separate ‘sectors’. They are inextricably linked and interdependent. Weaken any one and the whole ecology is under threat.

Yet that is just what has been happening over the last decade. The steady erosion of public funding for the arts has put the health of our cultural democracy at risk. Much of this has been so gradual that, like frogs in a pot, we’ve not noticed the temperature until it’s come close to boiling. Consider exhibitions, for a start. Ten years ago, the Fruitmarket Gallery in Edinburgh used to mount eight exhibitions a year. Now it’s four. Across the road, in the Council-run City Art Centre, whole floors lie empty for months at a time. Over in Glasgow, the Museum of Modern Art, GOMA, has individual exhibitions—some of very minority interest--that are running for a year or more.

There’s a similar picture in the performing arts. What used to be ‘producing’ theatres are often reduced to a heavy reliance on intermittent touring product, and may sit dark for several days at a time. In the late 90s I helped to set up the Promoters Arts Network in the Highlands and Islands, now the Touring Network. At that time, much of the touring product was exciting and imaginative theatre from companies based in the Highlands, in the rest of Scotland, and in England. Now local promoters’ programmes are dominated by music, and usually at the less demanding end of the spectrum.

It’s understandable that these diminutions have cumulatively crept up on us. It takes outright closure—as with the Inverleith House Gallery in Edinburgh—to get people exercised and the media interested. But it would be salutary, and, I imagine, depressing, to take a snapshot of the funded arts sector 20 years ago, and compare it with the current situation, and thereby make visible just what has been lost.

I would argue that the situation is most acute, and yet also least visible, in many of Scotland’s larger towns, and especially those with areas which score highly on the Index of Multiple Deprivation. In my own field, cinema, I was alarmed to appreciate that, outside of the seven cities, the ten most populous towns in Scotland have little or no access to local cinema. At best, some half a million people only have available to them an edge-of-town multiplex, with high prices, a limited programme, and transport issues. Many don’t even have that.

Yet the irony is that many of these communities do have access to town centre venues, often rather handsome ones, such as Motherwell Concert Hall. But, in the absence of specialist programming staff (such as do exist in, for example, Fife Cultural Trust) these venues play host only to amateur work (an utterly vital role, of course), and a succession of tribute acts, most of them second rate at best. So, in relation to cultural democracy, there is a very substantial proportion of the population with little or no access to the arts provision for which they pay through their taxes, and to which they are therefore surely entitled.

That issue of venues is at the crux of the matter. Francois Matarasso’s wonderful short book Where We Dream tells the inspiring story of West Bromwich Operatic Society, and what its inclusive activities, over many decades, have meant to one of the most economically depressed areas in the country. But a leitmotif of the story is the recurrent need to change venues over the years as, one by one, theatres, most of them publicly owned, were closed, converted or demolished. That physical infrastructure, and the human resource that should go with it, are surely fundamentally enabling parts of our cultural commons.

It’s easy to get political about this situation, and certainly I believe that it is within the devolved powers of the Scottish Government to do something about this, to make Scotland a beacon of ‘cultural democracy’. Here are some suggestions:

  • Develop indicators of ‘cultural deprivation’ to be included within the Index of Multiple Deprivation.
  • Formulate a distinctively Scottish model of ‘event cinema’ which would allow the best of Scottish cultural product (especially by the national companies) to be relayed to cinemas and centres across Scotland, at affordable ticket prices.
  • Make arts provision a statutory duty of local authorities (before it’s too late. For some LAs it may already be too late).
  • Reduce the dependency of Creative Scotland on National Lottery funds to support core cultural activity. There are few better examples of cultural democracy in action than the hundreds of concerts promoted each year by Live Music Now Scotland, yet it must reapply to Creative Scotland each year, presenting its work each time as a new ‘project’, because of Lottery rules.
  • Put communities, as much as artists, at the core of Creative Scotland’s mission.
  • Build productive partnerships with those national agencies focused on community development and town centre regeneration, and put culture at the heart of their strategies.

There is also, I believe, another fundamental issue at stake. Most local cultural activity is generated within the community, even if that community energy ultimately results in a multi-million pound arts centre, like An Lanntair in Stornoway. But it is a geo-demographic issue--a postcode lottery, if you like--as to which communities have the ability to self-organise in this way. It’s hardly rocket science to appreciate that the more a community is hit by the effects of multiple deprivation, the less likely it is to spontaneously generate the voluntary effort to achieve appropriate cultural access. Yet we know from many examples, from Easterhouse to Wester Hailes, that, if you start with culture, much else that is beneficial will follow.

So, if we’re going to be really serious about cultural democracy, then we’re going to have to give some communities a helping hand, to develop tools and models that can stimulate and support community-based efforts to develop better cultural access. And we need to ensure that the physical and human infrastructure is in place to host and to support community-generated cultural activity (and not simply out-housed to unaffordable, inaccessible, privately owned ‘campus’ schools). The alternative is accepting a shameful cultural deficit that is unworthy of any truly progressive nation.

Robert Livingstone,
Director, Regional Screen Scotland

Robert LivingstoneRobert has over 40 years’ experience of working across the arts and across Scotland. After working for BBC Scotland, Dundee Rep, the Third Eye Centre, the Crawford Centre for the Arts, Edinburgh Printmakers, and the Scottish Arts Council, in 1994 he joined HI-Arts, the cultural development agency for the Highlands and Islands. In that role he oversaw the commissioning of both Screen Machines, and subsequently the creation of Regional Screen Scotland. In 2013 he set up Kirkhill Associates as a cultural consultancy, and in that role has worked for Scottish Borders and Argyll and Bute Councils, the Welsh Arts Council, and Voluntary Arts Scotland. In 2014 he was a member of the team which raised the funds to restore Campbeltown Picture House. He joined RSS as part-time CEO in July 2015.

Next week, on Wednesday 29 November 2017, Beeban Kidron OBE discusses the power of convening and sharing in relation to the 5Rights initiative.

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Creative Commons license - CC BY-NC-ND 4.0

This article is published under a Creative Commons CC BY-NC-ND 4.0 license.
Images: Screen Machine on Barra by Gordon Brown, CC BY-SA 2.0,
Edinburgh Castle by Saffron Blaze (Own work) CC BY-SA 3.0, via Wikimedia Commons.