5 January 2016
The Guardian

Ellie Harrison is facing outrage over a project that will keep her inside the city’s perimeter. But that’s what arts funding is for – to take risks.

The furore surrounding Ellie Harrison’s latest project, The Glasgow Effect, has been intense, fuelled by tabloid mocking and claims of taxpayer outrage that Creative Scotland should have awarded the year-long durational project £15,000.

Taking its name from the unexplained low life-expectancy for Glaswegians compared with the rest of the UK and Europe, Harrison’s project will see her stay within the perimeter of Greater Glasgow for the next 12 months, creating local projects, exploring the city and documenting it. Many have expressed outrage, saying that their own economic and family circumstances mean they have no choice but to stay within the city for much longer than a year. But they are not turning their lives into art, and that’s a crucial difference. (Of course, many different kinds of transformations, including cultural ones, might be wrought if everyone was given a universal basic income.)

Though Harrison will have to decline other opportunities to devote herself to this project, it may lead to richer opportunities within her adopted city. Not just for her, but for others. Artists might enjoy travelling around the world to work on prestigious projects, but it’s often better for art, communities and the planet when they make work locally and are embedded within local communities. The title of the project takes on a different resonance in this context.

It is too early to assess the outcomes of the project, and Harrison has yet to fully explain what she has in mind. She will have had to make a detailed proposal of her intentions to be awarded the grant. Such sums are not handed out on a whim, as any artist who has sweated over a funding application will know.

And it’s only the beginning of January and the project still has 360 days to run, although, depending on what Harrison does, its effects may be felt long afterwards. There would be no point in Creative Scotland – or Arts Council England or Arts Council Wales – funding a project if it was clear from the start what the outcome was going to be.

The point of subsidy is to fund risk and artists who are taking risks. A lot of the time we talk as if subsidy’s purpose is to fund the next War Horse or Matilda. That’s one of its functions, although it’s arguable that when such significant returns are generated, some should be redirected back to the subsidy pot. But it’s also to fund research and development on projects that may never see the light of day but that may feed into an entire body of work made by an artist or theatre-maker over a lifetime. And it is to fund projects such as The Glasgow Effect, which are a leap of faith in the artist.

Their benefits may not be immediately apparent, but they may turn out to be transformative – not just for Harrison but also for the city in which she lives and works.

Lyn Gardner