For Argyll challenged Argyll and Bute Council’s tendering of a recent contract to ‘deliver a strategic action plan for the heritage, arts, culture and tourism sector in Argyll’.
We challenged it on three grounds – the lack of knowledge of the field/s at which the tender specification was aimed; the looseness of the specification itself; and the puzzling final award – to Business Tourism Solutions’, an Edinburgh-based business consultancy.
The framing statement in the tender was: ‘Argyll and Bute Council is seeking to appoint a consultant or consortium to deliver a strategic action plan for the heritage, arts, culture and tourism sector in Argyll’.
Of the four fields of activity mentioned, tourism in Argyll and the Isles is ‘sorted’, with the very well organised, strategically focused and successful Argyll and the Isles Tourism Cooperative and its parallel wing, Argyll and the isles Strategic Tourism Partnership.
That left the other three areas of arts heritage and culture – areas which have not established a coherent presence and strategic purpose in Argyll, although this place is graced with an enviable physical heritage and plenty of artistic activity.
Against this background, the council awarded the contract to Business Tourism Solutions, a company to which it had already awarded the contract for assessing and marketing Oban Airport.
75% of the current brief – made up of arts, heritage and culture – is outside the expertise of this company; and the remaining 25%, tourism in which the consultancy is qualified, is now one of Argyll’s key strengths.
The consultancy awarded the contract not only sees 75% of the field outside its expertise, as an east coast metropolitan consultancy it does not know the remote, and rural Argyll. The nature of Argyll, formed by its cultural history and its topography, plays a central part in what is possible here.
It has now emerged that the bids for this contract were assessed by Councillor Louise Glen-Lee; Argyll and Bute Council officer, Kevin Baker; and an HIE officer, Kerin Grant.
The arts, culture and heritage suffer from the fact that the world and his wife feel they ‘know’ about the ‘arts’ because they can read and write, because they may be involved in amateur drama or singing, or because they’ve grown up within sight of a castle.
However, tthe point of intervention of public money with this sector is a different matter. It is complex, highly specialised and traditionally troubled.
The sector has recently shredded the Scottish Government’s establishment of Creative Scotland, which has been restaffed at the most senior level and sent off ‘tae think again’ after that rousing defeat.
We cannot see, in the combination of the three bid scrutineers above, the level of expertise and insights needed to take forward this sector in Argyll.
What we have said on this matter is born of significant formal experience of serving for some time on the literature and performing arts funding panels of the Arts Council of Northern Ireland, during a particularly galvanic period of creativity; and from academic research and writing and postgraduate teaching.
The arts, culture and heritage are, severally and together, simultaneously substantial and ethereal. If you try to ‘manage’ through focusing on the substantial element – the jobs, the facilities, the figures – you can kill the golden goose. If you ‘manage’ by engaging with the ethereal, you’re introducing chaos.
Making any sort of sense of this sector is herding cats and takes a spectrum of knowledge and experience that has not been brought to the award of this contract – and that, to be fair, is not available.
Argyll and Bute Counil has no great record in the strategic growing of the arts, heritage ans culture sector. That is not entirely its fault. It is a chronically underfunded local authority for the impossible challenge of servicing the second largest local authority area in Scotland, with the third most dispersed population, spread across mainland and several handfulls [25 is the mantra] of inhabited islands – and ageing fast.
In this sort of funding situation, while the arts sector argues passionately for a higher spending priority than it has, even the transformative playwright, Bertolt Brecht, said: ‘Food comes first.’
But you do have to know what you don’t know – which also makes it difficult to appoint the right consultants who do know.
Rather than attempting to address a bigger picture of which it knows little, the council might usefully have focused on contracting ‘a stratetic action plan’ for the ways the arts, heritage and culture might contribute specifically to the growth of the tourism sector here.
But this is not what they have asked for. They went for the all-embracing umbrella no consultant could ever deliver.
We await with interest ‘the strategic action plan for the heritage, arts, culture and tourism sector in Argyll’ which will emerge at the end of this contract.