When we first heard, quietly, that we should look at the papers due to come out, it felt ominous. When we found out that Artlink Central was on a list of arts groups facing cuts, alongside the Macrobert Arts Centre, Stirling and District Arts Forum and a writers’ group, it was shocking.

It wasn’t until last Monday morning that we found the text in black and white. There were to be cuts. Firstly to events: Stirling’s Hogmanay, a Galway festival (sponsored as part of a cultural partnership), a shared box office scheme. Then to venues: Tolbooth and The Changing Room – the latter, amazingly, the only dedicated contemporary arts space in Stirling and one that has served many new and emerging talents.

The Changing Room may seem like an easy cut: one staff member (Visual Arts Development Officer Emma Hamilton) and two carefully-managed rooms that are filled – or sometimes less filled – with arts experiences that are conceptual, illustrative, considered or challenging. Put this against fourteen libraries, social care, education, music programmes and a number of arts venues across the town, and the politics are clear.

But, I think to the councillors’ bewilderment, it was not quite as easy as they thought. The arts community has reacted because The Changing Room means something. It is aspirational, unconventional, cultural and therefore uncontrollable. It had to be cut. (It should be noted that the Council isn’t just making cuts, though. It is spending £1.5million on a new public square, just outside the town. Everything in Stirling is just outside the town: the leisure centre, the college, the university, the prison, the money. Stirling likes to spend on roads not culture.)

Free market approach

Three hours before the decisions were made at a special council meeting last Thursday (21 February), an email from Conservative Councillor Neil Benny to a Thornhill resident outlined his budget plans for culture: “I do not think that the changes we will propose will have a huge impact, in fact when you get beyond the headlines they will actually help. The Changing Room Gallery is not particularly well attended and the promotion of new and developing talent is far better tackled through supporting Creative Stirling achieve their ends… The Council’s promotion of its own gallery leads to independent operators being crowded out.”

In other words: a free market approach with the emphasis on ‘free’. Councillor Benny contradicts himself in his email, talking about the burdens of venue costs. But be under no illusion – no venue was cut, only people and services. People and services who spend their public funding hiring and accessing cultural spaces such as the Tolbooth, where The Changing Room is based. And as these spends are reduced, the venues will become vulnerable in the next spending review concucted by Councillor Benny, who has recently taken an interest in culture since it has moved under the portfolio heading of Economic Development.

Exactly what culture is or means to the establishment is unclear. The cuts suggest that commercial visual arts or the focused work of creative industries are the Council’s only priority. Except, of course, for the Stirling Smith Museum and Art Gallery, whose board has a good complement of councillors – including Benny himself. As there was no review, consultation or impact assessment before the cuts were made, perhaps a more equitable approach would have been a percentage taken from cultural spending across the board. But this was not the choice made.

Assessing the impact

The impact of the cuts on the visual arts is difficult to determine. Stirling boasts amazing collections such as The University of Stirling Art Collection. It has agencies doing innovative work, which until now included The Changing Room. It recently benefited from a relocation of Forth Valley College’s Creative Industries to a purpose-built facility. It has an active Open Studio network and festivals such as the Bridge of Allan Contemporary Arts Festival.

Artlink Central hosts biannual art auctions which sell thousands of pounds of visual art in one night, so there is clearly an appetite and a market for art in the city. There is, however, a lack of leadership and direction from the Council and the indication is that they would rather abdicate than take responsibility. Culture remains peripheral to Single Outcome Agreements, so while the Scottish Government protects national arts spending, there is little to no structural support at a local level.

We suspect this is not the end of the tale, that there might be more cuts to come either from this council or, as foretold by Moray, other councils too. We hope that visual artists can see an opportunity to come together and take the reins from the council, not to provide the free arts and services they expect us to, but to galvanise in the light of the lack of vision and understanding inherent in the process we are in; to put in place leadership, dynamism and a better creative outcome for Stirling. Long live The Changing Room that is Stirling.

The Changing Room will be closing for good on Saturday 30 March, cutting short its current exhibition, Sense Makes No Sense by David Sherry, by two weeks. David Sherry will discuss his work at the gallery on 22 March at 6.30pm. www.stirling.gov.uk/changingroom