Out for delivery? – 'Better outcomes'?
The ghastly newspeak management jargon promising 'better outcomes' for the arts could hide some worrying cutbacks, thinks Cathy Bell when she looks closely at what is happening in West Lothian.
IT STRIKES ME as incongruous to lump culture and sport together as seems to be the procedure at local council and government level.
Having ministers/officers responsible for both culture and sport does not make sense since they are two such different entities. Granted both sport and culture can be viewed under the umbrella of leisure, however, apart from that, there are few significant values linking them together. Convenience for the organisations concerned appears to be the only reason and most often culture loses out to sport in terms of finance and support.
I discovered recently that the running of Howden Park Centre in Livingston is being handed over to a trust, the trust is part of a group of sports facilities in the area. Sports, leisure and some cultural activities at all secondary schools in West Lothian, Low Port Centre outdoor activity facility in Linlithgow, Polkemmet golf course and driving range in Whitburn and Howden Park Centre arts facility are to be run by Xcite West Lothian Leisure (WLL) from 1st April 1, 2017.
The Linlithgow Burgh Halls arts facility is, however, to continue to be run by West Lothian Council. It is not clear why LBH is staying with the council, apparently it is a decision "that was made at Council Executive level last year."
How did I find out about the changes? I noticed that the current exhibition at HPC, Dialogues with Trees, has an exceptionally long run (November 23, 2016 to April 4, 2017) so I contacted the newly entitled Community Arts to ask why.
At this point I would like to add briefly that communication with certain staff members proved somewhat 'problematic' and also to note that there is little point in WLC Community Arts having a complaints procedure as it seems unfit for purpose. (However, I digress.)
The answer that finally came back informed me about the changeover to the trust. I was also told that there had been a loss of visual arts staff, a cut to the budget and a reduction of the exhibition programme. As a result the service was exploring "the artist residency mode."
As I understand it, this will mean two six monthly exhibitions per year. This, interestingly, compares with Linlithgow Burgh Halls which, under WLC, will continue to programme four exhibitions per year. In an area where visual art is not well represented (the council would argue otherwise, however, public art does not make up for the shortcomings) the reduction in available exhibition space is not a good outcome.
Speaking of outcomes, I am also told that this shuffling and shifting is "tied into" a nationwide strategy of Delivering Better Outcomes (DBO) which was launched three years ago. Councils all over the country have pledged to deliver better outcomes for society in areas such as poverty, housing, the environment and a variety of socially challenging issues.
I was interested to find out what kind of 'better outcomes' WL Community Arts have delivered over the past three years since the current situation was quoted as being "tied into DBO".
My question was met by a link to another service (email@example.com). I did not contact this service since, if the Community Arts themselves cannot provide any data about this, I don't know who can?
I suspect no better outcomes have come about. I have read the 34 page document regarding DBO by WLC and have been unable to find any connection with Community Arts initiatives to speak of.
I did find a kind of generalised description about an initiative to "provide a range of cultural services with the aim of encouraging the public to take an interactive interest in community arts". So, what's new?
On page 29 of the DBO document it is stated that there should be a "fair pricing strategy and concession scheme in a way that is consistent with the council's anti-poverty scheme". With that in mind, looking at the prices and concessions for community arts activities it is clear that this initiative is not being implemented.
For example, an after school arts programme held at HPC for children aged 7-12 years old costs £40 per term (£37 with concessions) for a ten week course. Now that might seem reasonable, however, it is doubtful that families living in poverty, relying on food banks and the like could afford this expense, especially if they have two or more children.
This means that some children in the community are missing out: the concession of £ 3 seems particularly pathetic. I did a search to try and find free or low cost arts activities for children at both HPC and Xcite venues and came up with nothing. So much for delivering better outcomes.
The most telling item in the DBO document, it seems to me, is the section where it is claimed "some services which make a more limited contribution to delivering the council's key priorities may be reduced and some services may no longer be provided, or provided in different ways."
My concern is that this might have a negative impact on the visual arts in the area. As mentioned previously, the running of HPC (including the gallery) is being handed over to West Lothian Leisure (WLL), from what I understand, they are a limited company who are also a charity. There is a voluntary board of twelve members (I was told that members of the public were exempt from applying to become a board member). The board members include three local councillors, a number of staff and users from the sports centres, a couple of business representatives and a GP amongst whose hobbies is listed an interest in the arts.
So, as far as I can tell, there are no board members who work in the arts or who have any expertise in the arts to speak of.
To put the situation of financial support into perspective, a look at the data about grants applied for in West Lothian during 2015-2016 reveals that sport is the overriding priority in the area. For example, over a period of just one day (8/4/16) two sports, cycling and boxing, applied for a total of £ 550,000 worth of grants from Sports Scotland.
By contrast, the only significant grant application listed for the visual arts was applied for in October 2015, this was for an "artist led programme." The grant was applied for by West Lothian Council and they were asking for £ 3,500.
I am sure WLC Community Arts have other avenues of funding, however, these are interesting statistics which need to be kept an eye on. I would like to report that things are looking up for the visual arts environment in West Lothian, unfortunately, the picture that is emerging suggests failure to deliver better outcomes and not much worth getting Xcited about for the future.