Plan for an art attack
The Scottish Arts Council's warren of offices at Edinburgh's West End hasn't changed. There is still the self-consciously arty reception desk and the contradictory atmosphere: part corridor of power; part green room. People come and go, smart-suited or duffle-coated, while behind the doors, paper is shuffled, decisions are made and the national culture is shaped.
Tessa Jackson has been director of the Scottish Arts Council for a year and a half, and it has not been plain sailing. Her first week was spent dealing with the funding crisis at Scot tish Opera; she has since overseen a major restructuring of the arts council itself; and throughout her short captaincy the Scottish Parliament has been enthusiastically clambering aboard the boat, causing a certain amount of rocking with its national culture strategy and a review of all quangos including the arts council. Meanwhile, a louring cloud stands on the horizon in the form of a hypothetical Scottish ministry of arts and culture which would take the arts council's remit in-house.
On the day I am to see Ms Jackson, the announcement of the new SAC chairman is due, and the fresh incumbent, James Boyle, has made an unscheduled visit, kicking the appointments diary out the window. Still, when I eventually get my turn, Tessa Jackson is a pologetic but unflustered; a good woman to have around in a crisis, I imagine.
Professional is perhaps the best word to describe her; one cannot imagine her heart getting in the way of her head. "She has a mild manner about her," says another member of the Scottish arts community, "but she is fairly steely about what the role of the arts council should be."
The job of director has changed in the past five years; political antennae are now an essential accessory. The spectrum of activities funded through the arts council has expanded massively; the development and advocacy role with local authorities has grown; and lottery funding has brought an unprecedented level of public interest in how the money is spent. Education has become one of the buzz words in the arts, and practically every event, from high opera to street theatre has to have its spin-off of workshops or teacher packs.
"Education is an important issue for the whole of the SAC," says Jackson, "and the restructuring has allowed the education staff a more strategic position within the council."
The bureaucrat-speak is balanced by the enthusiasm with which she talks about young people experiencing artists directly through residencies in schools and other centres. An extra pound;200,000 of lottery money is going to underpin that commitment this year. "It can really affect those parts of the country where tere aren't many arts organisations just down the road," says Jackson.
She admits that getting a fair spread of arts provision for young people throughout Scotland is one of the difficult challenges for the arts council over the next three years. The Links posts, which have been so successful in generating arts projects for youngsters in areas such as South Lanarkshire and East Ayrshire, are also due for a funding boost. The South Lanarkshire post alone has brought over pound;500,000 to the area, and has involved every single school in the authority.
Jackson points out that the dream of a Links officer in every local authority area is not realistic; at present there are six. "We don't have the money to do it right across the country," she says, but she is aware of the tendency to build on existing good practice in the arts, and the need to focus attention on those areas where arts activity "has never taken off".
What may be attainable is a widespread system of "cultural champions", a scheme which emerged from the executive's national culture strategy and is shortly to be piloted. Since the arts council is not running the scheme, Jackson is unwilling to comment on the detail, but it will involve an individual teacher in a school putting him or herself forward as a focus for local arts activity.
"I hope there will be a significant support structure offering resources and information on what's available. It's intended to build on what the school already has and allows for the different needs of different areas," says Jackson. She hopes it will be perceived as a positive benefit, rather than yet another task to be added to the teacher's ever-expanding workload.
The SAC has a budget this year of pound;54.9 million. It sounds like huge money until you consider the vast array of theatre companies, writers, musicians, schools, galleries and community centres who are itching for a slice of the cake. Keeping the arts high on the agendas of local authorities and parliamentary committees is a never-ending task for the arts council.
"We spend a huge amount of time arguing for the importance of the arts," says Jackson. "There is no shortage of evidence of the things we've done, but it's not always scientific. We do need to evaluate that in tangible ways."
That said, she concedes that the most effective tool for persuading politicians was when TAG brought a young people's performance into the Parliament chamber. "The kids were saying it for themselves. That is very powerful."
Now on the upper reaches of her career ladder, she still feels her early experience of setting up "a tiny arts organisation" in Eyemouth is valuable.
"Having seen what's possible and having some sense of the frustrations of that position, I can now answer some of those frustrations. It's important that enabling bodies should have experience of the coal face."