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Friday, October 18, 2013

An open letter about the importance of the arts in Dumfries and Galloway

from Matt Baker

To Our Elected Representatives in Dumfries and Galloway

Times of hardship within public budgets have historically been times that demanded vision, leadership and the politics of conviction from our democratic representatives.

At this time I would ask our politicians to pay particular regard to the vital importance of the arts and culture for the future of our region.

Firstly there is a simple economic imperative – the Creative Industries are acknowledged (EKOS April 2013) as one of the top ten economic sectors in the region. The small sums spent on the arts and cultural infrastructure by DGC are vital in providing early career opportunities in the sector and maintaining the regions international reputation as a creative centre. In addition spending on culture and participation in the arts is evident in its effect across other agendas (health, education, tourism, environment) and supports the region’s Single Outcome Agreement. 

Environmental Art Festival Scotland - Galloway Forest Park (photo Colin Hattersley)
The South of Scotland Competitive Strategy 2008-2013 outlines the vision of the South of Scotland Alliance for supporting the growth of the economies within the Borders and Dumfries and Galloway.
The strategy outlines seven priorities for the region:
•    retain and attract more people of working age;
•    grow a knowledge economy in the South of Scotland;
•    increase the demand for learning and skills development amongst the workforce and wider community;
•    maximise the benefits of connections to city regions and other economic centres including mainland Europe;
•    realise the full potential of the indigenous business sectors and maximise the contribution to Scotland’s priority industries and in particular the food, tourism, textiles and renewable industries. Improve micro-business support and growth potential;
•    build a distinctive high quality sustainable place to live, work and visit and enjoy; and
•    develop the coastal and land based assets of the South of Scotland.

Dumfries Community Choir (photo Electric Theatre Workshop)
Quality of life is one of the offers for business and people in D&G – people talk about Landscape, Leisure, Culture and Heritage as main building blocks of that ‘quality of life’ – the contribution of the arts, heritage and those that work in these fields cannot be underestimated in this regard.
Those working in the arts pride ourselves in the good value we bring for the public pound recent research (Glasgow City Council 2013) showed that every £1 spent on culture brings an average of £7 back into the local economy. National sources of support for arts activity require a local match-funding contribution; the small sums available through DGC support are a vital life-support for arts activity in this regard.

Wild Food Foraging at an arts event (photo Kim Ayres)
I began this letter with a plea for ‘Vision and the Politics of Conviction’ – we are all very aware that massive challenges face our society in the future – beyond the immediate economic situation we are facing global climate change and finite energy resources that will force us to radically rethink the way we live and organise our society.

Our Scottish Education system is reacting to the challenge of the future with a Curriculum for Excellence that champions adaptability, team-working and learning as a lifelong skill. Creativity sits at the top of the pyramid of skills within Curriculum for Excellence – it is defined as the ability to take knowledge and transform it into something new…..vital skills for our future and those learned through exposure to and participation in the arts, culture and heritage.

DIY T-Shirt Printing at The Stove (photo Colin Tennant)

Community resilience and resourcefulness are often discussed when talking about the future that we are moving towards – scarcer resources will force our society to have a more ‘hands-on’ approach – necessity being the mother of invention. Smaller local initiatives will be the way that our region will thrive – large top-down solutions will no longer be affordable or deliverable. Dumfries and Galloway is known for its large creative sector – resilience and resourcefulness are the transferable skills of the creative sector….small investment in the development of the sector at this stage will pay untold benefits into the future for our wider community.

In D+G we also have serious challenges to face in terms of an aging population, growing health needs (eg mental health) and areas of severe social deprivation. Time after time participation in the arts has been shown to be not only cheaper, but longer term effective than medical therapies and many other ‘top-down’ traditional methods of tackling such issues. As one local senior Mental Health worker says ‘to address the growing mental health demand on services we would need to build new units every year – we need to look very seriously at working with the arts and other non-traditional alternatives to residential care’. We need to continue to support a cultural sector in the region capable of responding to these challenges.

The 'Base' Youth Project - The Amazon ...Summerhill, Dumfries
Over the last 2 years the Arts Sector has been working carefully and skilfully alongside DGC to build a partnership that is fit-for-purpose for modern challenges. This is a partnership that is being touted as a model that could be rolled out nationally. It is a vision of a working relationship that will deliver effective cross-cutting work across the Single Outcome Agreement objectives – it is a vision of targeted and best value support for a sector developing social enterprise models for future sustainability without significant public subsidy.

Be under no illusion here – we are NOT talking about arts subsidy that is about subsidising the preferred leisure pursuits of a privileged few….we ARE talking about a cultural sector that is dedicated, professional and committed to delivering tangible benefits for our region.

Just recently D&G hosted the inaugural Environmental Art Festival Scotland – it attracted over 8000 attendances at events and more than 600 local people participated in the creation of the festival. This is an example of the kind of initiative that is growing from the new approach to the arts in the region – a long-term sustainable project made possible by a small pump-priming investment form DGC that was tripled by investment brought into the region. EAFS saw our region placed on an International stage, in addition to the stunning profile it gave the region (national an international media etc) – the new alliances forged for the region and the new initiatives that spring from contacts made at the festival will be of incalculable value for the area and its economy.

When you face the difficult decisions about allocating the resources in your trust – I would urge you to look what will equip our region for the future….do NOT look at the arts as a luxury, BUT rather as an essential investment in the long-term prosperity of Dumfries and Galloway.


  1. Hear, hear. A specific example of the contribution the arts are making to prosperity in D&G, both in a practical financial way and in a wider sense (15 new learners of Russian at Moffat Academy) is the new international footfall Moffat Book Events (Scottish charity SCO2782) has brought and will continue to bring to Moffat in the form of conferences, and other activities in partnership with two Russian state institutes: the Library for Foreign Literature and the Institute for Translation in Moscow.

  2. This letter has been sent to all of the Councillors in D&G. So far positive responses have been received from Iain Dick, Jane Maitland and Andrew Wood.

    There is a big Budget Review meeting at the beginning of,If you see your local councillor around and about do give them a nudge about supporting the arts - better still send them a letter about why they should support the arts and ask that your views should be included in the review procedure.

    There is a chance here for D+G to buck the national trend and see the arts, culture and heritage as one of the ways for us deal constructively and creatively with the big changes that society faces....rather than just desperately trying to cling to the old way of doing things by progressively cutting everything until there is nothing left at all.

  3. We can now add the following Councillors to the list of those responding postively to the open letter:
    Stephen Thompson, Roberta Tuckfield and Ted Thompson

  4. Well said....excellent!!