Bob Last on why he wrote Connecting creativity, value and money

Post by Philip Schlesinger 2016-10-cover

In collaboration with the Cultural Enterprise Office (CEO), CREATe recently released  Connecting creativity, value and money authored by film producer and CREATe Industry Fellow Bob Last.  Bob undertook the research for this paper when he chaired the CEO Board, and was then particularly interested in the question of access to finance for those engaged in creative work. The study itself, financed by the Scottish Government, mutated in the course of investigation to become an analysis of the tensions between economic and aesthetic calculations made by those working across a range of art forms and evolved into an argument for rethinking the bases of creative industries policy. In this post, Bob describes his motivations and approach in undertaking this study.

 

Bob Last:

The frame I adopted was informed by my own entrepreneurial and work experiences, which span cult music, theatre design, installation art, pop hits, documentaries, animation and art house film over four decades. I had a sense that there was in the 21st century an inefficient dialogue, a dysfunctional transactional connection between those variously labelled part of the creative and cultural sector and European liberal democratic states and their arms-length organisations; that there is sometimes little connection between conceptions of creativity, value and money, even when huddled together in the same policy. Creative economy rhetoric has also taken root elsewhere, a virus carried by the knowledge economy as manufacturing jobs move across the globe; wherever it goes it seems to be dogged by the same malaise.

My research and thinking focused on areas of cultural production that have become the subject of economic policy goals, where the state is seeking to make financial resources and economic incentives available.  Ultimately this amounts to the disbursement of taxpayers’ funds and for this reason it is  important that policy goals are not based on pre-conceived notions imposed by inertia. It really matters that policy makers make a political case that engages their electorate, something the creative and cultural sector themselves sometimes lose sight of.

I have operated in environments that pre-date the contemporary creative economy rhetoric but today as a practitioner I spend a significant amount of time fizzing with frustration at the mismatch between the aims of those seeking to help me and the means employed to do so, this frustration being a symptom of a real cost; my contemporaries invest time in camouflaging and repositioning their actual motivations and inspirations to interact not with the market but with the state.

My experience also told me that those implementing policy sometimes sought ways of sidestepping the conditions, rules, restrictions, hurdles and measures attached to the resources they controlled; they re-interpreted policy on the fly, re-aligning it with what they took it upon themselves to interpret as the true intent. The system itself often takes the lead in undermining its own practices. We all knew who these recklessly pragmatic institutional staff were even if, for their own protection, you didn’t want to identify them on LinkedIn.

These same experiences had also led to my first engagement as an advisor at Scotland’s Cultural Enterprise Office who subsequently facilitated this project. Much of the advice I gave to those engaged with CEO’s services was based in the dysfunctional dialogue I have highlighted above. To be blunt many clients sought advice on ‘how to work the system’, how to sidestep its declared modus operandi. Their assumption was that to the extent I was ‘successful’ I must have mastered these dark arts. I still don’t know how to work the system especially effectively and it has never been a goal of mine; I was occasionally discomfited by a sense that the system was creating a sub class of mendicant businesses.

There is an ongoing triage specific to Scotland’s support landscape that has dogged successive governments of different political persuasions. The controversial establishment of Creative Scotland, a flawed but logical projection of creative industries rhetoric continues, perhaps inadvertently, to shine an invaluable critical light on the validity of its own foundations and means that these issues are particularly actively debated in Scotland. Everyone has a part to play in guiding this welcomed foment of ideas towards new solutions.

My research project relied entirely on the enormous good will and openness shown me by the Scottish Government and the wide range of practitioners and creative business people who agreed to speak with me. The interviewees lay at the heart of the process as I began by investigating intent as the most likely locus of connection between creativity, value and money. The process for selecting potential interviewees was an attempt to create a meaningful snapshot by sampling enough points in a very large constellation, and for that reason it was consciously diverse, attempting to avoid clustering. It also sought to look beyond the edge of the frame just as one does when composing a photograph. Happily, everyone who was approached agreed to be interviewed.

It rapidly became evident that economic policy aims, for example increased employment, rapid growth, consolidation, exit strategies etc. did not coincide with the goals of those operating within the sector, those upon whom policy was intended to operate. In itself this didn’t seem to matter as actors within the system seeking support might well, if successful, find themselves in a position where meeting policy goals might be a “ spin-off” from the achievement of their own goals. However, to generate these spin-offs they also needed to be successful in their own terms and it was here, arguably at first base, that the dialogue broke down.

Rather than dialogue, there was an exchange of pro-forma templates disconnected from the intent or value of any transaction, the two sides in effect tried trying to function despite each other. On the state/arms-length side of the process the dialogue is commonly literally constrained by templates, but it is equally the case that the responses used by the sector are commonly generic. The system didn’t in fact measure, assess or discover much that the creative practitioners and businesses actually cared about or thought was germane to their success. I hope that my paper may give some pointers as to how this dystopic pas de deux can be broken out of.

A secondary aim of the work was to find a way of mapping what might be the sector’s own understandings of value and success to the statistical and other quantitative assessments used by the system; used, it must be said, most commonly as a post-hoc rationalisation of policies that are themselves driven by complex motivations, including politicians’ own understandings of cultural pleasure, both theirs and their voters. Although I think the paper delivers some pointers, a detailed new measurement matrix was not achieved, not least because the quantitative data collected by states is based on a taxonomy that blindly ploughs through the reality on the ground.

Informed by the work on this paper, I have found myself further questioning the whole underpinnings of creative industry policy and the value of evidence based rhetoric in improving it. It seems to me that, contrary to its rhetorical claims, evidence-based processes in a world of intangibles are not inherently neutral or transparent, and therefore we should be especially wary of confusing correlation with causation.

A re-think of the frame within which policy in this sector operates may be needed, a re-think of the very notion of the creative industries.

In the narrow distribution of the paper prior to its publication by CREATe, I received anecdotal feedback that interpreted it as anti-business, or at least as a berm that could hold back the encroachment of economics on the creative sphere. This is certainly not where this work has taken me.

A recent documentary, Big Gold Dream, spends some time reflecting on my second creative endeavour in the late seventies. Because of the documentary, I have thought again about my own first engagement with business. At the time I was, or imagined I was, some kind of artist. I started a business as a provocation. My family background and education focused on the sciences. I was a consumer but I had no idea about how to run a business except to the extent that I had read various Marxist texts, notably or perhaps notoriously Mao’s military writings and the work of Louis Althusser (all as a function of my immersion in the milieu of the time). What I discovered to my delight was that capitalism once you did it seemed much simpler, not to say liberating than my reading had lead me to believe: every day I brought in more money than I spent it meant I would be around the next day to do something else interesting.

 

The roots of my career therefore, was one in which money was intricately linked to my activities but valued primarily as a tool for all sorts of other goals. This turns out to be not uncommon.

But I do have concerns that creative economy/creative industries thinking has led the state’s arms-length organisations to abandon or avoid a responsibility for critical judgement which, on the one hand, makes them vulnerable to the irresistible demand from self-anointed creatives, many of whom will not escape reliance on the system for support, and on the other hand, progresses the instrumentalisation of culture in the name of innovation or specified social goals. Neither outcome is a goal of policy, creative practitioners, or I suspect much of the public.

No one should be in any doubt that for politics, for the state, the areas we are discussing are understandably fraught with complexity, especially in determining what might constitute a policy success. For example, arguably the greatest success from an economic perspective in the creative sector in Scotland is Grand Theft Auto, whose genesis can be traced back in part to an environment sustained by a cabal of naughty bureaucrats who broke the rules in Dundee for a short golden window – not that I want to embarrass them. But how can the state embrace comfortably the investment of taxpayers’ money in the genesis of a product that others might consider amoral not to say on the dark side, a product that can be construed to incentivise transgressive and otherwise illegal behaviours in the imagination?

But for me there are grounds for optimism. With better thinking there is the possibility of achieving more with less. I found both the policy makers and creatives I spoke to be very open and equally strong in their desire to find a way of working with each other.

Last of all, the value generated by creative individuals and by commercial organisations intent on monetising the work of creative individuals is underestimated if it is measured only in economic terms. Policy has and continues to achieve more than it imagines or notices.

 

About the author

Bob Last has vast experience in the creative industries, starting in the business as an independent record label owner, producer and manager. He subsequently produced feature films and documentaries, including Sylvain Chomet’s multi award-winning and Oscar-nominated The Illusionist, Terence Davies’s critically-acclaimed Sunset Song, and BAFTA-winning children’s animated series OOglies. For a decade he has been actively engaged with public policy issues that impact on creative businesses and was Chair of the Board of Cultural Enterprise Office from 2009-2014.  His report was published under the auspices of CREATe’s Industrial Fellowship scheme.

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