As it happens I was in Ireland when news reached me of Mike Russell’s departure from Culture to take up the Minister for Education portfolio. It was only a week earlier that he had sat next to a former Irish Culture Minster, Michael D. Higgins, who had stressed how important it had been for him in the 1980s to build up the Culture portfolio with responsibility for broadcasting and other areas in order to ensure it was a ‘player’ in cabinet. Anger in the arts community (see Sunday Herald) at Fiona Hyslop’s appointment to the culture brief being labelled in the media as a ‘demotion’ has rightly focussed attention on the low status attributed to the post.
As has been widely noted the culture seat at the cabinet table has seen no less than ten incumbents, making it the reshuffle holding bay of Scottish politics. Unusually Mike Russell’s departure has, for the first time and despite (or perhaps because of?) only ten months in office, prompted a sense of loss that his predecessors, whatever your view of their merits, singularly failed to do. I cant recall any of them receiving an enconium like Phil Miller’s Herald opinion piece. This may be due as much to his image as someone with a genuine concern for, and background in, the arts and media as it does his achievements in office. His short-lived tenure means that he had little opportunity to deliver results. The respect he seemed to engender across the political spectrum may have rested disproportionately on anticipation that he could make something out of the messy birth of Creative Scotland, a creation he had previously opposed but whose lumbering momentum had become a fact of life. We wont now find out if that was simply a honeymoon period or something more substantial. We can however hope that he might carry some of his concern for arts and culture into the Education portfolio where support for arts across primary, secondary and tertiary sectors needs bolstering.
It’s doubtful if the same hopeful anticipation that Mike Russell benefited from will extend to Fiona Hyslop who faces an increasingly weary arts and creative industries sector. That’s despite the brave face put on further evidence of financial gloom in this week’s Arts Council report on the impact of the recession. Taking a glass half full approach the SAC press release accompanying the research, which shows 61% of SAC funded organisations surveyed reporting a fall in income, cheerfully points out that almost 80% “expect the future to remain unchanged or that their income will improve” (primarily from increased catering receipts) while only 21% describe themselves as “‘pessimistic about the future”. I suspect that’s as much keeping fingers crossed that the recession has bottomed out as it is wishful thinking that the budget cuts which will spring forth from whichever party is in power in Westminster dont wash down through the Holyrood culvert.