NO matter which way you lean, there’s no denying we’re living through a period of political turmoil. Every day brings a fresh Twitter-storm of shock, indignation and defiance. What voice can art have in this confusing new world? Quite a vital one, actually.
Today, some of Scotland’s leading artists, gallery directors and pioneering art workers will be heading to Holyrood as part of the national Art in Action campaign. The campaign, launched earlier in the year by Scottish Contemporary Art Network, has set out to demonstrate the impact that contemporary art and artists have on policy areas beyond the culture silo – on health, wellbeing, the environment, international relations and the economy.
Over the summer recess MSPs from all parties – including the First Minister – visited artists, galleries, studios and organisations to hear first-hand about the ways in which contemporary visual art can feed long-term change, building empathy and resilience. For one visit, I tagged along with Green Party co-convenor Patrick Harvie to meet women who had worked with artists Sogol Mabadi and Birthe Jorgensen to explore the idea of home. A safe space was opened for them to share stories, fears and preconceptions about belonging and community – the resulting exhibition, staged at two venues in Glasgow’s Easterhouse and Bridgeton, blew open the divisive rhetoric that certain leaders seem so fond of.
In Dumfries and Galloway, Colin Smyth MSP saw how visual art organisations had become hubs of activity in small towns; he visited Cample Line, which brings art from across the globe to Thornhill, and Merz Gallery – housed in a former lemonade factory in Sanquhar. Renfrewshire South MSP Tom Arthur met artist John MacDougall and heard how creative projects can offer innovative ways of tackling local concerns. Further encounters took place from Kirkcudbright to Stromness.
Our summer of visits is over, and we now anticipate the announcement of a new Culture Strategy for Scotland, one plank of the wellbeing-led National Performance Framework. Holyrood’s recent Programme for Government stated that “culture is central to our wellbeing and our social, economic and environmental prosperity”. A recent report by Arts Council England showed that arts and culture contributes £8.5bn to the UK economy, and that culture pays £2.6bn in taxes, £5 for every £1 of public funding.
These are warm words and impressive figures – but still the arts sector is fragile. The portion of the Scottish Government budget that goes to arms-length funding body Creative Scotland is just 0.2 per cent. Our members tell us of the stress and precarity they feel due to diminishing support from both national and local sources. What our world-renowned art sector needs is decisive, long-term investment coupled with a clearer understanding of its value on a local level.
At parliament this evening, those involved in the Art in Action campaign will be celebrating the transformative work that takes place all over Scotland. We’ll be presenting every MSP with their own artwork created by internationally-acclaimed artist Ruth Ewan at the specialist DCA Print Studio, which draws on the work of the Dundee workers’ poet, Mary Brooksbank. The words on the print read:
A richer Harvest could we reap,
A Broader Culture, and more deep,
Artists, Writers, Music makers,
With Workers would be legislators
If we want to look beyond the current political chasm in Westminster, we have to think differently. That’s why, after a summer of celebration, we now challenge decision-makers to invest in art – to maximise its potential to build that innovative, tolerant and vibrant nation we all aspire to.
This article was published in The Herald on 2nd October 2019.