‘An Lanntair must not be a beacon for the Secular Society’

Oh, An Lanntair. What have you done?

By now, most of you lovely readers of this blog will be aware that the Lanntair is going to be holding a Sunday opening trial between now and March, beginning with a screening of the new Star Wars movie, The Last Jedi on January 28.

The announcement did attract the usual kind of (fairly derisory) press attention that surrounds anything to do with Sabbath observance on Lewis, especially since An Lanntair is the highest-profile public arts organisation in the Outer Hebrides.

But it’s only now that we are starting to get a good picture of the true consequences of the decision and the fallout from it. And it’s nuclear.

While the decision has been welcomed by many, there are also a good number who are dead against it — including many of An Lanntair’s own staff who feel their voices have not been heard and that they have been subjected to significant levels of stress as a result.

Questions are being asked about the whole process that led to the decision by the chief executive and the board to carry out this trial.

And questions are being asked about the links between some of the board members and the pressure groups campaigning for Sunday opening throughout Lewis — and the chief executive’s links to these groups, too.

An Lanntair is not a happy ship right now.

STRESS

A grievance had previously been lodged against chief executive Elly Fletcher and chairman David Green over their management of the Sunday trial. As I understand it, that grievance laid claim that many staff felt they had been put under stress by the way they were dealt with when they voiced their opposition to the opening.

I heard that from several staff members. One said: “Many staff are not happy with it and they don’t feel their voices are being listened to. I want to support Elly and the board in everything they do — but I can’t support this. It’s a shame.”

I have good contacts within An Lanntair, including friends who have worked there for years — but those who are normally happy to chat have clammed up on this one.

Why? Are they afraid they will lose their jobs?

We don’t actually need to go any further, to establish there’s a problem. If an organisation has staff effectively gagged and in fear of the sack then there’s clearly a problem.

I’ve put a lot of feelers out about An Lanntair’s Sunday opening. The first person I asked was my father. His views are significant because he was chairman of An Lanntair for 10 years — involved for 15 — and was chairman at the time the new building was built.

My father, Dr John Smith, said: “At the time, as an organisation, we did push boundaries. I can give two examples: the Peter Howson graphic paintings for the Bosnian War and the other one that comes to mind is the Eddie Izzard concert in 1992 which some people found not to their liking.

“However, we were very conscious not to kick against the fundamental cornerstones of our society — one of which is still a fairly strict view of how the Sabbath should be spent among a significant proportion of the population. 

“And when the building was being built, I had informal, unofficial discussions with council representatives and church representatives and undertook that as long as I was involved, the building would not open on Sundays.

SWIMMING

“However, a decade has passed since then and more changes have taken place in society and in our local community – things such as Sunday transport, Sunday opening of shops and pubs is commonplace — and I have a degree of sympathy with those who are perhaps keen to exercise on a Sunday, whether in the swimming pool or on the golf course.

“But I would draw the line at entertainment being provided by An Lanntair on a Sunday and, in my opinion, it shouldn’t be open on Sundays. The main reason is that they would lose a lot of support from the public that they have enjoyed for the past 25 years.

“I don’t think they should be opening on Sunday and I certainly don’t think they should be opening if they don’t have the full support of their staff, for the harmony of the organisation.”

My father also voiced his concern about it given the physical prominence of the building in Stornoway. It’s a landmark, much like the lighthouse in its instantly-recognisable logo.

CAMPAIGN

He recalled they had to fight “long and hard” to get An Lanntair built in the centre of the town — “when many thought the castle building should have been modified” into an arts centre instead.

Referencing the campaign for Sunday opening, he said: “An Lanntair is a beacon for the arts in the Western Isles. We do not want it to become a beacon for the Secular Society.”

We need to talk about the links between An Lanntair and the Secular Society.  

Two of the board members — Sam Deane and recent recruit Uisdean Macleod — are admins on the Western Isles Secular Society’s Facebook page.

I have to stress that this is not personal. I like Sam and Uisdean and have no small degree of sympathy and understanding for what they try to do elsewhere. However.

Uisdean is also an admin on the FiSH Sunday swimming group’s Facebook page and one of its lead campaigners. The chief executive herself, Elly Fletcher, was an admin on that FiSH page until fairly recently. I asked her directly and she did not deny it.

As well as being an admin on the Western Isles Secular Society page, Sam Deane is also an admin on the Facebook page Western Isles Open on Sunday.

That group states quite a clear objective, doesn’t it?

‘COUP’

I’m not taking issue with any of that per se. It’s a free country. But when these people are known to be close friends who help run pressure groups together and are involved in making decisions together at the heart of An Lanntair, particularly when staff are complaining they can’t get input — then it raises some questions about influence and personal agendas.

One member of staff said to me: “They’re all as thick as thieves. There seems to be a very strong ‘secular’ influence and agenda running through An Lanntair’s current board.

“It feels as if this has all been carefully considered and implemented.

“It feels like a coup, basically.”

Another member of staff said “anybody can walk off the street and take out a membership in order to get onto our board and then have more say than the staff who have worked there for decades” — adding there was “something far wrong with that”.

They added: “Our leader said at a staff meeting that ‘we are not here to protect the culture’ so maybe it’s her that needs to explain that thinking. If that’s true, then the community should decide whether we get funded or not.”

The chief executive was also quoted as saying, during the last AGM, that “we are trying to understand the culture”. The staff response? “People were literally flabbergasted”.

The main internal problems with the lead-up to the decision on Sunday opening are said to be a lack of transparency and inadequate consultation with the staff and community.

QUESTIONS

Increasingly, there is the upset about the damage being done to An Lanntair’s reputation, to its links with artists in the community and, of course, to staff wellbeing.

Maybe the biggest question of all is, whose idea was this in the first place? And why?

As one member of staff said: “Nobody asked us to do this. Nobody came to us. We took it upon ourselves to do this. We picked a fight with the community.”

Another employee said: “There are some serious questions that need to be asked about how this proposal came about. It feels as if they have avoided giving us, the staff, any formal platform where we could voice our genuine and considered concerns.”

“For me personally — and I’m sure for other members of staff who have been opposed to the proposal from the beginning — it’s frankly been a horrible thing to have been forced to have been involved in, really horrible. Basically being forced to attack and undermine our own community and its values, principles, culture and traditions. Grim.”

Staff do have concerns about how their working hours could be affected and they also have concerns about the potential impact on their jobs if the public begins to withdraw support from the Lanntair.

It has also been claimed that staff only attend board meetings when they are asked and only to report on their own areas — not to contribute to general discussion.

One of the employees added: “My argument has never really been about Sunday opening but rather the manner in which this has been conducted.

BALLANTYNE

“The community — the whole community — must decide. I can see advantages in both sides but that discussion or debate should have been held months ago in the open.”

As an arts blogger, I would say that the Ballantyne Gaelic Psalm singing project, put on in 2016 as part of the ‘Bealach’ project, was one of the most special projects ever delivered by An Lanntair.

It had been made possible by the extra funding which came in to An Lanntair off the back of Lewis and Harris being named Creative Scotland’s Creative Place in 2015.

Ballantyne was special because it crossed the divide, bringing psalm singing out of church and onto the secular stage.

Two composers were involved — Hollywood maestro Craig Armstrong and local musician Calum Martin, who is also an elder in the Free Church.

The Free Church minister from Back, Calum Iain Macleod, was the male soloist.

I have never been so moved by anyone’s singing, before or since. His voice was incredible and, as someone who doesn’t go to church, I felt very fortunate to be able to hear it, set in a wonderful musical score.

AWARD

The whole project had been pulled together by Alex Macdonald, An Lanntair’s programme officer — and on the strength of Ballantyne, I was one of those who nominated her for the Arts and Culture Award, in the Scottish Gaelic Awards, for most outstanding contribution to Gaelic culture.

Alex, deservedly, won that award in November — but there will never be anything like Ballantyne at An Lanntair again because of their decision to open on Sundays.

I asked composer Calum Martin how he felt about this trial.

“As you can imagine, I am very unhappy about this proposal,” he said. “I feel really sorry for those, among others, who work in An Lanntair, who I’m sure realise that this will have a huge effect on the relationship between An Lanntair and the community and especially those who work in the arts and feel that this is a very negative move for many reasons.

“With regard to Ballantyne I will not be involved with An Lanntair on any similar projects in the future unless there is a change of mind on their part from pushing this through.

“I don’t think those who are behind this move realise the actual implications of their ill-advised proposal. I feel really sad about no longer being able, with a clear conscience, to support An Lanntair.”

So for Star Wars on a Sunday, you lose Ballantyne. What a mess.

Star Wars. How depressingly prosaic. It’s hardly pushing boundaries or avant garde.

And don’t you feel the dice was loaded by choosing Star Wars for a Sunday film in the first place? When An Lanntair’s leadership come to evaluate the success or otherwise of their trial opening, they will consider ticket sales.

Star Wars sold out. Of course it sold out. It’s Star Wars!

In his blog last week— whitehall1212.blogspot.co.uk —Torcuil Crichton said it was “risible” for An Lanntair to claim that screening Star Wars was part of a movement for equality and diversity.

“It mocks real campaigns for minority rights, and other artistic work the gallery is involved in,” he said. “Worse than that, it demonstrates that an understanding of what is involved in curating art in a minority culture has been lost.”

He added: “If there is an art gallery in Stornoway for any reason, it is to enrich the surrounding culture. Love it or loath it, a strong Protestant belief, and Sabbath observance, is part of that inheritance.

“By opening on Sunday, An Lanntair art gallery has involved itself in the campaign to burn these roots. If it were a commercial operation, I’d say go ahead. But this is the prime public arts organisation. This is a strong message to the community.”

IMPACT

I have no doubt that my own position on this will be carefully examined and picked over. After all, I did come out clearly in support of the campaign for Sunday swimming last year and found myself branded “a secular blogger” by some (and those were the polite ones).

I’m not religious and I was in favour of the pool opening partly because it is out of the way and could, I believe, have been assimilated into ‘the quiet Sunday’ without too much pain or impact. The positives outweighed the negatives.

Exercise is hugely important to health and wellbeing — for those managing mental health conditions, it can be a lifesaver — and would give people access to something they couldn’t get in their own home, unlike a movie, without being a massive game-changer.

An Lanntair opening is a game-changer, though.

Partly because of its physical prominence — and incidentally on the same street as three churches — but also because of its culture remit and its leadership role in the community.

Its mission is to “connect and inspire people in producing extraordinary, creative programmes, uniquely rooted in the place and reflecting the arts and ideas of our time”.

Right now, it is alienating rather than connecting. It has put at risk its own “extraordinary, creative” programming, as evidenced by Calum Martin’s reaction.

As for “uniquely rooted in place”… only in a galaxy far, far away.

CONSULTATION

This piece obviously raises a number of questions which I put to the chief executive.

I began with asking her to explain their consultation process.

Firstly, she pointed out they were “still in the middle of an audience research exercise” and the three trial events are part of that process. The “initial consultation was carried out during the summer and early autumn, first with the general public and then with all of An Lanntair’s members at the time by post and email”.

There was an audience development consultation, through face-to-face interviews with people in the town and in the An Lanntair building. The second stage of consultation was a survey to members for completion by post or email.

The results were: of the 225 people initially consulted, 60 per cent were in favour of Sunday opening. Of the 94 responses to the membership survey, 86 per cent were in favour of a trial of Sunday opening.

The population of the Outer Hebrides, by the way, taken from the 2011 Census, is 27,684. An Lanntair’s current membership is 291 — just over one per cent of the population.

MEMBERSHIP

Incidentally, I am not a member of An Lanntair (maybe I should be) although I am a lover of the arts. I don’t believe membership of An Lanntair is the sole test of whether island residents are interested in the arts or feel invested in its future. And the membership is certainly not the only group with an interest in how the culture might change.

I felt I had to ask Elly what her personal views were on Sunday opening in general in the Lewis community – and to confirm she had been an admin on the FiSH page.

She said: “My own personal views about Sunday opening are irrelevant. I am supporting An Lanntair through this audience development exercise, and I do this as a professional and in my capacity as Chief Executive of An Lanntair.”

When I put it to Elly that this idea had not come from the community, she corrected me, saying it went back to 2013/2014 “as a result of direct questions from members of the Lewis community, asking the new chairman, David Green, why An Lanntair was not open on Sundays”.

EQUALITY

She added: “The chairman raised this question with the board at a subsequent board meeting, and the board then considered this question in terms of its commitment to equality, diversity, inclusion and access, and included it in the audience development/research programme getting underway at the time.

“It then followed through on the outcomes of this process. The decision to open for three Sundays as a trial to further this audience research exercise was made by the board.

“It is also important to be clear that An Lanntair is not duty-bound to make decisions on its programme or business activities based on a majority view or consensus.” 

Finally, I had to put the issue of staff stress to her.

She said: “I am working closely with the An Lanntair staff to support the team through this audience research exercise. No staff are being asked to work the trial who do not want to work on Sundays and that continues to be our commitment to staff.”

So where does that leave us?

My overriding feeling is that this Sunday opening trial is more destructive than it is creative because of the fallout in the wider community and the leadership’s failure to take staff with them on their decision-making exercise.

Putting on blockbusters on a Sunday is not going to bring An Lanntair any new artists or supporters of the arts — but it is losing them, beyond a doubt, and that hurts us all.

Katie

Comments 23

  1. A typically brave and honest post, Katie.

    The rights of staff working for an organsation and who may well have deeply held convictions on this point must always be observed and no worker should feel under stress as a result of a consideration that their organisation is making to doing things differently. An Lanntair is, it seems, seeking to provide such reassurances to staff who need them although it is clear that there is more work to do on this point.

    It seems to me that it is the role of a publicly-funded arts organisation to uphold the rights of all those living in a community – as long as, where it seeks change, it does so sensitively and fairly, and with respect. Acting with respect for traditions and beliefs doesn’t mean that those traditions and beliefs can’t be questioned.

    It would be easy, and perhaps a little trite, to say that no-one is being compelled to go to An Lanntair on a Sunday – and clearly this experiment will thrive or wither depending on whether people want it or not. Yet peoples’ choice are undeniably a part of this, too. It seems that there is some sort of ‘market’ for Sunday opening, judging by the consultation exercise – and shouldn’t those who want to attend the arts centre on a Sunday (for a family occasion or celebration, or because they don’t have time or energy in the week, or because they simply want to) be able to do so if they choose? One person’s deeply-held conviction ought not to bind the rights of another who does not – for whatever reason – share that conviction. A community which is open to all celebrates all.

  2. What a load of tripe. The fact that you use “Equality” as a sub-heading whist the content is full of inequalities is laughable.

    I am a secularist. I believe in separation betwixt religion and state. I am not an atheist and I respect everyone’s right to subscribe to whatever religion (or none) that they choose.

    Why should I, as someone who doesn’t observe the same holy day as the author of this post, be denied access to this resource on a Sunday? There is no counter argument that doesn’t drip with hypocrisy.

  3. Staff who weren’t contracted and don’t want to work on Sundays shouldn’t feel under pressure to do so. As long as their feelings are respected, there is no conflict. People can observe their traditional Sabbath or go the pictures, without either group spoiling the other’s Sunday. The best traditions are those which survive because people voluntarily keep them going: not because they are forced to observe them.

  4. Why would it be “perhaps a little trite to say that no-one is being compelled to go to An Lanntair on a Sunday”? It’s just the truth and a perfectly reasonable defence against allegations that Sundays are being threatened. It shouldn’t need to be stated, but unfortunately it does.

    1. ‘Trite’, perhaps, because it’s so obvious that it really oughtn’t to need saying. If it does, that takes it completely out of ‘triteness’!

      1. I doubt if the combined force(Star Wars fans will get the reference)of Luke Skywalker and skinny latte will have much impact on Lewis culture or its religious roots .
        I cannot be the only person who despairs at the heat this debate has generated at a time when thousands of children are starving and dying worldwide

  5. Isn’t it funny – if I just interviewed my Dad, and all of my friends who work at An Lanntair, they would say that Sunday openings are a great thing. But I wouldn’t publish that article, because it would be totally biased and, frankly, lazy journalism.

    As an ‘arts blogger’, I’m surprised that you don’t think parents who work through the week should have the opportunity to take their children to the arts centre on a Sunday, just as they should be able to go to the swimming pool. The logic you use to justify this position is bizarre – are you suggesting the arts can’t be beneficial to those who experience a range of mental health conditions, however exercise can?

    I’m also surprise that you have missed the fundamental purpose of the arts, which is not to mindlessly reflect the culture in which they are exhibited: it is to create, innovate, and challenge the status quo (which you are so dedicated to defending).

  6. Nobody questions links to the church or the local lodge. We ourselves sometimes question links to the Comhairle (Dan Macphail D1/LDOS haranguing shopkeepers), but little is made of that. Heaven forbid someone should have links to FiSH or a secular organisation created to make secular voices heard over the din of Sabbatarians worried that someone might have fun on a SUnday. Free association, one of the cornerstones of our democracy.

    I will publicly commend Uisdean and Sam for their continued recusals when it comes to discussions about An Lanntair within the Western Isles Secular Society. They have both behaved honourably and continue to do so, recognising the potential conflict of interest — examples to some local ministers, councillors and other CnES employees who show far fewer scruples.

    I am a little disappointed that you named them but didn’t name the other parties in your article.

    1. I couldn’t name my sources (several) from An Lanntair as they are employed by the organisation they were criticising and that puts them in the firing line. If you doubt that, ask some questions about recent industrial relations. You have the contacts. Seriously, ask them — and then come back to me. There is no way I was going to put someone’s job at risk. Uisdean and Sam’s livelihoods are not at risk from this. There is a big difference.

      1. Sam is a freelancer (like you) which, if you know Sam personally (as you do), is a recent life-change.

        Sam lives in the same island community in which a Free Church minister recently went on record, calling from the pulpit for a boycott of another independent, local businesswoman who dared to open her doors on Sunday (she was the only one working, by the way).

        Sam lives in the same place in which economic opportunities mysteriously dry-up for people who dare challenge the status quo. If our previous conversations are anything to go by, surely you of all people can attest to that unfortunate fact.

        Therefore, I would like to point out the terrible lack of judgement and objectivity on your part to decide for Sam whether his livelihood is or isn’t threatened by your piece.

        Honestly, I think your next comment on the matter should be a public apology instead of some glib retort.

  7. Well you fairly seem to have struck a nerve judging by the darts being flung your way Katie – sign of good and accurate writing I would say.

    1. @ Eddie Hallahan
      The darts being flung Katie’s way seem to have struck a nerve with you, so you I presume you’d regard them as good and accurate writing.

  8. On the bright side, if the Presbyterian Church protocols follow, there will shortly be a planning application for a new art centre called The Free An Lanntair, and when they fall out another schism arts centre called The Free An Lanntair (continuing). The building contractors are waiting eagerly in anticipation!

  9. What Iain said. There is freely embraced tradition, and there is imposed tradition. where fundamentalists tell everyone else how to live their lives and woe betide them if they don’t. Disappointed that you side with the fundamentalists on such a big issue…

  10. What a very very long blog, when you are basically making three points: “My dad wouldn’t like it” (irrelevant); “staff might have to do something they don’t like” (false); “one religious composer might take his bat home” (who cares). An Lanntair needs the income, and in any case has a duty to serve all the people of the island, not just sabbatarians.

  11. Thank you for pointing out that those demanding Sunday openings so they can enjoy the pool/cinema are doing so at the expense of the days off of other people. You want to enjoy the weekend with your families? What about the lifeguards? What about the receptionists? Screw us low-income workers, right? Not enough that we get paid crap, let’s work weekends too so you can enjoy bloody Star Wars on a Sunday afternoon?

    Two comments have really stuck out to me regarding the whole affair: Your dad’s comment – ‘An Lanntair is a beacon for the arts in the Western Isles. We do not want it to become a beacon for the Secular Society.’ – and Torcuil Critchon’s comment – ‘If there is an art gallery in Stornoway for any reason, it is to enrich the surrounding culture. Love it or loath it, a strong Protestant belief, and Sabbath observance, is part of that inheritance.’

    All in all, some of us enjoy having Sunday’s off – is that so hard to believe? Am I a flipping FP if I don’t want to feel pressured into working on Sundays? Am I a backwards, country bumpkin, idiot because I like to do nothing on a Sunday?? Is the mark of being a liberal intellectual living in a modern society going to the cinema to watch Paddington Bear 2 on a Sunday?

    Finally – and I did try to resist saying this – just take a wee look at the surnames of half the people posting on the secular page. No one’s forcing you to relocate your life here and bear the agony and misery of not going to the cinema on a Sunday. Why do you want us to be like everywhere else? This is our culture and our identity. Our culture as Gaels has always been persecuted by external influences – see the near eradication of Gaelic – and now Sunday in all! Leave us in peace!

    Sorry for the incoherent rant, it’s 1.38 am and I’m in a bad mood from reading the rude comments to your fair piece.

    1. Lewis,

      The author’s maiden name is Smith. Many of the island women in our group married and have different surnames. But I’m sure you have a point (somewhere).

      Nobody is being forced to work. Nobody is trying to eradicate Gaelic; in fact, many new islanders put their kids through Gaelic medium.

      Culture is fluid and changes with demographics over time. Get used to it.

      People who choose to make the islands their home, pay their taxes, and contribute to the economy and enrich the local culture are ENTITLED to have a say in how THEIR community is shaped. Why should they live in a fearful apartheid in which only Gaelic-speaking Calvinists are allowed to have an opinion.

      The real problem is small-minded, meally-mouthed individuals who treat them like outsiders the minute they complain about the status quo.

      Scoot back a few articles; you’ll see the author of this blog agrees with me.

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