visual culture wales

Articles by Huw David Jones

Scotland, CEMA and the Arts Council 1919-1967, by Euan McArthur

Established in 1945-6, the Arts Council of Great Britain has made a substantive – though at times controversial – contribution to British cultural life. But while there have been several books about the Arts Council and its wartime predecessor, the Council for the Encouragement of Music and the Arts (CEMA), Euan McArthur’s impressive Scotland, CEMA and the Arts Council (Ashgate, 2013) is the first major study to look at the organisation from a Scottish perspective.

scotland-cema-and-the-arts-council-1919-1967McArthur begins by exploring the CEMA’s pre-history. He notes the particular importance of the 1919 Final Report of the Adult Education Committee of the Ministry of Reconstruction, which paved the way for the formation of adult education bodies after the First World War, and which ultimately laid the foundations for CEMA during the Second World War.

The impact of idealism – the belief the state has a duty to create the conditions where individuals can flourish not only materially but also morally, spiritually and intellectually – on CEMA’s founders is also a theme.  Glasgow University was a stronghold of idealist philosophy, and it was here Welshman Thomas Jones, the driving force behind the early CEMA, taught in the early-1900s.

The second part of the book deals with the establishment of CEMA’s Scottish Committee and its struggle to obtain autonomy within the evolving Arts Council structure.  It considers how periodic attempts to wrestle power from London to Scotland coincided with broader waves of Scottish nationalism.

The Scottish Education Department initially toyed with the idea of demanding a slice of CEMA’s government grant when the organisation was established in 1940, but was persuaded that Scotland would be better off if the CEMA’s grant remained undivided.  Yet as CEMA began to develop a more professional structure with the appointment of the economist John Maynard Keynes as chairman, tensions between Scotland and London began to emerge.

A particular bone of contention was the lack of Scottish art in CEMA’s touring exhibition programme. After the intervention of the Scottish Secretary Thomas Johnston, Keynes (who had no love for Scottish culture) agreed to the establishment of a Scottish Committee with executive powers. This became the Scottish Arts Council in 1967, before being devolved to the Scottish Office with the break-up of the Arts Council of Great Britain in 1994.

Money was another source of tension.  Though Scotland was entitled to about 12% of the Arts Council’s grant, this formula was set aside in the 1950s with the result that by the 1960s Scotland’s share had plummeted to just 6%. McArthur calculates Scotland lost £14m in 2010 values as a result – a substantial setback to the development of the arts in Scotland.

The book ends by examining the impact of the Scottish Committee’s work through the case of visual arts policy.  McArthur notes that the Scottish Committee broadly held the same values as the Arts Council as a whole: it aimed to promote the ‘best for the most’.  Yet the way it pursued these goals differed.  For instance, it continued the ‘direct provision’ of art exhibitions long after these had been phased out in England, and held shows in community centres as well as conventional art galleries.

Throughout McArthur offers a balanced and detailed analysis. He has delved deep into the archives to reveal the full extent of the Scottish Committee’s activities, and is careful to list both its achievements and failings.

On the question of whether the Arts Council pursued a policy of cultural assimilation in Scotland, McArthur notes that, although ‘London norms’ tended to dominate, the Scottish Committee did much to support contemporary Scottish art. (I have argued a similar point in relation to the Welsh Committee’s support for the visual arts in Wales.)  Like many Scottish institutions, it championed Scottish national interests within a collective British context.

Some may find this micro-history of a comparatively small organisation a little too forensic.  It is not always easy to follow a story in which the main players are relatively unknown civil servants and committee men (although McArthur does helpfully provide biographies of Scottish Committee members at the back of the book).  At the same time, perhaps more could have been said about drama or music policy in addition to art.

Nevertheless, this is a superb piece of scholarship.  Scotland, CEMA and the Arts Council not only provides a clear history of the Arts Council’s Scottish Committee. It also makes a vital contribution to our understanding of British arts policy, as well as the wider relationship between Scotland and London within British politics and administration.

Scotland, CEMA and the Arts Council, 1919-1967: Background, Politics and Visual Art Policy, by Euan McArthur is published by Ashgate, priced £49.99 in hardback. ISBN: 978-1-4094-3160-2.

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