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.
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.
“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.
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?
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.
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.
“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.
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.”
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.
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.
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”.
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.