she must have roses, too
in defence of the arts, and the funding thereof
What the woman who labors wants is the right to live, not simply exist — the right to life as the rich woman has the right to life, and the sun and music and art. You have nothing that the humblest worker has not a right to have also. The worker must have bread, but she must have roses, too.
- Rose Schneiderman
In April this year I went to the Scottish Trades Union Congress in Dundee. We are living in difficult times, when money for anything is hard to come by. Industrial action is forced on all corners, and striking takes wages from the pockets of workers; they sacrifice for a hoped-for betterment, and suffer in the meantime. As a worker in an arts union, I expected that the issues of our members, of the arts in general, would be low on the list of priorities; the arts, for so long, has been considered an afterthought.
A congress runs in vaguely this way: motions are proposed, and the proposer speaks on it; a seconder will speak in support, and perhaps a third. The motion will then be voted on, and if voted for, it will be adopted. On the second day, a motion was proposed that tackled the issue of years long underfunding in the arts; I was heartened to hear it. I was equally heartened to see other, more traditional unions stand up to support it, to hear the Fire Brigades Union speak strongly for the power of culture and the clear and undeniable need for it. It turns out, the arts is not so expendable after all.
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It is often wrongly assumed that the arts are separate from the lives of everyday people. I have never quite understood this. There is not a person in this country who does not engage with cultural output on a daily basis. Every song you listen to, every book you read, every game you play and every TV show you watch is a product of the cultural industries—no, of artists. The stories you read to your kids. The theatre shows. The podcasts. The movies. The magazines. The comedy shows. The photos and posters, the paintings, the sculptures. The songs that your children sing. There is not a day goes by that is not lit up by the arts.
We engage with the arts more than we engage with hospitals, schools, transport or the law. Its very ubiquitousness drives its invisibility; because it is everywhere, it is easy to imagine it’s nowhere. Few people think about the processes it took to write the songs they listen to on the radio, the photography they share online, the shows they binge watch of an evening, curled up with their loved ones. What it requires is a lot.
And yet for many people’s whole adult lifetimes, both funding for and remuneration for the work of producing art has been in decline. Few readers know that the writer of the book they’re reading makes not the £9.99 cover price, but maybe 8% of that—and that’s a figure calculated after factoring in the 40% discount that an independent bookshop will take, or the much higher discount taken by chain bookstores, supermarkets or the worst of all, Am*zon. The Authors Licensing and Collecting Society revealed last year that the median author income is just £7,000; that’s less than a third of the minimum wage, and authors of colour, as well as women authors, make much less. The data is hard to come by, but working with Scottish writers in my ‘day’ job suggests to me that the Scottish median would be much much lower. And this is before the assault of AI really begins; The Atlantic recently revealed that almost 200,000 books had been used to ‘train’ AI, without permission or payment given to the authors. Already the work of literary translators is being undermined by AI, taking paid work away from them, and one of the main points in the SAG-AFRTA dispute in the States is the increasingly common use of AI in the film industries, not only in writing but to replicate an actor’s voice or likeness, literally stealing their image to undermine their ability to earn a living. In the era of streaming, and pirating, and retail monopolies and risk-averse capitalism, the payment for being an artist diminishes over and over. Meanwhile, the creative industries continue to generate great profit for the economy and constitute an incredible return on investment on what is, in the broader context, a tiny sum of money. The City of Berlin’s culture budget for 23/24 is about £840 million. The Creative Scotland annual grant-in-aid from the government, to cover the whole of the country, is only £63 million. In return, in the government’s own words:
Scotland’s creative industries contribute more than £5 billion to the Scottish economy every year.
But this conversation is not all about profit; in fact, so much of it isn’t. Many cultural organisations and projects are not profit-making endeavours, at least in a financial sense. If ticket prices or magazine prices or book prices had kept up in line with inflation, the vast majority of the arts would be inaccessible to the general public; much of it already is. Public funding is there to try and keep (or—imagine—improve!) this broad access, to provide a subsidy so that costs to the audiences are low or negligible. Think of something like Scottish Book Trust’s Bookbug program, that runs free, popular library events for parents and their very young children, providing not only entertainment for the little ones but community and peer support for the parents, who might not have families to help them, nor money to pay for childcare, or may not know any other people with young kids. The benefits of this are almost immeasurable.
It takes precisely two seconds of Googling to find the government stating its supposed support for the arts, exactly because they are so beneficial (“The Scottish Government recognises the value of cultural initiatives and the benefits that they can bring to physical and mental wellbeing”). It takes a lot longer, however, to find the money that they’re providing to fund this into the future.
Early this year, the Scottish government announced a 10% cut in the culture budget ; £6.6 million pounds that were set to come out of the already much diminished pot that supports the arts in Scotland. A quick response from the creative unions and the Campaign for the Arts forced a u-turn from the government—though they couched this in language of an “uplift”, when it was nothing of the sort; it was a return to the already massively underfunded original plan. But it turns out they never planned to do anything of the sort; eight months later and Creative Scotland still has not seen this promised £6.6 million, and Angus Robertson has now confirmed in writing that it will never appear. The Scottish Government have imposed a 10% budget cut by stealth, just two weeks before Regularly Funded Organisations are due to receive their quarterly payments, leaving Creative Scotland with no choice but to take the needed money from their National Lottery reserves, an action that can only happen once. Next time, there will be no reserves. Next time, as artist pay is in freefall and cultural organisations are desperately struggling to make ends meet, Creative Scotland will have no choice but to impose a 40% cut to Regularly Funded Organisations, and to restrict funding to artists across the country. This is nothing short of cultural vandalism, a removal of the arts, of cultural access, from the people of Scotland. As the Scottish Music Industry Association said in response to the news, “the future of music and culture in Scotland is now at significant and immediate risk. The foundations upon which it supported are being eroded at an increasingly alarming rate, and unless intervention is made by the Scottish Government, it will have impacts for decades to come.”
The worst thing is that this is not the crisis point. We have been in crisis for a long long time. Many organisations have been on standstill funding for close to seven years (or longer) which is a real-terms cut of 25%. As utility cost and materials have skyrocketed, and after covid lockdowns shuttered venues for months on end, even the biggest and most well established arts institutions in Scotland have begun to crumble. As writer and critic Katie Goh wrote in March this year:
Over a single month, I watched three of Scotland’s landmark arts institutions close or partially close. Edinburgh’s beloved independent cinema, the Filmhouse, and the Edinburgh International Film Festival collapsed… Scotland’s National Centre for Dance announced staff redundancies, “mothballed” half its studio spaces and scaled back its programming. The National Galleries of Scotland shut one of its galleries, Modern Two, for the winter, with the National Galleries’ director-general John Leighton saying, “I have never experienced a crisis like this in my career.”
Katie Goh, gal-dem
This is not just a crisis of money; it a crisis of opportunity, of effort, of hard work and hope. What aren’t shown on the balance sheets, in this context, are the endless unpaid hours of work that artists put in to try and create opportunities for other artists, or to keep running the organisations that support the creation of new work. The uncountable amount of stress and energy to make things happen, often on shoestring budgets, on money that’s been found from the pockets of the public because the government money is unforthcoming. The cold hard truth is that the arts in Scotland already relies on an enormous amount of goodwill and unremunerated effort from artists and workers of all types, whether that’s ‘volunteers’ in venues at the Fringe or the writer getting paid less than half minimum wage to interview some of the world’s biggest authors for August audiences. And there’s the enormous and administrative burden that’s placed on artists to allow them to beg for money from the paltry pot. To even apply for Creative Scotland funding requires weeks of unpaid labour—for funding that you are likely to not get, even if you are approved by the appraisals panel. It is incredibly common that you have to apply twice. What is the point, now, of putting all this labour into applying for funding that, it seems, just doesn’t exist? All of this work happens in time that’s taken away from your own work, powered by that energy that’s drained from your own practice, diminishing your ability to make money for yourself—or, god forbid, to enjoy your life.
People have offered so much for free for so long that there is now a burnout crisis in the Scottish arts; people simply have nothing left to give.
Before this most recent cut was announced, Creative Scotland had already warned that organisations had asked for three times as much money as was available. They warned that 900 jobs would be lost, a third of cultural organisations would become insolvent, thousands of opportunities—paid opportunities—would be lost to artists, and this is only in the next six months. If the budget cut remains next year, the Scotsman reports that half of Creative Scotland-supported organisations will be at risk, along with 2000 jobs and 26,000 opportunities for artists.
It’s hard to imagine a Scotland where a half or a third of all cultural organisations have collapsed, where the already scant support for artists has been completely gutted. There’ll be articles with endless facts and figures in the coming years, outlining the huge number of artists who slip away from creation, who join the thousands of unemployed already scrabbling for a work in an economy that seems to be going backwards. Perhaps some will talk about the way the arts will become more white, more straight, more middle class as the funding disappears, and the only people who can become artists are the most privileged amongst us. But what won’t be discussed are the unquantifiables; the single mum of a learning-disabled kid who can no longer take her kids to theatre designed and performed just for children like hers. The elderly people left at home, fossilising and lonely, because their single trip out for the week, to the local library for a cake and a blether, no longer happens. The hundreds of miles of highlands without access to a cinema. The queer neurodivergent kids who no longer find projects that help them express their skills and experiences, because the funding, such as it ever was, has been cut. The books, films, plays we will never get, because the government—the same government that constantly claims its dedication to the arts, to the need for and importance of culture for the wellbeing of its people—simply decided they were not worth having.
The quote at the top of this piece comes from a speech by the American trade union leader leader Rose Schneiderman in 1912. She was not speaking about workers in the arts or the culture industry; she was speaking about textile workers who had been on strike, and women in manual labour industries—regular workers who were fighting for the betterment of their conditions. She was paraphrasing Helen Todd, the women’s suffrage campaigner, who in 1910 said that a woman’s vote should ‘go toward helping forward the time when life's Bread, which is home, shelter and security, and the Roses of life, music, education, nature and books, shall be the heritage of every child that is born in the country’. Is this not still the time that we should all be fighting for?
Please take two seconds out of your weekend to sign this petition, by the Campaign for the Arts, which asks the Scottish Government to reverse the cut and commit to proper future funding too. Perhaps you have five more minutes to email your MSP, or to tweet or post about how the arts is vital to your quality of living too. The artists and the cultural organisations in Scotland would appreciate your support. Because how will you fill your days when there are no museums to take your children to, no libraries to borrow books from, no cinemas or theatres or operas or festivals? Where, indeed, will you get your roses?
Hearts starve as well as bodies
- James Oppenheim, Bread and Roses