Andrew Dixon and Creative Scotland: what went wrong?

Creative Scotland: Awards of £380,000 handed out.
Creative Scotland: the year it all went wrong

Ask anyone in Gateshead about Andrew Dixon and you will get a glowing endorsement. He put the place on the map, in the shadow of its better known neighbour on the north side of the Tyne, and he did it with the Baltic, the Sage Gateshead and the Angel of the North, iconic structures in an area otherwise known mostly for industrial decline.

It wasn't the same as Scotland but at least he didn't come from London. And with his open manner, brightly coloured shirts and apparently knowledgeable background, most in the arts world were ready to give him a fair bit of rope. After all, they had been waiting for a replacement for the Scottish Arts Council for nearly a decade, after Jack McConnell, then First Minister, delivered his notorious St Andrew's Day address in 2003, putting creativity at the heart of the Scottish government's agenda and signalling an overhaul of the funding arrangements.

After years of reports, investigations, studies, focus groups, and all the rest of the signs that no one knew quite what to do, almost anything would have done. Combining Scottish Screen, the film funding body, with the old Scottish Arts Council – which also controlled the lottery money for the arts – while taking the national companies, Scottish Opera, the new National Theatre of Scotland and so on, out of arms length funding to avoid too many political rows, seemed as good an idea as any.

Perhaps that's why no one in the arts world paid too much attention to the corporate plan Dixon produced, along with his ex-banker chairman Sir Sandy Crombie, with its "half-baked, hollowed-out, public-sector version of market theory that reduces the language of creativity to a series of flat-footed business-school slogans, and imposes a crude ethic of sado-competition – 'this will make you sharper and more creative' – on areas of society where co-operation, synergy and mutual respect clearly matter" as Joyce McMillan of The Scotsman was later, perhaps too much later, to describe it.

Anyway, artists don't like criticising the funding bodies in public; grant aid and, with it, livelihoods, may be in jeopardy. But, almost from the beginning, there were straws in the wind.

The first time I heard him speak in public, at an Edinburgh Festival reception soon after his appointment, I remember his saying that the days of the Arts Council being simply a cash dispenser for the arts were over. It was a ringing phrase but what did it mean? Surely that was exactly what the arts council – or whatever you called it – was for?

Then there was the appointment of Venu Dhupa as Director of Creative Development, a woman whose regime of change at the British Council had caused uncomfortable ripples right around the world and, with no experience of the arts world, Kenneth Fowler as Director of Communications and External Affairs. And there seemed to be a glory-seeking, a half-formed idea that Creative Scotland should in some way direct artists, even commission work that would celebrate Scotland to the world and make money into the bargain. It was an uncomfortable mix.

Soon there were mutterings from artists about form-filling, vague objectives, weird targets and inconclusive meetings; but then there always are. Artists need to vent from time to time like anyone else and funding bodies are an easy target. It was hard to tell real grievances from general tap-room chatter.

It was the train wreck of the announcement of changed funding arrangements for a whole slew of middle order arts organisations earlier this year that was the spark that lit the bonfire under Dixon's seat. You would have thought that actually having more money to spend (thanks to the Lottery) might have been presented as good news. But, somehow or other, it came out as a series of abrupt cuts which, on the face of it, would spell the end of some well-established organisations, even though that was never Creative Scotland's intention.

This was the moment that David Greig, Scotland best known playwright and a man universally respected across the arts, chose to break cover, with a beautifully written letter asking some innocent but deadly questions. Responses from Creative Scotland were slow and inappropriate, effectively blaming the artists.

Things began to snowball. The public relations were disastrous. Pictures appeared of Dixon apparently hobnobbing with the stars on the Croisette at Cannes. And then there were the Creative Scotland awards technically around the Year of Creative Scotland, which was actually a government, rather than a Creative Scotland, initiative. Priced at normal charity dinner levels, where corporate expense accounts or well-to-do individuals usually pick up the tab, it seemed at best a careless snub to artists, many of whom take on other jobs to keep going at their work.

Soon, some serious heavyweights were putting their names to another open letter; Scotland's makar, Liz Lochhead, Master of the Queen's Music Sir Peter Maxwell Davies, Booker Prize winner James Kelman – these were not names that could be lightly put aside. And still the avoidable disasters followed: an all-male jury for the awards (above) from an organisation committed to equal opportunities just looked stupid; the denial, later corrected, that funding had been given to a film that died at the box office.

Replies from Crombie, TV interviews, parliamentary committees; whichever way Dixon turned, there seemed no escape. Letters from the Culture Secretary, Fiona Hyslop, released to the press, made it clear she too was not happy with the apparent collapse of confidence in the sector. Some had expected the board, which meets later this week, to wield the axe. Dixon has chosen to fall on his sword, if you'll forgive the mixed metaphors. The arts world will be interested to see the size of the financial parachute he has negotiated (worth about £60,000, the equivalent of six month's salary to which he was entitled under his contract), more than they will ever see when they get it as wrong as he has.

But, in truth, will his resignation solve anything? Many in the arts world would like to see Crombie go too; has this ex-banker, ex life assurance boss brought all of the financial sector's ideas and values with him? The arts world will be quick to point out that they have hardly served the rest of the country well. Many more will want either other heads to roll or at least a commitment to rewriting the corporate plan, redefining the organisation's purpose, changing the very language that it speaks. The all but unprecedented agreements emerging from large public meetings of artists will have to be heard. This story – song, opera, dance, play, novel, whatever medium you prefer – is far from over.

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