THE news, announced on Tuesday of this week, that the Summerhall arts centre in Edinburgh is up for sale on the open market has caused dismay among artists and audiences throughout Scotland and beyond.

The cultural hub – which is located in the old veterinary school of Edinburgh University – has been, arguably, the most important venue on the Edinburgh Fringe since it was opened in 2011.

Summerhall has hosted an impressive range of the world’s leading performing artists and companies, including the famous Russian punk-resistance group Pussy Riot, award-winning Polish company Song Of The Goat and acclaimed Scottish children’s theatre company Catherine Wheels.

Robert McDowell, the founder and director of Summerhall, has said that the sale by Oesselmann Estate Limited (the Isle of Man-based company of which he is a director) is contrary to his “personal wishes”.

Furthermore, he has expressed the “hope” that, under its soon-to-be new owners, Summerhall will continue as an arts venue.

That hope is somewhat overshadowed by the advertisement being run by Cuthbert White, the estate agents handling the sale, which boasts that the “re-development options” for the extensive Summerhall estate include: “boutique hotels, offices, studios, and student housing.”

READ MORE: Call for plan to stop Summerhall being turned into student flats

An online petition – which was launched soon after the sale was announced – had attracted almost 8600 signatures by early yesterday afternoon.

The petition urges the future owners to “preserve Summerhall’s role as a hub for creativity, innovation, and community engagement.”

Edinburgh East MP Tommy Sheppard, in whose constituency Summerhall stands, has called upon Edinburgh City Council to intervene with a “masterplan” to save the venue.

The widespread concern about the future of Summerhall reflects not only people’s feelings about a much-loved venue, but also fears about the gradual, but accelerating diminution of Scotland’s arts provision.

For instance, in October 2022, two of Scotland’s most important independent cinemas, the Edinburgh Filmhouse and the Belmont Cinema, Aberdeen were closed.

Thankfully, plans are afoot for the reopening of these iconic cinemas. However, there was no such reprieve for Glasgow’s internationally acclaimed arts centre The Arches (which was closed down in 2015 following sanctions against its lucrative club nights by the city council’s licensing authorities). The closure created a hole in the city’s arts provision that has never been filled.

Add to this the general, real-terms reductions in public funding for the arts, and there is, quite justifiably, a growing sense of unease about the future of the arts in Scotland. So, what is to be done?

I’m on board with Tommy Sheppard in wanting to see a “masterplan” to save Summerhall. However, I would go much further and say that we need a masterplan to preserve and, more importantly, massively expand arts provision in our society.

The fact is, even a passionate promoter of the arts like McDowell is powerless to prevent the private company of which he is a director from putting his beloved Summerhall up for sale to the highest bidders. This is proof positive that we cannot and must not go further down the road of the United States, where arts provision is left largely in the hands of private individuals and companies.

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However, it isn’t enough to simply call for the arts to be a matter for public funding. The diminishing parcels of cash being distributed by Creative Scotland reflect cuts from the Scottish Government at Holyrood, which, in turn, are laid at the door of the UK Government.

The complete loss of local government funding that has devastated Glasgow’s Tron Theatre is testament to the unreliability of Glasgow City Council’s arts provision.

Likewise the drip, drip decline in the status of the once great Tramway arts centre in Glasgow which has been presided over by the council and, more recently, its “arms length” quango Glasgow Life.

What we need, therefore, is not only public funding of the arts but a radical reorientation of our politics and society where the arts and culture are concerned.

Instead of seeing the arts as a luxury add-on – which we should finance only after we’ve funded essentials such as education, health and housing – we need to understand that, for a human being to flourish, they require the nourishing, not only of their body, but also of their mind and that crucial part of their self that (for want of a more precise term) we call our soul.

Of course, the right-wing philistine or reluctant “pragmatist” will object: “Where’s the money coming from? Are you really saying theatre for children is more important than the NHS or pensions?” etc.

Allow me to burst that specious bubble. The UK is the 27th richest country on Earth, by GDP per capita. The NHS faces crisis in all four nations of the “Kingdom”, poverty and foodbanks abound, schools in working-class areas are desperately under-resourced, not because the nations of the British state are poor, but because they are horribly and increasingly unequal.

We know where the money is. It’s in the bulging profits of big businesses (Tesco has never done better than in the recent circumstances of a global pandemic and massive food inflation, for example).

It’s in the obscene offshore bank accounts of multi-millionaires and billionaires indulging in the legal corruption of “tax avoidance”. It’s also in the UK Government’s military spending: currently standing at £54.2 billion, as compared with £4.48bn on the arts last year.

As a 16-year-old, working-class boy from Cumbernauld, I had the tremendous good fortune of encountering an inspirational English teacher at a state sixth form college in Telford, Shropshire. She opened up to me a world of literature, theatre and artistic culture that transformed my life entirely.

Little wonder, then, that I have a burning contempt for those who seek to portray the arts as an expensive luxury for the middle classes.

“We are all in the gutter, but some of us are looking at the stars,” wrote the great Oscar Wilde.

In our catastrophic times, how else will humanity have the vision to save itself unless it understands that every human being needs bread and roses, too?