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Penny Lewis talks to Iain Munro at the Scottish Arts Council

11 Feb 2005

Iain Munro leads the Scottish Arts Council’s capital department. Despite limited funds, he hopes to support some ambitious building projects in the next funding round.

As a boy Iain Munro planned to study music, but a childhood illness destroyed his vocal chords and he revised his plans, opting instead for economics and surveying at Heriot Watt. He practiced as a surveyor in Canada, Russia and Kuwait before landing a job in the capital department of the Scottish Arts Council. “This was a job that brought together the two sides of my background, the arts and surveying,” he recalls. When he joined the SAC he was working under David Bonnar and his line manager was Ian Gilzean, now head of the Scottish Executive\'s Architecture Policy Unit. Four years ago Bonnar moved on and Munro became head of capital projects.

His watch has not been easy; under his leadership the SAC has cut back on capital investment. When Munro joined the SAC in 1996 the lottery was in its infancy, a year later the Labour government was elected. The New Opportunities Fund, the successor to the Millennium Commission, was established, and there was a new emphasis placed on to ensuring public benefit and a rebalancing of resources in favour of activity rather than capital expenditure. By the time Munro was head of capital, lottery funders were being directed to provide additional money to viable projects rather than subsidising schemes directly.

The money available for capital projects has dropped quite dramatically over the past ten years. In 1995, £23million was made available for capital projects. It has fallen year by year – last year the budget was £9million. “The demand is currently four times the funding available,” said Munro. “There is a concern at the moment that the shift may have gone too far,” he admits. “You could argue that we now need a new resource to build on the success that the lottery has generated,” he adds.

“There is a danger that you try to manage expectations to such a point that people were losing a sense of what they really wanted to do.” Munro’s first concern is that the changes in funding do not prevent the development of substantial new projects. “What I wanted to do was to enable reasonably ambitious projects to get funding. So last year we looked at projected income up until 2006–2007 and rolled the budgets together to make £16.75million, and invited people to make application for that funding,” he said.

For those looking for funding the moratorium was disappointing, but it does allow for bigger applications, which are currently in the process of being assessed. Applications have been short-listed and the results of the winning applications will be announced at the end of March.
Does the Arts Council take architecture seriously? “It’s unfair to say SAC is not interested in architecture,” said Munro. “The SAC has no formal remit for architecture, but a consequential one. It is an important one for us. For me, Architecture and Design Scotland (ADS) will be important. There is already a discussion about whether we should have a formal relationship.

“Lottery funding allowed us to take informed risks and to create award-winning buildings. We have provided possibilities through competitions, we have supported emerging careers like Malcolm Fraser and Nicol Russell, and even Murphy at DCA, and we have always worked with the RIAS,” said Munro.

“I would say that the SAC does recognise that architecture is very important; we have advocated for it, and the lottery has allowed us to respond. ADS should reassure architects that they have a place. We have always sought to develop creative opportunities for art and architecture. It is not about putting a tapestry on the wall, it is about integration.”

How does the SAC decide which projects should be supported? “The proposals must be inspirational and should transform. A project is a success when it becomes vital and self-sustaining. We are setting the bar high; we see Scotland\'s arts worlds as vibrant and ambitious. We want people to be inspired to provide facilities that transform the lives of the people that they touch. By creating a £16.75million budget, we are deliberately challenging arts organisations to be ambitious.”

So far the SAC has avoided funding any obvious lottery white elephants, like the Sheffield Music Museum or the Big Idea in Irvine (funded by the Millennium Commission). He is keen to avoid supporting projects that are not self-sustaining. “Buildings are a means to an end; they are containers for arts activity. In the arts council work we advocate, additional resources, so that the physical investment doesn\'t end up empty.” Supporting smaller local projects is a significant part of his remit. “The larger projects are always talked about but the smaller projects are equally important, like Nairn’s Little Theatre by Hurd Rolland which is domestic in scale, it will bring an immediate local benefit.”

He rebuts suggestions that, thanks to the Lottery, there is an over-supply or arts venues in some cities. “I don\'t think that there is an over-supply. We have our roots in the right place. The majority of the activity that we fund is not new and we will continue to find funding for the existing infrastructure.” The SAC ensures that organisations receiving funding are accountable. “With our major building awards we have a formal interest in the project for 25 years after it has been completed and we are involved in evaluations,” he said.

Munro is encouraged by the agenda outlined by Jack McConnell in his last St Andrew’s Day speech, and by an executive that places culture and creativity at the heart of all government’s work. He is also convinced that the Cultural Commission may provide backing for funding. “It is early days, but the Cultural Commission is a major resource that we can engage with,” he said.

“The Cultural Commission is looking at the cultural landscape of Scotland and what it will be like in 25 to 30 years time. The first thing we need is an audit of resources on a national basis. It might flag up that we need a major centre for the performing arts, or something else.

“We have to be brave and bold and do what is necessary for that new future, ensure what we have is fit for purpose. We do have many wonderful old buildings that are not fit for purpose. Once we have done the research will have to make some hard decision,” said Munro.

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