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8 January 2013

Shades of Gray (2)
Who's offended
by Alasdair Gray?
I am

Robert Livingston

Who's offended by Alasdair Gray? Me, I'm offended by Alasdair Gray – or at least by the crude oversimplifications of his now infamous essay 'Settlers and Colonists', not to mention its bad history (the Norman conquest as an example of a rich country invading a 'poorer land'? Really?).

Most of all I'm personally offended by the crude caricature he presents of the former director of Glasgow's Third Eye Centre, Chris Carrell. I worked under Chris in the exhibitions team at Third Eye from 1979 to 1983, and I learned an enormous amount from him, even though he could be at times erratic and infuriating. Tom McGrath had indeed done a great job of establishing Third Eye in the first place, but there was a general consensus that, by the time he left, through no fault of Tom's, it had been rather 'colonised' by those associated with the Glasgow School of Art, just up the hill. It was not the least of Chris's many achievements that he opened the centre out to a very much wider audience, to the point that it became a critical component in the city's identity. In fact, I'm going to stick my neck out and state that, in the decade prior to 1990, no one individual did more than Chris Carrell to justify Glasgow's claim to be a 'City of Culture'.

Consider the Third Eye's exhibitions programme in my last year there, 1983: a major retrospective of John Bellany; a ground-breaking history of the first 50 years of Scottish photography; an incredibly ambitious, and hugely popular, history of Scottish football, including four major commissions for Scottish artists and a massive survey of post-war Scottish constructivist sculpture. And almost all those exhibitions toured, throughout Scotland and beyond.

Also in 1983 Third Eye teamed up with the Mitchell Library to present a wide-ranging exhibition on the portrayal of Glasgow in images and words, 'Noisy and Smoky Breath'. The very popular linked publication has on its cover a painting by one Alasdair Gray who, even before the publication of 'Lanark' brought him to wider attention, had already had a solo show of his paintings at the centre.

Part of the difficulty in assessing the scale of Chris Carrell's impact on Glasgow has been, until now, the lack of material available either online or in print, but that is fortunately being addressed through a major research project being undertaken by Glasgow School of Art in partnership with the Third Eye's successor, the CCA (www.glasgowmiracle.html). Until that work is generally available, I can't substantiate my belief that Chris played important roles in the development of the Tron Theatre and Mayfest, though I do know from direct experience that he was instrumental in creating 'Projectability', in setting up the New Moves Festival which ran until 2011, and in making the Third Eye the home for many years of the National Review of Live Art.

Alasdair states that Chris 'made his job easier' (how?) by 'putting others with English qualifications in charge of the centre's exhibitions'. That would be Andrew Nairne, with his degree from St Andrews, and my own successor, Nicola White, who hails from Dublin. But then Alasdair never lets the facts get in the way of a good polemic. He seems to be unaware, for example, that Giles Havergal was born in Edinburgh, and his close colleague for their 33 years at the Citizens, Robert David MacDonald, in Elgin.

Alasdair finally sums up Chris Carrell's time at Third Eye by claiming that he 'directed it into bankruptcy'. Setting aside the complexities of that dark period (what, after all, was the – largely Scottish – board of Third Eye doing at the time?), to dismiss Chris's achievements over a 14-year tenure because of its regrettable conclusion would be like ignoring what John McGrath achieved with 7:84 because the company eventually had its funding withdrawn. And as for those 'English arts administrators who went on to jobs in the south', Andrew in fact went on to work at the Scottish Arts Council before becoming the first director of the DCA in Dundee, and Nicola became curator at the Tramway in Glasgow. Now a writer, she lives in Edinburgh.

I accept that this essay was written before the current events at Creative Scotland gave it a controversial context that neither Alasdair nor his editor necessarily anticipated. For what it's worth, I don't think the fact that Andrew Dixon was English, or hadn't worked in Scotland before, had that much to do with his problems at Creative Scotland. And it's so easy to take things out of context.

After all, three out of the last four directors of the Scottish Arts Council were Scottish, and the fourth had spent much of her career in Scotland. You can prove just about anything if you're selective enough. Let's not forget that Fred Goodwin, for example, was born in Paisley and educated at Glasgow University.

If Alasdair Gray had expressed his views in a blog, then his errors and misrepresentations might have been excused. But to find them given substance between the covers of a book from a reputable publisher is disappointing, to say the least. The debate about Scotland's future deserves a greater concern for accuracy.

Robert Livingston is currently director of HI-Arts, based in Inverness. Between 1979 and 1983 he was exhibitions coordinator at the Third Eye Centre in Glasgow, before going on to be director of the Crawford Arts Centre in St Andrews and visual arts officer at the Scottish Arts Council