Hi-Arts to be wound up – raising questions about the direction of the cultural sector

After 23 years in existence, Inverness-based Hi-Arts, the company that has been the cultural development agency for the Highlands and Islands, is being wound up.

The decision was taken at a meeting of its Board on 27th June.

The greatest and most imaginative of Hi-Arts’ initiatives has been the Screen Machine – the magical touring blue truck that expands into the comfortable world of an 80-seater cinema and is a much loved feature of rural social and cultural life across the Highlands and Islands.

The winding up of Hi-Arts will not affect the continuing service of the Screen Machine – although its replacement in due time will be an issue to keep an eye on.

Back in April, in the wake of Hi-Arts learning that its fundingĀ  – from Creative Scotland and from its parent body, Highlands and Islands Enterprise – was to be discontinued in the revision of strategy for the cultural sector, the agency issued redundancy notices to its staff of ten.

Since then, Hi-Arts says its directors have explored the viability of restructuring with a commercial emphasis, where, rather than being a sort of intermediate funding agency, it would have become an earning consultancy.

However, the company has said that ‘the non-availability of appropriate contracts for tender’ has made this option non-viable, leading to the winding-up decision taken at the end of June.

There were good things about Hi-Arts but it was an example of the endemic disease affecting the cultural sector – the custom of looking inwards to its immediate constituency and, effectively, of talking either to itself or ‘amongst themselves’.

Any body with the power to employ and with access to budgets to disburse or direct, has the power of patronage that tends to still challenge when and where it matters.

We have never had a sense that Hi-Arts was the source of the general invigoration one always hopes that cultural development bodies might be – and it was not alone in that.

The conundrum of cultural development agencies is that none of them really engage with or impact upon everyday life – where the instinctive need to express and create just carries on independently and is the beating heart of culture. People, in their daily lives, play with words, sing, make music and make things.

Part of the failure of the formal development agencies to engage comes from the sheer comfort of a subsidised existence, the seduction of sectoral authority and the ease of talking to the informed and convinced.

Part of it comes from being given too many simultaneous roles to fulfil, some of them conflicting.

Such agencies are asked to be active in cultural development, in the business development of producing companies in the sector, in participating in distributed-funding decisions and in raising the profile of the sector with government and with potential sponsors in the private sector.

These areĀ  not necessarily compatible skills or occupations. Their sum effect is to drain the vitality from the core raison d’etre – the galvanising of cultural production.

Far too much of subsidised cultural production has long been of indifferent quality at best. This has left the golden goose in a moribund state, with little visceral public interest. There is also no serious career path in the system for the professionally as well as the commercially ambitious.

We need a radical rethink of the purpose and direction of subsidy in our cultural sector.

Will it happen? It would take a very different and coherent vision from the received view, a stronger and more able government than any on our horizon for the foreseeable future – and the British culture, in general, is sympathetic to the amateur.uddle

We will muddle on.

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