International Touring for the Modestly Resourced

by Fraser Anderson

doi: 10.18278/aia.

Fraser Anderson was Chief Executive at Scottish Ensemble (SE) until September 2018, and he has worked for the organisation for six years. He is currently working towards a Professional Doctorate at Queen Margaret University, Edinburgh, and also works as a consultant for a range of organisations, including SE. Prior to working for SE, Fraser held management positions at the Royal Conservatoire of Scotland, London Symphony Orchestra and worked at the Donmar Warehouse, London. He has presented at numerous UK and international conferences, contributed to advisory panels, and until recently was a Board member of the Association of British Orchestras.

Scottish Ensemble (SE) was founded by John Calder and Leonard Freidman in 1969, initially to be the orchestra for eighteenth-century opera productions at Ledlanet House in Perthshire. The ensemble evolved quickly, broadening its repertoire and touring activities significantly to become a major force in Scotland’s classical music scene. It was, and is, a conductorless string orchestra with a dynamic and engaging performance style.

SE is currently a Creative Scotland Regularly Funded Organisation and presents a busy season of performances, collaborations, and community-focused work across Scotland, the UK, and internationally. Recent international engagements have seen the group perform at the Shanghai International Festival (China), Edinburgh International Festival (UK), Kennedy Center (USA), and Barbican Centre (UK).

Developing and touring the right work, in today’s crowded and complex international performing arts marketplace, requires a huge investment of organisational resource. Yes, there are large, well-established orchestras, theatre companies, and dance groups which have woven international touring into their corporate DNA, but for many, it can be tough.

The purpose of this article is to share some of what I have learnt about working internationally during my time as Chief Executive of SE. SE is based in Glasgow (Scotland) and presents concerts and collaborations alongside creative learning and outreach activity in Scotland, the UK, and internationally. While its projects are now increasingly in demand, it does not have the same level of financial support as Scotland’s national companies, and until recently its international profile was relatively modest, though this has begun to change in recent years.

While the touring logistics of the performing arts differ significantly, much of the general reflection in this article can be applied to any performing art form, though classical music touring is its primary lens.

As well as talking openly about major strategic organisational shifts that took place between 2012 and 2018 to help us develop a more sustainable international presence, this article also explores some of the structural barriers and positive catalysts we encountered as the ensemble renewed its international ambitions. It explains how we shaped a distinctive and growing international reputation by taking bold steps into new and unknown artistic territory, finding new models of partnership to support our work, and creating a strong public narrative around change.

Creating, selling and touring international projects is always a complex undertaking. For those who are able to launch their work in the global marketplace, momentum and profile can build, leading to new international opportunities and the establishment of a cycle of success. And audiences at home may subtly shift their perception of an organisation: “well, if it’s good enough for concert halls in New York and Paris…” is a phrase we might imagine being said by prospective audience members browsing the myriad culture choices available in most developed cities today.

Sometimes, of course, things can go in a different direction. Work that’s been successful at home doesn’t always translate to the unforgiving international marketplace. There are companies which don’t prepare well enough, or those which make a catastrophic error with their budget, letting down agents, artists, and presenters when they pull out of a tour.

Ultimately though, for many companies, becoming part of a global community positively influences the work they do, widening horizons and inspiring them to keep their level of ambition high. Sometimes, they even make money.

When an international project does come to fruition (many don’t), it can be a transformative moment for a company, propelling them into a different category of organisation. Akram Khan’s multidisciplinary contemporary dance company is a shining example of a UK arts organisation that has used international touring to swiftly and successfully grow general visibility over a relatively short period. The London Symphony Orchestra’s unceasing touring schedule includes recurring residencies at the Lincoln Center in New York, Philharmonie de Paris, and Suntory Hall in Tokyo. A glance at the LSO’s corporate material clearly shows that international reach has been a key part of their overall company vision and UK marketing strategy since their founding.

However, this article is more concerned with small- and medium-sized companies, such as SE, which have a less established international touring program but have the potential for growth. What can they do to harness this potential?

Scottish Ensemble

I took the helm at SE during a time when the organisation was on an upward trajectory after a period of promotional inertia on the international front. The previous CEO—with the paid-for support of touring agencies—had recently managed to re-launch and tour the organisation into the non-UK marketplace with some considerable success. These fruitful touring projects could be described as relatively traditional classical music products, often pairing a renowned classical instrumentalist with core repertoire. However, my predecessor had, at the same time, experimented with ideas to re-invent the artistic projects SE produced in the UK, with the longer-term aim of using these to forge a more distinctive path in the international market. When I was appointed to the CEO position, this new, more innovation-led route to international success was as yet untrodden; however, I did benefit significantly from inheriting an organisation on an upward trajectory.


Figure 1: Scottish Ensemble musicians in performance

As the incoming CEO, it was my job to harness these recent and discrete artistic achievements, taking early momentum to the next level both at home and internationally. I was also aware that what we were touring to international audiences was quite different from our newer UK work and that this creative dissonance could become a major issue if left unresolved. While it is common for UK organisations to experiment with more daring work within their home, subsidised environment first, I felt that the size of the artistic gulf between our offerings could result in organisational schizophrenia and audience bewilderment further down the line.

SE’s projects are created primarily for Scottish audiences (culture is a devolved area of government policy in the UK), but we have always felt that working outside of our borders is an important and enriching part of what we do, no matter the prevailing political view of the time.

The Flexible String Orchestra

SE is flexible in terms of its instrumental forces, but is perhaps best known for performances of the string orchestra repertoire. Relatively well-known examples of this repertoire include the Serenades by Tchaikovsky, Dvorak and Elgar, alongside famous Baroque-period works by Bach, Vivaldi, and Telemann. There are actually a huge number of works written for string orchestra, but only a few have entered the category of “safe” and “programmable” works that are—all things being equal—highly likely to ensure audiences will attend.

The number of our direct string orchestra competitors is relatively small, certainly compared to the number of chamber or symphony orchestras operating in the international marketplace. Three of SE’s best-known and most internationally successful competitors are the Australian Chamber Orchestra, Amsterdam Sinfonietta, and Ensemble Resonanz. Each of these groups foreground string performance, though the approach and level of emphasis differs from ensemble to ensemble. Some also perform with woodwind, brass, and percussion on a regular basis. At the other end of the string-focused scale, quartets are another source of competition, particularly because their core repertoire is widely seen as some of the richest and most rewarding in all the classical canons.

Each of these groups was founded for different reasons, in different contexts, and under a particular artistic leadership. What I would argue that they have in common now is a broad set of artistic influences that extend beyond the string orchestra repertoire. This is, in part, due to the type of artistically curious and ambitious musicians these smaller, high-level groups attract.

Playing in smaller, conductorless groups invites a higher degree of autonomy and places a significant degree of performance pressure on musicians: the individual performances of each and every string player in these groups impact the audience experience in a way it might not within a symphony orchestra context. Studies, such as a management paper (Anon 2003) on another small, flexible, and conductorless group, the Orpheus Chamber Orchestra, show that musicians in these groups generally enjoy both high levels of motivation and job satisfaction rates when compared to colleagues in other, larger groups.

Another factor these groups have in common—as I mentioned earlier—is that the core sellable string orchestra repertoire is so small it would take a group hardly any time at all to work through it. Even if some musicians or managers would like to, a group can’t tour the world performing Tchaikovsky’s Serenade for Strings and Bach concerti year in, year out.

So, in order to keep musicians, audiences, and presenters interested, SE and its peer group organisations have had to think beyond the obvious programming options, building performance projects that create new artistic connections to and beyond classical repertoire.

Video 1. Jon Frank and the Australian Chamber Orchestra, “The Glide.”

Video 2. Ensemble Resonanz, “grenzstimmen—offbeat disappearances.”

This type of artistic work—exploring formats, repertoire, and collaboration outside a core classical canon and approach—is work that the larger chamber orchestras (with their diet of Classical symphonies and concerti) and symphony orchestras (with their huge variety of options) simply don’t need to do. That’s of course not to say that they shouldn’t do it. And, to be fair, a relatively small number do. Aurora Orchestra’s (London) “Orchestral Theatre” programming and The Saint Paul Chamber Orchestra’s (Minnesota) “Liquid Music Series” are two notable examples.

Partly as a result of occupying a small corner of the traditional classical music marketplace, string orchestras have become one of the classical music sector’s most positive and innovative forces. They often combine a stellar level of musicianship with creative curiosity and openness to risk-taking that is lacking in some other areas of the sector. Each of these organisations has chosen to balance program innovation with more traditional projects differently, but in all cases, there is a clear strand of ground-breaking work.

Dutch music practice researcher and curator Masa Spaan (2018) coins the term “synergetic concert dramaturgy” as a way of describing this ground-breaking work that takes classical music repertoire as its starting point and makes new connections. These projects think about space, design, movement, storytelling, or other extramusical factors as a way of making the classical concert experience a more contemporary and relevant one in today’s world. The aim is not only to renew the genre’s connection with audiences but also to develop new artistic practice that enriches the repertoire itself. And, since SE introduced this mixed program of creative concepts in 2014, audiences in its home city of Glasgow have more than doubled. 

Initiating Cross-artform and Interdisciplinary Work

SE first introduced these innovative, ground-breaking elements into its programming during the UK 2014 season.  This season included our first major cross-artform project which was staged in our home city of Glasgow. It explored connections between the city’s significant legacy of Modernist architecture, contemporary art that explored this heritage, and classical music from the same twentieth-century period. This site-specific production was made in collaboration with internationally renowned Scottish artist Toby Paterson. It guided audiences through a derelict section of an important Richard Seifert building, placing new work by Paterson alongside curated sets of music that were performed in different sections of this sprawling Modernist complex.

Video 3. Scottish Ensemble and “20th-Century Perspectives.”


For this project and others like it, we had several key measures of artistic and operational success, including audience numbers and feedback, critical reception, artist feedback, and peer review. As the Scotsman’s 2014 review of the project said:

…..the tired shibboleths surrounding concerts were tossed aside in favour of something closer to an exciting event…utterly enthralling, this is what music is all about. (Nickalls 2014)

Management and Board had agreed on what business success would look like and how this would be measured and evaluated. This understanding was essential if we were to grasp the effect of the changes we were introducing.

Following this first project, our performance indicators (sales, audience numbers and reaction, critical reception, self-review, and peer review) were more positive than we had dared hope. It felt as if we had tapped into something; these projects, although very different to what we had done before, felt like an artistic homecoming. They were a contemporary, relevant, and stimulating expression of values that had been with the organisation since our founding in 1969.

Figure 2. Audience and musicians at the Anderston Centre, Glasgow, for “20th-Century Perspectives.”

Very soon after this project, inspired by its success, we asked ourselves: how can we find the networks and resources to tour this new kind of innovative cross-artform work?

The Classical Music Marketplace

When we were creating a new strategy for international touring, our working hypothesis was that there were, broadly speaking, three main ways in which a classical music organisation can become successful internationally. The first and most widespread is to tour almost exclusively with bankable star soloists, conductors, and composers. There is a huge range of musical quality within the group of touring organisations who take this approach—some are working at an incredibly high artistic level, but others are not. This formula presents the lowest risk to both touring organisations and their international presenters.

Much of the classical music marketplace, in territories such as North America, largely favor groups which present this type of traditional project, a story that may be familiar to managers in other artforms; however, classical music has fewer popular subcategories or breakaway streams when compared with dance or theatre, unless one considers jazz or pop as part of the contemporary classical music continuum.  Partly as a result of these boundaries of genre within music, conservatism is often a characteristic of the classical music marketplace. Orchestras are expensive, existing audiences are seen as traditional in their taste, new audiences are more difficult to attract, and sponsors often favor the known.

Another approach to touring is to present repertoire in a way that is excellent and your own, putting your own distinctive and world-class stamp on a particular range of classical repertoire. Young Greek conductor Teodor Currentzis’ visionary, carefully constructed approach to Beethoven’s symphonies and Mozart’s operas enables audiences to hear these compositions afresh, as if the ink on the score had only just dried. As the Guardian said of Currentzis at his 2018 all-Beethoven BBC Prom:

…we get playing of an intensity that makes the music seem somehow Beethoven-plus; more Beethoven than ever before. (Jeal 2018)

Video 4. Teodor Currentzis records Mozart’s “Le nozze di Figaro.”

A more radical approach still is to do something that is original, innovative, and high quality that is new to both audiences and presenters. In this example, I’m thinking beyond the performance of either existing or commissioned music and towards creating a new (or at least rediscovered) kind of classical music presentation. Aurora’s memorisation of Mozart, Beethoven, and Shostakovich symphonies has brought them recent acclaim. Patricia Kopatchinskaja’s “Bye Bye Beethoven” project with the Mahler Chamber Orchestra is another example. This semi-staged performance includes costume, set and light design and creates a strong narrative around the concert’s wide range of musical repertoire.

She has a visionary approach to performance and curation, and has said:

…classical music is like a big cruise ship, with everyone sitting in the back looking backward, at the past. No one is sitting in front looking forward. (Kopatchinskaja 2016)

Her projects are controversial and sometimes divisive, but no one accuses her of being derivative. Through intellectual enquiry, dazzling ability as a violinist, a powerful on-stage presence and serious engagement with public debate, she has managed to establish herself on the international circuit while also breaking with the conventions of the sector. This is no small achievement.

Video 5. Patricia Kopatchinskaja and Mahler Chamber Orchestra, “Bye Bye Beethoven.”

One of the key strengths of building this kind of project is that it creates an artistic output that is unique to one organisation and cannot be easily repeated by a peer organisation. This is one of the ways that smaller organisations can make more rapid gains within the international marketplace. Within the context of SE, the 2015 production Goldberg Variations—ternary patterns for insomnia was one such project that led to a significant increase in international profile. A full description of this interdisciplinary project is given in a later section of this piece.

Renewing Values

In a fast-moving world and cultural scene, it seems to me that organisations need to continually review and develop their activities in order that their output continues to represent their core values and unique offering to the marketplace. If an organisation stays the same for too long, it can become irrelevant, artistically stale, and a hollow expression of what once made it great. To remain true to your organisational values in a contemporary and relevant way, you must keep evolving.

SE has always been driven to give audiences new, engaging, and contemporary experiences of classical music. During the 1990s, an eclectic range of repertoire, standing up to perform, a stylish on-stage appearance, and a visceral, engaging musical sound helped to provide this differentiation and contemporary identity. However, as more groups adopted a similar approach, these factors were no longer enough to ensure our offering was on, or near, the cutting-edge. From around 2010, we had to rethink what a commitment to ideas of “innovation,” “difference,” “experimentation,” and “entrepreneurialism” actually meant at the start of this new decade.

Given hard evidence from our home market—and a gut instinct that this would be a positive development for the group—the SE team took the decision to explore opportunities to share our cross-artform work with an international audience. This was not a straightforward step. Our touring partners had developed a view of what our artistic offer was, and a developing support network had grown around the organisation to help facilitate a more traditional type of international working.

Early explorations to tour cross-artform output didn’t bear much fruit. This new kind of work was more expensive, limited our venue choice, and was more difficult to explain. It’s easy to talk about a concert program or a soloist biography, but it’s more difficult to describe a creative, cross-artform response to a piece of classical repertoire, written narrative, or another artistic artefact. This new way of developing performance projects at SE was more akin to how a theatre or dance company works, and the classical music world was—and is—not yet entirely adjusted to this kind of conversation. “Couldn’t you do a version of this program that’s just a straight performance?” was a question that was heard on more than one occasion.

However, based on our positive indicators, we stuck to a belief in our new product and persevered. This meant diverting organisational resource away from our more traditional touring projects which was, of course, a significant risk. In the 1970s, SE had been very present across the world—partly because of its imaginative and maverick founder-director, Leonard Friedman—but this presence was reduced by the time we reached the 1990s and 2000s. It wasn’t till 2012 that international work started to grow again, and this was based on a more traditional product. The new relationships that this recent touring was based on were fragile and lacked long-term interorganisational trust, which of course was understandable. However, we all innately believed that not being bound by this recently renewed network was worth the risk, and again we persevered.

Figure 3. Scottish Ensemble Canada tour programme 1978.

Eventually though, people gradually began to notice and hear about the change in our program. It was recognised by audiences, critics, and sector colleagues that the new work we were producing was of a very high quality. At this time, we were developing an ambitious new collaborative project with a Swedish dance company—Andersson Dance. This would go on to be SE’s most successful international project ever, something we could not have appreciated at the time. At this moment, halfway through 2015, our aim was to find an immediate opportunity to present our new strand of work internationally.

British Council

UK classical music organisations are fortunate to benefit from a well-connected and highly knowledgeable Music team at the British Council. They were one of the first to spot the new work that we were creating, and as a result in 2015 they asked SE to showcase its projects as part of their UK–Brazil Transform programme that aimed to support the development of a stronger classical music infrastructure in Brazil. Over the course of three years, three different orchestras producing excellent work in different regions of the UK were invited to showcase the innovation they were spearheading within the UK sector. In 2014, Aurora Orchestra was the first to travel to Brazil, SE the second, and the Royal Northern Sinfonia were the third and final group to participate.

While the resources available were limited, SE was still able to showcase its new work through films, performance, and conference presentations. This British Council platform not only raised the profile of our work in general, but also helped to begin a gradual shift of international perception in what the organisation was producing. There was also a genuine knowledge exchange; we learned a great deal about some of Brazil’s most successful music education projects and had the opportunity to perform alongside talented classical players from throughout the country.

Figure 4. Scottish Ensemble musicians working with a national Brazilian youth orchestra.

One of the projects we were able to showcase in Brazil was a genre-blurring collaboration with composer Sally Beamish, fiddle player Chris Stout, and harp player Catriona McKay. At the performances of this work in Rio de Janeiro and Sao Paulo, audiences were immediately drawn to the rich, distinctive musical material that combined Scottish traditional styles with a contemporary classical one. It was something outside of what a classical audience would expect to hear, but it also had obvious artistic integrity and musical authenticity that made an immediate and powerful connection, as it had when we performed it in Scotland. It was not a traditional classical program with bankable star soloists, but still audiences came and felt connected to the music-making on stage.

Video 6. Scottish Ensemble and Sally Beamish’s “Seavaigers.”

The British Council talks about its role as one of connectors, facilitators, or intermediaries. The days of the organisation taking large, expensive theatre productions or orchestras on long tours to politically important territories, are largely over. However, their deep knowledge of the UK sector and how its most valuable and excellent work might interact with global priorities is a huge asset to the arts in the UK. Given their connecting role, it made complete sense for them to be one of the first to shed light on the new work SE was undertaking and connect it to an international project.

The British Council is, of course, the UK’s cultural relations organisation. They not only promote the work of home organisations but also try to foster greater understanding between nations through collaboration and education. SE’s collaborative projects echo or amplify many of the British Council’s explicit and implied objectives: mutual understanding through cross-border collaboration, an open-minded approach to creating arts projects with different creative and cultural influences, supporting artists to develop and stretch their creative abilities for the good of society and audiences, and an engagement with art that speaks to current societal trends. This synthesis of values or objectives is what, I believe, has made both organisations strong partners on several occasions in recent years, including for our 2015 collaboration in Brazil.

Artistic and International Connectors

Another significant facilitator of international work for SE has been the connections it has built through artistic collaborators. As the breadth of our artistic work has widened, it has meant that we have come into contact with a new range of agents, venues, and promotional networks that can help to further our international ambitions. When our offering was narrower, our main artistic and organisational collaborators were from the classical world, whereas now we interact with the worlds of other art forms and musical genres. This has meant that while our offering has become less relevant for some classical presenters, it has connected us to other networks.

One of the most successful of these new international relationships was our collaboration with Swedish dance company Andersson Dance. In 2015, we created a piece together that combined five dancers and eleven musicians into one company of artists. Taking Bach’s Goldberg Variations as its core material, this work presents a much-loved piece of Baroque repertoire in a contemporary and courageous way. Musicians are choreographed alongside dancers, moving across the stage in costume, memorising sections of music, creating spoken dialog, and inhabiting on-stage characters. The production has been described as a “thrilling reinvention *****” (Hewitt 2018) and as “a revelation on several levels *****” (Brennan 2015).

Video 7. Scottish Ensemble, ‘Goldberg Variations—ternary patterns for insomnia”

Classical audiences are often transfixed by the fresh perspective this staged cross-artform collaboration gives them on Bach’s genius and his work’s infinite complexity. It is a production that we could never have created or devised on our own—it required the collaboration and perspective of an organisation that would take us to new artistic and organisational terrain.

In collaborating with this Swedish company, we were able to combine our financial resources and international contacts with theirs to create a touring life for this production that would otherwise be difficult to achieve. In the first touring stage, both companies invested heavily in touring the work within their home markets (Scotland and Sweden) before touring to venues in Europe. In the second and third year of touring, we were able to take the production to large, prestigious stages such as the Shanghai International Arts Festival, Barbican Centre (London), and Kennedy Center (Washington, D.C.). In these latter years, the companies were able to tour the work without drawing on their own financial resources, and this was essential in order for new large-scale work to be in the creative pipeline.

Figure 5. Goldberg Variations banners outside the Cadillac Shanghai Concert Hall.

The success of this production proved to us that our decision to concentrate organisational resource on finding new ways to present work internationally was the right one.  There was no obvious pre-existing model of touring that either organisation could work to, in the sense that while collaborative projects like Goldberg Variations were not unheard of, neither organisation had the existing networks to help tour it beyond our home circuits. Its ambition and scale meant it was expensive, even for large national presenters. It being neither a pure dance show nor a concert hall piece, careful attention had to be paid to venue, in terms of aesthetic, technical capability, acoustic, and also its audience. Finding the right balance of these practical and artistic needs in each venue was often a challenge.

However, we were able to create a touring life for the show through careful relationship building and of course by showcasing the strength of the artistic idea. Achieving this international interest did require a significant amount of staff effort on both the Scottish and Swedish side, but the results for both companies were transformative, launching both organisations in a new way on the international scene.

We decided to promote Goldberg Variations ourselves in the first instance. Agents, particularly classical music agents, work with a certain range of presenter relationships, and our Goldberg Variations project sat outside of that. That’s not to say that they didn’t value our work or see the quality of the idea, it was just that it didn’t easily fit into the classical box and so presenters were wary of taking the risk. To promote the project, we had to undertake careful, targeted conversations and work with venues to help them understand what our work was trying to achieve and how it could connect with their audiences.

Three years after its premiere and 30 performances on, we are still regularly approached to present the work at venues across the world. It is by far the most internationally successful project either company has undertaken, but without collaboration and a pooling of resources it would have been impossible.

This is a much more complex process than curating a classical music program and touring it, but ultimately, for us, it was incredibly rewarding as it allowed us to share work that we felt was creatively distinctive. It’s early days, but now that we’ve started to develop these new relationships, future touring conversations are becoming easier, both for us and for agents. In fact, Goldberg Variations will be presented again in the United States during 2019 through an agent relationship.

National Structures  

At this point, it is worth highlighting some of the structural challenges we faced in developing and touring this work internationally, particularly at a governmental level. Reflecting on my experience—and on conversations with colleagues in Scotland—one of the challenges for organisations working within a devolved administration is the complexity and quantity of UK political relationships any one organisation should ideally hold.

Devolution has delivered many positives, and the arts scene in Scotland has hardly been more vibrant than it is today. In the Scottish context, devolution means there is a parliament in the capital city of Scotland. Edinburgh’s parliament has key decision-making powers, for example in determining spending and policy in Health, Policing, Education, Social Care, and the Arts. However, the majority of tax policy originates at a UK parliamentary level, so the biggest slice of Scottish government income is determined by London, i.e. there is significant power around spending but not around raising tax for that spending. Growth in the creative industries has consistently performed above the growth rate of the economy in general, and in the last three years alone employment in the creative industries has increased by over 15%.  When I first left to study and work in London in 2006, the number of professional opportunities at home felt very limited. In 2013, when I returned permanently to Scotland, the sector had moved on significantly.

At this time, most of the national performing companies (Scottish Opera, Royal Scottish National Orchestra, Scottish Ballet, Scottish Chamber Orchestra, and National Theatre of Scotland) were on an upward trajectory, and the rest of the sector felt buoyant. The wider creative sector appeared more self-confident—broadcasters, media companies, video game producers, theatre companies, and orchestras were increasingly successful and outward looking.

A clear and promising sign of this self-confidence was the fast growth and widespread success of Scotland’s new national theatre, with acclaimed productions such as Black Watch and Macbeth reaching a wide audience at home and throughout the world. Scotland was producing work that was distinctive, created at home, with a domestic identity and purpose, but with international reach. To me, this felt new and exciting.

Video 8. National Theatre of Scotland’s Macbeth trailer.

This richer and more distinctive Scottish scene had been, in part, supported and developed by public policy from Scotland, rather than Westminster. Scotland now has arms of government—and indeed the third sector—that are also replicated in London. London’s Department for Culture Media and Sport’s counterpart is Edinburgh’s Culture, Tourism and Major Events Directorate; the UK’s embassy network is now complemented by a suite of Scottish staff tasked to promote the country’s distinctive output; and the British Council has further developed its policies and teams in the UK nations. These are just a few examples.

What this has meant is that there are now differences in policy and strategic direction between these central and devolved government departments. For arts leaders, this means developing a new range of relationships, and to some extent managing the interactions between them. For a large organisation, this is a relatively easy task to manage, but for a small team producing a large amount of work, this fragmentation creates complexity that is a real challenge to manage.

As the constitutional settlement shifts in the UK, we are all feeling our way year by year, but at times the lack of clarity from funders and development agencies can mean missed opportunities. To some extent, there is also understandable competition between these departments and agencies, but from a manager’s perspective a clearer definition about who does what, why, and when would help us to represent our nations and country more effectively.

There are international colleagues who seem to have created a better settlement than we have, so far. It seems the joined-up state support mechanisms in Sweden, for example, mean that in-country departments and the embassy network work together to create international opportunities and the funding this requires. The constitutional settlement in Canada also allows for divergence in policy, but there seems to be clearer division between provincial and federal government roles. The success of Quebec’s artists abroad is a clear example of joined-up policy-making. 

Creative Scotland and the National Companies

From the perspective of a Creative Scotland-funded organisation, there are still issues with the policies the devolved government and its arms-length body follow for the development of international work. I have no doubt that intentions are good and that there is a will to create the right structures, but the reality does not quite meet the intention.

For example, the already well-funded National Companies in Scotland (listed above) have access to an international/expo touring fund that Creative Scotland-funded organisations do not. While not explicitly stated as far as I’ve seen, there is an implicit suggestion that the work of the national companies is (a) of a higher quality and (b) more likely to be successful internationally. I wouldn’t go along with this line of argument, either within the classical music sector or in other areas of the arts.

This artificial distinction between Scottish “national company” and those who are not means nothing in the international marketplace. Presenters want to show excellent work and would have no idea that SE is not a national company, while, for example, the Scottish Chamber Orchestra is. The same would hold outside of Scotland where this funding distinction does not exist: a dance presenter is not likely to book English National Ballet over Matthew Bourne’s company purely because the former has the word “national” in it. This Scottish Government policy creates a significant imbalance in the sector, meaning that larger organisations are often more competitively priced relative to their smaller counterparts.

As I have mentioned above, within the classical music sector it is the smaller companies which are creating some of the most interesting and innovative work, yet there is no year-round, large-scale formal mechanism in Scotland to support the touring of this work. The policy idea was surely to give Scotland’s prestigious national companies a strong international footing, but this laudable ambition completely misses the point about the ecosystem that characterises the cultural sector. In many cases, the smaller companies are creating the innovation that feeds into the work of the larger companies. If they are excluded from meaningful government support networks, this places them—and the whole sector—at a serious disadvantage.

The national companies—which are funded directly from government—also have their funding virtually guaranteed, presumably because they are too big to fail. They are also freer from lengthy funding applications and onerous report writing when, in fact, they are the organisations that should have the resources to do this, rather than the smaller Creative Scotland-funded organisations. Again, I can see that the intention is good—giving stability to national companies does make sense at first look, but if in doing this we create stagnation in the marketplace, with smaller companies unable to compete for the same funding as larger ones, the dynamism of the sector is much reduced. This seriously affects home and international work.

Government structures in a subsidised arts system do matter, and Scotland’s example shows that good intentions do not always result in effective policy making. In a recent public submission to the government’s Culture, Tourism, Europe and External Relations Committee, the CEO of Red Note—a contemporary music ensemble that is funded by Creative Scotland—illustrated this point:

Scotland is currently running a mish-mash of the two systems, one through the National Companies (and direct government funding) and one through Creative Scotland. This causes very real tension as Scotland has, at the National Companies level, organisations that cannot fail (Scottish Opera, NTS, etc) which are managed very light-touch and are established, effectively, in perpetuity—and at the Creative Scotland level we have organisations that are not permitted to achieve the same stability, and live or die by their most recent funding application (Harris 2018).


The purpose of this article has been to give a reflective account of the organisational journey SE has been on toward producing and touring international work. While we have enjoyed significant success as an organisation in recent years, ongoing success is not guaranteed, and even if this is maintained, we have ambitions to increase our presence further still.

The range of international projects we now present is much broader and bolder. We do still tour more traditional offerings, but a large proportion of our international presentations now have element of innovation.

To get to this point, we had to ask ourselves difficult questions about the work we were already producing and its demand within the marketplace. We had to balance our new artistic vision with commercial reality and manage change over a considerable period of time. Charting this period of international development required careful planning and a clear process of stakeholder engagement. It was not without risk, but by consulting closely with our Board, musicians, audiences, and funders, we created a strong network of support and some degree of financial backing.

Change was not absolutely necessary. The desire to advance the organisation was an internal one and required huge effort, particularly from our office team, artistic director, and musicians. Each of these groups was willing to give up their time and energy to invest in a shared but untested idea. This willingness was only present because of the positive culture and internal dynamics of the SE team.

We decided to offer both our home and international marketplace an artistic product, we thought best represented our strengths, that was distinctive, and which helped to answer a need. To make this happen initially, we had to temporarily divert from our pre-existing support network and convince key stakeholders that our new work was worth investing in. To some extent, it is much harder for organisations with a long history like us to create market innovations. The expectations of long-term stakeholders are, quite reasonably, for an organisation to continue along a predictable path, but this is not what we did. Having said this, looking back at our organisation’s history, a spirit of risk-taking and high ambition is clear throughout our almost 50 years of existence—but this needed to be rejuvenated and reimagined for current times.

The structures and organisations that supported our work—government, funding agencies, embassies, and touring agents had mixed reactions to the changes we made. And as outlined above, some support networks have inbuilt inflexibilities that made our journey more difficult. We had to believe in what we wanted to do first and then take others with us.

By embarking on this process of change, the organisation is in a much stronger financial, artistic, and operational place. It could, of course, not have turned out so positively—that is the nature of risk and change. Organisational culture, careful planning, stakeholder engagement, and self-confidence were some of the key drivers of our success. Tenacity and good energy reserves were others.

I have now stepped back as CEO of SE to begin my doctoral studies, arts management lecturing, and other consultancy work. I have retained a connection with SE as a consultant and it is a joy to watch the team push even further with a renewed sense of purpose and drive.



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