Culture and the New Scottish Parliament: Report by Anne Douglas

Posted in Civics, On The Edge, Texts by chrisfremantle on May 23, 1999

This event took place at the point where the first candidates for the new Scottish Parliament were standing, and it was more or less a hustings.

Report for Artist Newsletter on the meeting at Lumsden Village Hall on 23 May 1999

Culture and the New Scottish Parliament.

Report by Dr Anne Douglas, Senior Research Fellow in Fine Art, Gray’s School of Art.

With the imminent election of members to the new Scottish Parliament, the second meeting in the series Culture and the New Scottish Parliament took place at Lumsden Village Hall on Friday 23 rd May. The panel consisted of three prospective candidates from Gordon district; Maureen Watts, representing the Scottish National Party, Gordon Guthrie, representing the Labour Party and Mike Rumbles for Liberal Democrats. The fourth invited member, ? of the Conservative party was unable to attend. The meeting was, like its predecessor, an initiative undertaken by Chris Fremantle on behalf of the Scottish Sculpture Workshop at Lumsden. Building on the success of the July meeting, the aim was to question candidates specifically on their parties’ plans for the provision for culture within the new Scottish Parliament. The candidates had received three prepared questions drawn up by representative members of the community within Gordon district as a means of focusing the debate. In the chair for the second time was Eric Robinson, who is currently involved in the promotion of culture within the voluntary sector. The meeting drew a significant cross section of people from Gordon District, some professionally involved in the development of the Arts through practice, education and administration as well as other participants engaged on a voluntary basis.

The ensuing discussion debated a range of issues on culture, creating a matrix of links between, for example, access to culture and education; support for national institutions (such as the Scottish National Ballet) and provision at a local level; the choice between supporting professional and/or amateur activities, between so called ‘high art’ and/or popular culture, between heritage and/or contemporary culture. Deep concern was expressed on the depletion of resources, in particular within education, with the cut of visiting specialists to primary and secondary schools, and its negative effect on future participation and awareness of the Arts. The importance of local indigenous culture was stressed, specifically in creating and nurturing a meaningful Scottish identity, as opposed to a contrived ‘Tartan culture’. The nurturing of Doric culture was linked closely with the issues of engaging participation across age and specialism, through education. as well as dedicated festivals such as the anual Doric Festival in the district of Gordon.

All three parties acknowledged the importance of decision making at a local level. Mike Rumbles (Lib Dem) cited with regret the retention of the control of broadcasting at Westminster and the opportunity that local control of the media offered, in promoting local culture. All three candidates saw the opportunity that the New Scottish Parliament created for reviewing the procedures by which funding and cultural resources are distributed. Where, at present, decisions rest with the Secretary for State for Scotland, it should now become possible to influence the political situation on an area basis. The possibility for extending a practice of positive discrimination presently ongoing in the Highlands and Islands, to other less privileged and geographically dispersed areas of Scotland was largely supported with a view to enabling, among other developments, a more appropriate fit between Lottery funding and local Arts plans.

Gordon Guthrie for Labour responded on a number of occasions with the clear view that both the production and consumption of culture was a question of debate open to Scotland’s citizens. While Labour were committing £60 million to support the Arts over three years, there was an issue as to how this should be divided up. He compared Scotland to Iceland, where the development of culture, in particular popular culture, was instrumental in developing self confidence as a nation. This situaton was helped by the lack of segregation between culture, politics and business. He proposed that the professionalisation of politics in Britain with its current centres of expertise in academic institutions and trade union offices, resulted in distancing politics and business from culture.

The discussion was drawn to a close, perhaps fittingly, by a question about the Per Cent for Art Scheme for the Visual Arts. The panel and members of the audience alike were informed of the current position by professional experts; the sculptor, John Maine and Chris Fremantle himself , both currently collaborating on a Per Cent for Art Scheme in the area at Kemnay, Aberdeenshire. Their role and recent experiences demonstrated quite poignantly the way in which meetings of this type and quality can function. At one level they create an opportunity to exchange important experience. At another, they form a mechanism for engaging a community in first raising the crucial issues impinging on current practice, and from these , in developing informed strategies in the company of political representatives.

Dr Anne Douglas, Senior Research Fellow, Centre for Research in Fine Art, Grays School of Art.

This report was originally published in Artists Newsletter and on the Scottish Sculpture Workshop website.

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