In the last week I’ve heard the term ‘the perfect storm’ on repeat, from multiple sources, in relation to the perceived threats to Scottish arts organisations’ future existence. This weather-related metaphor was used in the press release relating to the closure of the Centre for Moving Image – the parent company for the much-loved Edinburgh Filmhouse and the respected Edinburgh International Film Festival – which went into administration. The Chief Executive of the national arts funding body also used the term last week when giving evidence to the Scottish Parliament Culture Committee in relation to the threat of funding cuts. ‘Creative Scotland has warned MSP that a ‘fragile’ recovery from the pandemic has been ‘more than overtaken’ by a combination of rising costs, falling income and the impact of Brexit.’ (The Scotsman, 6 October 2022). Scotland’s National Galleries also found themselves caught in the storm last week that they say will lead to partial closures in the coming months. Pauline McLean also used the term to describe the general arts sector in Scotland on BBC’s flagship cultural programme Front Row (Front Row, 11th Oct, 2022). 

Considering this weather-warning from cultural leaders, across social media freelance creatives are considering what now? what next? The reality for most is that they have no wet weather apparel or a seat on a lifeboat to help them through this ‘perfect storm.’

Contributing to the storm there are stated to be three key powerful forces: Standstill funding for the arts; recovery from Covid; and rising costs relating largely to the energy crisis.  It’s both curious and worrying that the climate crisis – which is in fact creating more and more real, devastating storms across the planet – is not mentioned as a contributing factor in the reasoning from leaders about this crisis in the cultural sector. Is that because we have more perceived control on climate crisis? Or that it’s considered just a storm in a teacup? Where does it figure in the S.O.S.?

Importantly, what does the use of the storm metaphor provide for the arts? The weather warning has been useful in highlighting the crisis the sector faces. The national arts funding body Creative Scotland has made the distress call and let it be clearly known that the community is in trouble.  This has garnered media attention and support, as well as opened the conversation in communities. Time will tell how the coast guard (the Scottish Government) respond: if making the call unlocks essential support funding for the arts then raising the alarm will have been worth it.

But what are the chances of more funds? One suspects they may be slim as we’ve also be hearing repeated warnings from the government on much bigger financial woes and consequently the arts, along with other public services have been braced to prepare for cuts.  I worry about what the storm metaphor implies: that the forces at play are a surprise, that they have suddenly appeared, without warning, and we’ve had no time to prepare for them; that the forces are beyond everyone’s control and the arts community is powerless; and that the forces can only be considered as destructive and inevitably will lead to devastation. Everyone drowning.

But what if… What if the creative community were supported to embrace the storm as a powerful force for change?  Let’s not underestimate the skill, dedication, professionalism, creativity and hard work of our creative community and many cultural leaders. The work they’ve been doing for the last 2+ years through the pandemic has not been in any way easy, but yet, in many places across the country we still have a strong and quality cultural offer created for, with and by the people of Scotland.

What if we took a rain check on the use of the ‘perfect storm’ as the metaphor for dealing with risk in the arts and find something more appropriate and more hopeful? Something that acknowledges the multiple complex challenges we face (including the climate crisis) and appreciates the sectors’ creativity and professionalism in responding to complexity and working with uncertainty.

While thinking of alternatives I’ve been reminded of the unstoppable force paradox: ‘What happens when an unstoppable force meets an immovable object?’ Both are assumed to be indestructible and change therefore impossible. But how can that be? Change, as we know, is the only constant.  I find the use of a paradox useful in this scenario, as it highlights the contradictions that exist, it teases our brains and promotes creative thinking. So, what if there was a solution to this riddle?

  • What if the unstoppable force stops and the immovable object moves? (The resolve posed by Scottish artist Ian Banks in his book Walking on Glass).
  • What if the cultural sector harnessed its power to move and in doing so not only stopped the unstoppable force (aka the perfect storm) but embraced it?
  • What if the perfect storm became the perfect project, the focus of all our creative endeavours over the next 12 months?
  • What if there were a series of collaborative, creative labs focussed on innovative ways to respond?
  • What if the people of Scotland were invited to collaborate in finding solutions to the multiple challenges?
  • What if the creative community and Scottish Government collaborated together to find a range of cross departmental solutions?
  • What if more funds were not the solution?
  • What if financial capital was not the driver but instead, we placed more focus and credence in our social, natural and cultural capitals?
  • What if our arts venues were to access the supply of electricity for the Scottish public sector?
  • What if, in experimenting with solutions, the paradox is flipped, and the arts become the unstoppable force?

Rather than scrabble for the lifeboats, and cling on madly to the wreckage, what if we harnessed the power of the storm for us?

What if? What if? What if?

Alice McGrath is  a Lecturer in Arts Management and Cultural Policy in the Division of Media, Communication and Performing Arts at Queen Margaret University, Edinburgh.

The author would like to thank Anthony Schrag, Rebecca Finkel, Jeanie Scott and Liam Sinclair for conversations and contributions to the thinking in this blog.

This blog first appeared on the QMU website 14th October, 2022 and is re-published here with kind permission.