for a National Policy for the Traditional Arts
Anthony McCann's article 'Is the bubble bursting' provoked a lot of reaction. We try our best to be positive in reporting on our music scene - the media ignores us enough as it is and we don't need to shoot ourselves in the foot - but any fear of not revealing problems is ultimately a sign of weakness. The traditional music scene has come such a long way and with so much positive going for it that it is now easier to air some concerns from a strong position. Some bubbles are bursting - some from the strains of success, others from external pressures which mitigate against community or minority arts.
Is the festival scene in general going down hill? Some look to be concentrating more on filling pubs and attracting tourists than paying attention to the quality of the musical experience. Is folk SONG suffering? Are workshops the way forward or are many of them convenient ways for festival organisers to fill up the daytime or to attract funding for their valuable educational impact! These and many other questions need to be asked.
This editorial, in response to many phone calls from readers, calls for a clear statement of intent towards funding the traditional arts - as is happening in Scotland - and calls for a national strategy in other parts of the UK. Lottery funding offers the opportunity to correct some of the imbalance of funding that exists between the 'high arts' and the grass roots but for this to happen some changes have to be made.
The whole arts scene is suffering from funding problems. This has already hit many festivals and it is no secret that Celtic Connections next year will have to work with a 20% budget cut. Despite the rhetoric of support for the traditional arts, many funding bodies are cutting back. The Redcar Festival looks likely to have gone, with the local council offering little real support; Glasgow International Folk Festival has fallen and Edinburgh Folk Festival looks likely to retrench. For others, success and growth seem to be leading to problems that overcome the capabilities of part-time organisers. The Melrose Festival has closed after 10 years - a brave decision to quit whilst ahead - but a decision that was influenced by pressures on the organisers.
What must frustrate those who seek to support traditional music is that they don't see much evidence of clear strategic thinking coming from those within the folk scene. We have been asking several organisations for a statement of their aims and we are coming to the conclusion that people are frightened of making the first move. If our offer of editorial space to some of the major folk scene organisations is not taken up soon, we may decide to put together something in print to provide a document that people can agree or disagree with and hopefully refine.
There is some merit in letting organisations with a track record just get on with things and for the funders to concentrate on funding rather than directing. However it is too simplistic to argue for NO central control - just sack the arts council and give out the money. In practice there must be a system for setting strategy, assessment of priorities and monitoring of progress.
The crazy thing is that cutbacks in arts funding are coming at a time when arguably arts funding has never been higher - through the lottery. This source of funding is subject to quite different rules and appears at times to be making a mockery of planning and prioritisation elsewhere. Imagine the effects if there were two good folk clubs five miles apart and one of them got a large lottery grant, or if new well-funded festivals suddenly sprung up - what would happen to the existing events nearby. It doesn't take a rocket scientist to work out the fact that there would be problems.
If there must be 'control and direction' then it is essential that those who provide this input have a real understanding. In a case such as the future of Scottish Ballet, an argument could be made to say that the SAC had such long experience of this artform that it was qualified to sit in judgement. Those at the sharp end in the ballet company would of course disagree. When it comes to traditional music it would take a brave person within the arts funding bodies at a national level to claim that they had a real understanding of the whole range of activity going on and what motivates people within it. In Scotland the understanding has got better in recent years and is still improving.
Given that control from above will always be with us, it is essential that advisors who have a good understanding of the folk scene are available to decision makers. I won't risk a lack of clarity on my view here. I feel strongly that the funding bodies do not have sufficient expertise to effectively prioritise and monitor the large amounts of public money which should legitimately be available to this sector.
I will recount a specific story to support this view.
A few weeks ago I got a phone call from a well known folk scene performer in England who had replied to an advertisement seeking people who had a knowledge of traditional music to act as lottery assessors. This was for the A4E - Arts for Everyone scheme, a scheme targeted at the other end of the scale from the large national companies and an area within which it would be reasonable to assume that projects from within the folk scene would form at least a significant minority of applications.
He did not get the post. No real problem with that, but given that he had a good CV for this appointment - and I can assure you he would have peer respect from within the folk scene - he wondered who HAD been successful. It seemed reasonable to assume that we would recognise the names of those who had been appointed. In Scotland we know those within the SAC who have an interest and responsibility for traditional music and they can be freely approached and so, with great confidence, I approached the Arts Council of England to ask for a list of assessors with a knowledge of traditional music.
I was somewhat surprised to be told that the list could not be revealed. I persisted and at least got some breakdown of the statistics. Apparently they had over 1,100 applications from which around 400 assessors were appointed of whom FOUR had experience of traditional music. Different enquiries revealed five names. Two were well known in the folk scene, one playing a leading role in a folk development agency and another from a commercial organisation which runs several festivals. The other three would not be generally known to our readers.
I then obtained a copy of the annual report of the Arts Council of England. Reading through it, it is very clear that traditional music is not getting its fair share. Are organisations not applying or applying and not succeeding? Is it a result of not having any vision for our artform or not having an organisational structure? Are those in the arts councils simply biased towards the high arts or do the staff appointments come from too narrow an experience, mainly from the classical arts sector.
Most of the national companies have huge sums for revenue funding. Most traditional music funding is in the form of project funding which inevitably leads to short termism. Funding is not an absolute right for any organisation and it is good to see some questions being asked of performance of the larger national arts organisations.
The Gulbenkian Report, 'Joining In - an investigation into participatory music' will act as a powerful ally in any attempt to influence a change of attitude from the arts councils towards the traditional arts. In Scotland the SAC has made an attempt to define a national strategy. This is not the case in England where various regional arts boards have quite different attitudes to traditional music. We would encourage them to follow Scotland's lead and make a clear policy statement in respect to the traditional arts.
It is time for change.