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There's a proper romance about a creative place. You almost know one when you walk in the door. It might be a certain studied chaos about the decor; or the immediate sight and sound of someone making something; or the natural exuberance - and focus - of the people you immediately meet. But a place defined by creativity is, more often than not, a place which its occupants (whether a few artists, or a whole town) have drenched in their own dreams, projects, slightly crazed building plans - whatever. The thing is, whether they hold the lease or not, they own that place now.
That wall over there isn't just a dampness problem waiting to explode, but a platform for beauty & provocation. That PA system at the back isn't just a maintenance nightmare, but a opportunity for performance that will move the molecules between artist and audience. The shadows are flickering on the wall of the cave; and we want to find a way to both make them and gaze into them, like we always have. A creative place is as new, and as old, as human imagination.
Now, there's almost as ancient a debate about creative places that can fall into the nature-nurture divide. Are creative places best when they struggle, scream and kick their way into being, answering urgent needs, thriving because they've survived? Or is there a method or a system that can descend upon any borough or toon and say - with a wave of the public sector wand and a sprinkle of consultancy dust - that you, too, can be a creative place?
Well, like the nature-nurture debate itself, it's a much more complex relationship between the two than that. The musician and artist Brian Eno has coined the word "scenius", combining "genius" and "scene". Who is the "scenius" that has the ability to put together an environment where amazing things can happen?
And I think, from my experience of the Creative Places awards so far, that's exactly where we've been sitting with every submission we've judged. The questions in my mind have been: Is there real vigour, emergence, and uniqueness here - do these people *have* to do what they're doing? Is there "scenius" here? And if so, will the resource and support of Creative Scotland - to use a rock'n'roll metaphor - properly amplify, badly distort or (worst of all) even autotune the original source?
I hope we've gotten it right, this year and last year, on those grounds. I was reading a gloomy article about the collapse of the high street last Sunday, and was delighted to see one of last year's winners, Craft Town Scotland in East Kilbride, flagged up as completely bucking the trend. It's becoming a magnet for craft-makers of all kinds, from traditional to high-tech, due to the vibrant curation and range of activities orchestrated from its converted church.
Our winners this year I think hit a sweet spot, where an Creative Places award merely steepens the decline of the hill they're already rolling down. But if I can draw on a scene from my Coatbridge childhood: you also have to recognise what efforts it took to build that particular bogey, and whether the pram wheels need an upgrade.
It was a particular pleasure to give the biggest award to Kilmarnock - a place which, if you listened to the news stories of industrial closures or watched the poverty porn of BBC Scotland's The Scheme, would seem to be more about destruction than creation. Yet their submission showed that high aesthetics, feisty community arts and a vision for town centre regeneration can hang together brilliantly and inspiringly. Kilmarnock shows that, when the trade winds change course - global or national - its possible for a town to write itself a different script for an active, enterprising, can-do population.
Just you wait till the hipsters move in, though. There'll be more decaff soya flat whites and polenta cake than you could possibly cope with...
Another of our awardees this year is definitely invasion of the hipsters. The Pathhead Collective is another example of how clusters of creativity can happen from a combination of factors. Musicians and their families looking for affordable housing and finding themselves in a post-industrial village - but then realising that the combination of their own performing and teaching talents, plus their commitment to the social and convivial life of this village, might be more than just achieving a work-life balance.
They decided they could possibly build a structure - hell, a collective - that could both nourish their own high quality art, but also revitalise a town. And one like many others in Scotland - forged out of an old industrial era, and seeking another purpose in this informational, cultural and ecological era.
And not to forget Huntly, our other major awardee, which in many ways is a pathfinder and a laboratory for combining creativity and place - an exemplar that many others who are thinking of entering this competition next year could profitably follow.
It's been an odd year to be on the inside of the Creative Scotland building, judging stuff. Indeed on our very decision day, I discovered what it was like to hear several blackberrys bzzz simultaneously, with urgent news. (What would we call that? A sussuration of smartphones?)
All I would like to say, from being inside this process for the last two years, and for two years before that as a judge for the Scottish Books of the Year (in the Scottish Arts Council era), is this. In my experience, those who are in a position to support artistic and creative processes in Scotland are hardly lacking in the ability to agonise, consider every factor, or take the subtlest view of any of the applicants or candidates that have come their way.
The Creative Places awards encompass that subtlety completely. The questions they ask are: how can creatives figure out not just how to make their art, but make a living, and make a community too? Can artists join with others - public and private, councils and marketers - to help forge sustainable economies of creativity, in the villages, towns & cities of Scotland? And what new vocabularies for getting stuff done could these partners build together, rather than find themselves in a sterile war of the jargons?
All good questions - and not prescriptions, or norms, about "best artistic practice". But at least, a worthwhile discussion about one possible zone of engagement - and only one - between arts & wider socio-economic realities.
I won't go on about my theory that a "culture society" is what we need in Scotland to help us get to wellbeing and planet-friendly living, as consumer society inevitably winds down (see me after class, here and here). But its been a delight to be part of these "national conversations" - for that is what they are - about structural potential in Scottish arts and society. I wish all the awardees the very best, and invite all the ambitious airts and pairts of Scotland to apply next year.