The late great Tom McGrath and how we threw some artistic babies out with the bathwater

The death of Tom McGrath this week marks not only the loss of an important playwright, poet, musician and mentor but also the loss of an artist, idealist and activist who shaped cultural provision in Scotland in the 70s and 80s. One of my personal memories is of heated debates he and I would have about the role of the arts administrator.

Tom was a founder and the first director of the Third Eye Centre in 1974, an arts centre in Glasgow which evolved into the CCA.   The Third Eye Centre was part of a movement of artist led venues, which operated as far as possible cooperatively, communally and collaboratively.  But as the Third Eye, and others like it, entered into agreements with public agencies in return for public subsidy, there came an increased need for accountability and administration.  Such arts centres started off employing an Administrator to fill in the forms and pay the wages but as time went on, through the 70s, 80s and 90s, the demands of the state for accountability grew to gargantuan proportions.  The need to demonstrate achievement of an ever increasing set of policy outcomes, such as social inclusion and audience development, together with need to comply with data protection, equal opportunities, working time directives demanded more and more administration.  This, combined with the worship of management and its spawning of processes such as appraisals, planning, evaluation and monitoring led to the institutionalisation of the arts organisation.  As we created more cultural infrastructure over the last 30 years we also had to train people to run and manage cultural buildings in a way that could manage the demands we placed upon venues. This is part of the complex 20th century cultural machinery we created.

Somewhere along the line there was a disconnect between artists and arts organisations.  Artists like Tom no longer drove the direction of venues.  Venues became more accountable, attracted more people, created more diverse programming under the skilled leadership of cultural entrepreneurs.

And artists became more disenfranchised.  Visual artists in particular, but also writers and other artists, increasingly voiced dissent about this disconnect and the feeling that cultural venues and arts organisations had their own agendas and were more concerned with administration rather than art and artists.  As venues became stretched by increasing demands and increasing fixed costs, some became  disconnected with artists and threw  the baby out with the bathwater.

Our arts infrastructure is facing a major challenge with the likely long-term reduction of public subsidy and its time for some change. The Third Eye Centre/CCA may be an example of a creative hub, a venue which has a key role to play in creating spaces where artists and audiences can engage, brokering connections, enabling collaboration. 

The problem many of our creative hubs face is that they don’t have enough money even now to run their buildings and support a critical mass of creative activity.   

The Cornerhouse is one such venue and this week it opened up its exploration of how to change in the  We Think world.  It has commissioned an essay by Charles Leadbetter, the Art of With and will run a seminar in June.  The Art of With discussion is wide, around arts creation and curation and also around business models.

Much of the discussion around the Art of With is about internet enabled collaboration with audiences and participants and this is vital.

But when we think of collaboration, lets remember the artists.  Lets pick up the threads of the artist led initiative and focus on collaboration and connections with artists as well as participants.

I am not advocating a return to the artist managed venues of the 70s. They were often exclusive and poorly managed.  But at these times of fundamental reappraisal, lets get the balance right.

RIP Tom McGrath

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3 comments
  1. Robert Livingston said:

    Actually, no. The Third Eye Centre and its predecessor in Blythswood Square were explicitly created top down by the Scottish Arts Council, and Tom was recruited as Director. At that time, ‘cultural entrepreneur’ would probably have described Tom perfectly. It was only after his stint at Third Eye that he emerged as a playwright (or ‘artist’) in his own right. What the example of Third Eye really demonstrates is the disengagement, over many years, of the SAC from such direct provision. That has been, for better or worse, the single biggest change in Scotland’s artistic landscape over the last two decades. Truly artist-led spaces such as Transmission emerged in the 80s as challenges to the hegemony of such agency-led organisations as Third Eye or the Fruitmarket.

  2. Thanks for dispelling a myth about Third Eye. Many of us thought that the roots of Third Eye was artists, as was the Traverse and other venues emerging in the 60s from artists and associated happenings

  3. Pingback: Mperience!

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