“I must be hardest person you’ve ever had to track down,” says Dr Femi Folorunso as he leads me to a private booth. “Yes,” I reply, meaning it. A self-described “anti-social” man with work spanning from the Dundee Rep Theatre to Magnetic North in Edinburgh to the Beacon Arts Centre in Greenock, Folorunso is a difficult person to get hold of. “Thank you.” I get the impression he means it, too.
We’re in the library of Creative Scotland’s Edinburgh hub; a stylish, modern space inside the Waverly Gate. It is Thursday, 7th of March, and I have spent the morning wandering the streets of Edinburgh’s old town, waiting anxiously for the Development Officer of Creative Scotland to text me back with a meeting location. A half hour before our scheduled meeting time I caved and called him, feeling very much like a pest, afraid most of all that he had forgotten I was coming.
Folorunso had chuckled when he answered, as if he could sense my worry down the phone line and was amused by it. He told me to wait for him in the Creative Scotland reception, and when he came down he embraced me warmly, as though our only other meeting hadn’t been a brief, awkward introduction during the interval for All My Sons at the Dundee Rep two weeks before. Now we sit at a secluded table, surrounded by bookshelves. Every book, Folorunso explains, on every shelf in this room, was funded by Creative Scotland. “I can give you forty-five minutes, but, I’m not sure what you’re wanting to talk to me about,” he says. “Maybe you should ask about Creative Scotland; what we do here.” I nod. “I wanted to speak about Creative Scotland, and about you – your work in theatre, your career, how you ended up on this side of the arts.” “You mean how I ended up a bureaucrat.” He gives a wry smile.
“I’ve been with Creative Scotland since it’s beginning about five years ago,” Folorunso tells me. I try to maintain eye contact with him while he talks, but his eyes constantly flit about. I highly doubt it’s nerves; rather, it’s because his mind is racing. Even speaking succinctly, it takes ten minutes for him to describe his career trajectory, and the kind of work he does now. How he started off as an academic, with a PhD from Edinburgh University in English Literature, working as the director of, and occasional teacher at, the Scottish University International Summer School. How his career path changed in 2002 with the decision to join the Scottish Arts Council – one of the two organisations which, along with Scottish Screen, would become Creative Scotland: “My plan was originally to be on the Scottish Arts Council for two years. One thing lead to another – I was enjoying the work I was doing, work regarding policies – and I decided to stay.”
From overseeing the Arts Council’s cultural diversity policies, Folorunso became part of the new general equalities team, and was then moved to a specialist theatre team based on his background in dramatic theory. “I’ve always been a dramatic theorist. My strength, my whole academic work, has been in the sphere of popular theatre. So I’m a dramatic theorist in one sense, but then that’s contrasted with all of this bureaucracy. It’s a kind of marriage made in heaven, doing all this work,” he smiles again. “So that’s my background. Yes, I’ve had all kinds of internal movements within the organisation, but I’ve never been far away from my critical aesthetic and my intellectual interests in my every day work.” “You’re lucky,” I tell him. He laughs a little at that. “Well…”
More than any of these “internal movements”, it seems that the biggest transition for Folorunso has been from the world of academia to the world of practical policies: “My background, you could say, is in cultural studies. So coming to the Arts Council was me moving from the abstract side of cultural studies, with all of its historical background and understanding, into the practical side of cultural studies,” he explains. He adds,
I was faced with this opportunity of bringing all those abstract things I had read about and written about and seeing them in actual practice. One of the remarkable discoveries for me was suddenly realising that when we talk about culture, sometimes we forget that we’re living that process of culture… In academia, you can talk about the research, you can map things in a historical context; but in the context of these institutions, they are live, they are dynamic. These institutions are dealing with the everyday politics and conflicts of culture. And those politics and conflicts don’t manifest themselves in the kind of “crises” that we associate with these things. They are usually very subtle; terribly invisible, but always there.
While he describes the situation as “frustrating”, Folorunso also stresses the importance of not blaming individuals for not always being aware of wider political implications when discussing cultural policies. The problem is simply that there is such a myriad of factors, none of them obvious: “The temptation, or rather mistake, common for people like me is to say ‘Oh, they are just stupid’. But no, these people are not stupid – in fact many of them are brilliant. The issue is that the context in which they are operating is all about invisible factors.” He sums the problem up with a practical example:
Coming in with an academic mind, the first thing I had to unlearn was the standoffish academic mindset… Take for example when I first arrived: one of my first lessons was looking at the way theatre – which was always one of my interests – was being funded. On paper you could say ‘Oh, this is the way theatre is being funded in Scotland’ and so on and so forth. But actually the bulk of the funding in theatre in Scotland is taken by organisations in the central belt. Scotland is not the central belt alone!
We talk more about this need for Creative Scotland to ensure funding is spread equally across the country, and how this relates to the notion of “cultural diversity”, a notion Folorunso has championed throughout his career. In fact, Folorunso argues, an equal geographical spread of funding is the best way to achieve cultural diversity, at least in terms of how Creative Scotland operates. You have to work towards granting equal opportunities to produce and experience art for all areas of Scotland, then other diversifying features such as class or disability will become easier to handle in turn:
We’re talking about diversity in terms of programme, diversity in terms of audience, but when it comes to policy intervention, we’re also looking at diversity in terms of cities, in terms of who delivers what, and to whom. And this encompasses all the core issues of gender, race, economic opportunities and so on. It also involves the issue of facilities: of access and infrastructure. My own particular view of diversity, which I admit is not one of those views you can reduce to bullet points, is that we are working in terms of fairness, equity and the opening up of citizenship – for every citizen in the country, irrespective of all those other issues like race, gender, orientation and so on. We want to deliver Scottish culture to every citizen; every citizen should be able to participate in the cultural life of the country, as citizens first, with all those extraneous factors second. In other words, the state should protect all of us equally. And that’s what institutions should aim to do in my opinion.
However, he also expresses concern about over-simplifying the issue. There’s only so deeply a person can go into such a nebulous topic in a single interview, after all:
I hope I’m not implying that everything is hunky dory. These are complex issues which we have to deal with on a daily basis. But what always interests me in this work is the underpinnings about citizenship, about access and participation, equality and opportunity, and most importantly of all, about the guarantee of freedom of expression. Without all of those things, you don’t have a dynamic cultural space.
But how does Creative Scotland work towards this goal of delivering culture to all of Scotland? The easiest way to explain that, according to Folorunso, is to give some insight into how the institution processes applications and distributes support. Folorunso explains in detail the two main funding opportunities Creative Scotland offers. For individual artists looking for research funding or support to develop a project, there is the Open Project Fund. Artists can apply for the Under £15k Category, or, with a little extra paperwork, the Over £15k Category (which offers up to £100,000). Meanwhile, larger organisations can apply to become one of Creative Scotland’s Regularly Funded Organisations (RFO), of which Folorunso reckons there are currently around 150. To apply, organisations submit a program of upcoming work. If it fits in with Creative Scotland’s own agenda, the organisation receives a 3-year funding package. However there are conditions: for one, the organisation much produce at least 2 large-scale projects every year. These RFOs come from all over Scotland, Folorunso assures me. It does mean an awful lot of work and travel for him and his colleagues however:
At the moment I am lead officer for five theatres across Scotland: the new Gaelic based theatre company in Glasgow, Gu Leòr; Magnetic North in Edinburgh; Cumbernauld Theatre; the Beacon Arts Centre in Greenock and Dundee Rep – although they have a separate officer for dance. Firstly, you see how spread out they are. Yes, they’re all central belt, but I do have colleagues in other places – I have a colleague in Skye for example, and another in Inverness. These RFOs constitute in many ways, if you like, the building blocks of cultural activities. They also have relationships with local authorities. Once we have decided who is an RFO we start working on our relationship with them: whether they fulfil the terms of their funding; whether or not there’s things they need to change. It’s easier described than done. You have to look at the management, at the governors, because this is protected public funding. It’s not their money, it’s not my money, it’s the taxpayers money – but somebody has to be accountable for it. That relationship is one of the most enjoyable but also most challenging and engaging parts of my job.
Assessing applications from individual artists applying for the OPF sounds more straightforward:
In terms of applicants coming to us for funding through the OPF, it’s very easy. You look at the application on its own terms: what is the artistic quality? The two core criteria are artistic quality and public engagement. Is this project good enough? Is it likely to achieve its desired outcome? What is its desired outcome? Who will deliver it? Most importantly of all, who is the audience? How will the project reach them? Just tell us what you’re doing, how you’re doing it and who will benefit from it.
The applications go through two rounds of assessment over a process of twelve weeks. First, the application is given to a specialist depending on the art form of the proposed project. Folorunso, for example, specialises in dramatic theatre. Having looked at an application individually, Folorunso will then bring it to the rest of the theatre department where they will assess it as a panel, based purely on the quality of the work and the feasibility of the project. If the application passes this first stage, it is then brought before a panel made up of all the different departments. It is in this final stage that the matter of location and representation is most prominent:
Each assessor has to look at the core issues, including issues of representation, including issues of geography, but it is at the wide panel that the issue of geography is most discussed. For example, if you have a panel who have enough money to support all ten of the proposals on the table, it doesn’t automatically mean they’ll support all ten, because if it happens that of the ten proposals eight are from the central belt that’s a problem. The panel has to think “No, this isn’t fair. What about other parts of Scotland? What’s happening there?”
“Fairness” is obviously the key issue here, for Creative Scotland as a whole and for Folorunso. There is almost a defensiveness in his tone as he stresses this, which makes me wonder if Creative Scotland may have been accused of being unfair to talented artists who do happen to be from large, rich urban centres. Could they be in danger of prioritising where an application comes from over its artistic quality, in the name of quotas? In fact, he tells me without prompting – as if anticipating the question – the two-step nature of the assessment specifically prevents this from happening:
Some people might say, ‘Oh, so it’s a lottery’, but don’t forget the purpose of the assessment is to bring out the qualified applications, the proposals that are good enough to be funded. It’s not until you reach the panel stage that all these other factors come in. So it’s not about using ideology to trump quality. Everybody gets a fair crack at the beginning.
A few times in the interview, I try to ask Folorunso about what he personally looks for in an application, what he considers “quality”. Always, however, the word “we” creeps in, and his replies refer back to this assessment process; to how Creative Scotland as an entity screens applications. No doubt this is because Folorunso has been part of the institution, working to develop its policies, since its founding. He has “confidence” in the system and in his colleagues, who are just as “passionate about art and their specific art form” as he is. This collective dedication to ensuring art forms find their audience is what creates the “the everyday dynamism” Folorunso loves in his work and in Scotland’s creative culture.
So if you want to gain an impression of Femi Folorunso’s character, perhaps the best way is to look at the way the institution he’s helped to create operates: meticulous, fair, but also working at an intense pace on a nation-wide scale. And, of course, devoted to the sharing of culture.
My promised forty-five minutes are up, but Folorunso gives me five more. I ask him what his advice is for new artists, in general and when applying for funding from Creative Scotland:
I would like to see artists engaging with more of the infrastructure that’s in place, more than just working alone. I’d also like to see a more reflexive approach to cultural production from artists: think about who the audience are, and most importantly of all, don’t forget the history of the art form. But I’m also very optimistic. I’ve seen some very brilliant works from time to time. I’ve seen some brilliant minds emerging.
As for applying for funding, his advice is simple.
“Go and look at the Creative Scotland website!” he quips. But then he adds a caveat. “But as far as I’m concerned sometimes I would rather people were looking at what’s on the ground first; talking to theatre institutions. Find out what organisations are funded by Creative Scotland and go to them. Ask them ‘What are you doing to support people like me?’”
Dr Femi Folorunso is the Development Officer for Creative Scotland. His areas of expertise are dramatic theatre and the history of theatre. He is the lead officer for the Dundee Rep Theatre; the Gu Leòr theatre in Glasgow; Magnetic North in Edinburgh; Cumbernauld Theatre, and the Beacon Arts Centre in Greenock.