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Lyth Arts Centre To Lose Scottish Arts Council Funding From April 2009

2nd May 2008

The Scottish Arts Council (SAC) has announced that as from April 2009 it will cease to fund Lyth Arts Centre, the only dedicated professional arts venue in Caithness. The Council has funded the Centre on an annual basis since it first opened in 1977. For many years it was one of the Council's Core Funded Organisations. In 2006 the Council re-organised its methods of funding, awarding core-funded status to a small selection of what is regarded as key strategic organisations and reclassifying the others, including all of the Scottish theatre companies and many venues as Flexibly Funded Organisations. Lyth Arts Centre received Flexible Funding which is awarded (and has to be re-applied for) every two years. Lyth's Flexible Funding application for 2009 - 2011 was one of 106 eligible applications which requested a total of 14,677,011 across the country. But, with only 6,980,000 to distribute, the Council has given awards to only 63 applicants and Lyth's application has been turned down.

William Wilson, the Centre's Director said "This news has come as a total surprise as we had the impression that SAC was keen to continue to support Lyth. Although we received a 30% funding cut when we switched over to Flexible Funding and, as a result, lost a newly-created Director's post, during the last two years SAC has provided extra project funding to support an enhanced programme of music events and workshops which was favorably received during its first year and was awarded further funding for the current year.

For some time SAC has suggested that it would have preferred Lyth to be funded by the local authority but had continued to offer its support as Highland Council was never in a position to provide more than a few thousand pounds each year and as SAC acknowledged the contribution Lyth made to the Caithness community.

The Centre's Executive Committee will meet shortly to discuss our options for the way ahead and, at this stage it's unclear what course of action we will take. SAC has provided a thirteen-page assessment with reasons for its decision. The first part of this document prepared by the relevant SAC lead officer commends the Centre for its good work and has only some criticism regarding the comparatively small scale of the management structure. The officer ends her report by stating that "If awarded, I would recommend that the grant should be increased by 6K for both 2009/10 and 2010/11 to include additional project funding. This recommendation is made on the basis of Lyth's impact as an arts centre (punching above its weight given its small size), its fit with our criteria for flexibly funded organisations and its geographic location".

However, the application was then passed to another panel of Specialist Advisors who came up with the following statement:

"From the application and the supporting material, Lyth Arts Centre appears to know its market and is programming safely to meet current demands. The programme did not set out to challenge the current audience. The application itself is very vague and the main body of the business plan lacking in detail (running to only three pages). The panel recognised that this has been prepared by a group of people trying to keep the organisation going on a voluntary basis, and it is difficult to be clear about artistic vision in these circumstances. The panel also recognised that Lyth Arts Centre is in a strategic position geographically and is an important tourist resource and there is a clear need for such a centre in the locality. The panel felt, however, that there is a need for it to implement its vision and leadership in a consistent way. Within the criteria for flexible funding, the panel rated this application as low priority for support".

William Wilson continues "Well, if Stellar Quines, Paul Towndrow and Robert Wyatt aren't challenging I don't know what is. Our plans for 2009/11 are awaiting programming, not vague, as this venue chooses to work with what's available. All the most creative companies in Scotland have been moved onto Flexible Funding so everyone has been waiting to hear who is able to tour before making commitments. I feel that if a tiny organisation like Lyth needs a business plan with more than three pages to state the obvious then there's not much point. This is an example of mindless bureaucracy displacing common sense. It's also an example of management culture being inappropriately applied to artistic creativity and wasting everybody's time. Arts Centres aren't supermarkets for art; you can't create culture like stacking shelves, watching which lines sell best and buying in more, settings targets and measuring everything.

The basic Lyth arts business plan is:
1 - art - find good art or those who could make it
2 - provision - find out what they need and get it
3 - audience - find people who want art and let them have it
4 - finance - cost the exercise and get the money
5 - production - get it to happen
6 - programme - assess and repeat

This is the magic circle and in an artist-led situation the rotation movement usually starts with item one. However, the rotation can be generated or hindered by sudden changes in any of the six components. Remove any one of them and rotation stops. Augment any one of them and the other five will readjust. But you can never make assumptions that there's only one way to enable artists and the public to engage with each other. All of this is common sense.

Yes, we are a group of people trying to keep the organisation going on a voluntary basis but only because SAC slashed the funding for a paid post so it can't have it both ways. One could deduce from this that it's Caithness which is being turned down, not Lyth. As far as I know, none of the Specialist Advisors has ever been to the Centre or, if so, not in recent years. Like many decisions made in the Central Belt, there is no recognition that just about every second outfit in Caithness is run by a group of people working on a voluntary basis. Until such times as the local authority is press-ganged into providing proper arts facilities in Wick and Thurso with salaried staff there's no alternative to voluntary-run venues. It's that or the five-hour return journey to Eden Court. How many people in Inverness would be prepared to drive to Edinburgh or Glasgow for a night out? (It's the same distance as Thurso to Inverness) Where's the inclusiveness in that scenario? No doubt a few Inverness boy-racers bomb down the A9 every weekend but the vast majority of people have to fit culture/entertainment into busy family life and work.

It's been several years now since the SAC commissioned its study on the future of the arts in Caithness. The findings were quite clear: Caithness with its 24,000 population is the second largest conurbation in the Highland Region and requires its own arts venues as those of Inverness are more than twice the acceptable drive distance of one hour away. The Highland Council has plans to create a new facility in Thurso but, even if funding were to be put in place tomorrow, it would take three years to arrive. That's why Lyth Arts Centre has been so successful because there is such a need for it to exist. It is endlessly admired by visiting companies and has massive support from Caithness residents. Virtually every performance sells out.

It's also particularly galling to get this news just after we have spent a week presenting nine performances of Martha, a play by the distinguished Scottish children's theatre company, Catherine Wheels to 450 children from seven Caithness primary schools and are about to announce an incredibly ambitions evening in our Jazz Exchange programme which offers local musicians the opportunity to perform along side what must currently be regarded as the two top male and female British jazz singers, details of which will be released on 16th May."

William Wilson


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