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Culture House Daily

Would Scottish independence compromise its museums and galleries?

1 September 2014

3:15 PM

1 September 2014

3:15 PM

This article first appeared on Apollo Magazine’s website.

The Scottish independence referendum takes place on 18 September. What would a ‘Yes’ vote mean for the country’s museums and galleries? Would it lead to a loss of funding streams? And if it did, would an independent Scottish government be prepared to increase its investment?

YES: James Holloway

There’s one thing I’ve never heard in more than 40 years in the arts in Scotland, and that is ‘money is no problem’. It has always been a problem, often the only problem. There’s no lack of ambition or inspiration, but money has always been hard to come by. And it could be a great deal harder to come by after 18 September, the day Scotland decides whether or not to leave what has been the most successful political and cultural union in history. For over 300 years Scotland has been a distinctive part of a united kingdom and during that time its artists and architects have flourished, alongside her soldiers, engineers and entrepreneurs, on a British stage. Think of Robert Adam in the 18th century or David Wilkie in the 19th, or all the Scottish Turner Prize winners of recent years. Their successes were won on a British playing field. This could all change if we Scots pull up the goal posts and leave the pitch.

And what about Scotland’s museums and art galleries? Let’s look at the position as it is at present. The Scottish National Gallery in Edinburgh must surely house the most impressive national collection of old master paintings of any similar-sized country in the world. Think of those countries with a population of some five million – Denmark, Norway or New Zealand for instance – Scotland’s national collection is in a different league to theirs. The Scottish National Gallery of Modern Art has one of the finest 20th-century collections in Europe. Add to them the wonderful galleries in Glasgow – Kelvingrove, the Hunterian and the Burrell Collection – and the rich and varied collections across the country from Stromness to Dundee, and it is easy to see that Scotland has an extraordinary wealth of great works of art in public ownership. Independence won’t change that, but it must surely make adding to those collections much harder.

At present, acquisitions are funded by a combination of state, local authority and private money. While the Scottish government has been generous in supporting a few high-profile individual purchases, they no longer provide the national galleries with an annual purchase grant. Local authority-run museums and galleries are in a worse situation. The whole sector depends on the generosity of an independent charity, the Art Fund. Its contribution is often vital. Yet only 3 per cent of the members of the Art Fund live in Scotland, while last year Scotland got 15 per cent of all Art Fund donations. Will the Art Fund continue to give grants to Scotland if the country elects to leave the United Kingdom? Why should it continue to support the collections of a foreign country? It doesn’t give grants to Cork or Dublin. Perhaps that 3 per cent of Art Fund members north of the border will try and set up their own fund. If so the money won’t go very far.

And what about the National Lottery? Scotland has done far, far better pound per head of population from Britain’s lottery than it strictly deserves. I can’t see that continuing. And would the great London-based charitable trusts continue to fund Scotland? They have supported acquisitions and capital developments across the whole of Scotland’s museum sector with stupendous generosity. Some may wish to continue giving grants at least for a few years ahead. But others will certainly decide that they must stick to the wishes of their original benefactors and save their funds for what remains of the United Kingdom.

At present Scotland benefits from the British treasury’s scheme of Acceptance in Lieu (AiL). In recent years alone, the Scottish National Portrait Gallery has acquired its first miniature by Nicholas Hilliard (of the 2nd Earl of Essex), the Scottish National Gallery an exquisite double-sided Watteau drawing, a flower painting that many consider to be Jan van Huysum’s masterpiece and a Constable portrait that used to belong to Lucian Freud. Aberdeen Art Gallery and Museums recently acquired a Barbara Hepworth sculpture, and the Hunterian works by Rembrandt, Cambiaso and Karl Schmidt-Rottluff – every one of them from English estates. These works of art, worth millions of pounds on the international art market, came without any cost at all, from private collections in England to the people of Scotland. I can’t see George Osborne letting that continue after independence!

The situation is uncertain and worrying. What is sure is that Scotland’s present position in regard to arts funding would not improve with independence, nor would it remain the same. It would be certain to get worse.’

James Holloway was Director of the Scottish National Portrait Gallery from 1997 until his retirement in 2012.

NO: Sandy Moffatt

The biggest visual art event of many a year has just been launched in Scotland: Generation: 25 Years of Contemporary Art in Scotland. With, according to the blurb, ‘over 100 artists, 60 venues, 1 country, from Orkney to Dumfries, from Stornoway to Berwick-upon-Tweed, Generation spans the country, offering everyone a chance to experience art that has been celebrated worldwide’. Unthinkable even 20 years ago when contemporary art was met with incredulity and often hostility, the exhibitions and events tell us a great deal about the transformation the country has undergone, especially since devolution. The growth of new galleries and the rebirth of older and neglected museums has been astonishing. It now seems that the entire country is involved in a thriving cultural renaissance. Scotland’s cultural position within the British context has moved on from former times when issues of small versus large, and inferior versus superior stifled our ability to represent our art and artists properly.

The main players in the organisation of Generation, the National Galleries, Glasgow Life and Creative Scotland, all maintain a close working relationship with the Scottish government. As a result, Scottish government investment in culture has been extremely generous given the current economic problems that afflict the UK as a whole. A new National Strategy for Scotland’s Museums and Galleries was put in place in 2012 and the government’s commitment to funding the sector cannot be doubted. There are important reasons for this, both cultural and economic. If we ask the question about what competitive advantages does Scotland have, or might have, that would enable Scottish businesses to compete as effectively as Swiss or Finnish businesses, firstly within the European Union and then in a worldwide market, tourism would be one of the first to come to mind. The connection between tourism and museums and galleries is a crucial one, with more than 25 million visitors each year. This simple fact ensures that any future Scottish government will surely seek to prioritise funds to sustain and develop museums and galleries. They are more important than shipbuilding in growing the Scottish economy.

Those opposed to a ‘Yes’ vote point to the significant financial contribution made by the National Lottery to Scotland’s arts sector. The former prime minister Gordon Brown has stated that lottery funding would not survive independence, while the SNP government argues instead that cooperation among the nations of Britain will continue to flourish, including the lottery arrangements. This is all part of a daily process of claim and counter-claim that has dogged the referendum campaign. One would assume, however, that when the dust settles, finding ways of working together across the UK would be the preferred choice of most reasonable people.

There are many reasons to fear that funding for museums and galleries may be under threat, both in Scotland and in the UK. In an age of austerity, public spending across the Western world is continually being reduced. Even in Germany, renowned for its serious approach to cultural matters and where public spending on the arts is roughly four times the British level, cuts in federal and Land budgets are being introduced. It was therefore encouraging when in a major speech in June 2013, the Scottish cabinet secretary for culture Fiona Hyslop veered away from the economic justification for the arts that Westminster holds to, saying ‘We actively support the case for public subsidy of the arts. We understand that culture and heritage have a value in and of themselves.’ For a small nation, cultural exchange with the world is vital and this offers new challenges and opportunities for our museums and galleries. There will be an incentive to export our art as never before and what we have to offer in terms of a vast, inherited file of cultural achievement is far greater than many of our similarly sized European neighbours.

Independence is about the long view – what might be achieved when the cultural priorities of Scotland begin to take on a different shape from those at present. There are a good many models, especially if we look to our northern neighbours. Denmark was a pioneer in creating museums such as the Louisiana and Arken museums of modern art, where art, architecture and landscape combine to offer visitors an extraordinary experience. Oslo’s new opera house, soon to be joined by a new building for the Munch Museum, is another example, while in Iceland, despite the financial crash of 2008, the Icelandic people were united in their determination to complete the magnificent new concert hall, Harpa, in Reykjavik.

In an independent Scotland there would be a much sharper focus on our own cultural achievements. It should not be difficult to come up with new educational priorities that can indicate the range and richness of what our artists do, have done and are capable of doing. It is the only way to ensure parity of recognition, dealing nation to nation as equals.

This is where cultural investment and institutional foundations are required: museums and galleries, schools and universities, the entire state-organised system that structures cultural appreciation and helps to provide a sense of self-worth and dignity. Rather than diminish their role, independence offers museums and galleries an enhanced sphere of influence at the centre of the nation’s cultural life.

Sandy Moffat is an artist, curator and teacher. He retired as Head of Painting at the Glasgow School of Art in 2005.

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