It was 1979 and my embryonic career had stalled. Three years after graduating with a degree in drama and art history, I was back in the parental home in Glasgow and still wasn't sure what direction I wanted to take. Then an old university friend, Gail Boardman, asked me to help her out for a few days with putting up an exhibition in the Third Eye Centre. I didn't know that simple request would change my life.
I'd been a regular visitor to the centre since it had opened in 1974, in a Greek Thomson building on Sauchiehall Street. Now it's known as the CCA. In my first job after graduation, as a BBC radio researcher, I'd even covered the extraordinary experience that was the Garnethill Exhibition, a multimedia expression of the vibrant and diverse community adjacent to the centre. But I'd never thought of working there.
Now I was helping out on a similarly community-focused venture, an exhibition about the life and importance of John Ogilvie, who had recently been canonised as Scotland's only post-Reformation saint. If that seems a surprising choice of subject for an arts centre, Third Eye was no ordinary arts centre. The template had been set by its first director, Tom McGrath, playwright and Sri Chinmoy disciple (hence the name, Third Eye), but it was its second director, Chris Carrell, who really built Third Eye into an essential part of Glasgow's identity, to the extent that two characters in an early episode of Taggart
could talk of meeting at the Third Eye Centre, without a word of explanation needed for the audience.
Sadly, Chris died last week, and I fervently hope that someone with a much wider knowledge of his entire career is going to celebrate his achievement more comprehensively than I can; I can only reflect on my experience of working with him at Third Eye for four years. Because that's what happened: a one-off casual contract turned into a full-time job as exhibitions coordinator, and set me on the career path that I've been following for the last 40 years.
I last spoke to Chris back in 2013, after I'd written a piece for Scottish Review
refuting the hurtful calumnies about Chris and his time at Third Eye which Alasdair Gray had set forth in his now infamous essay Settlers and Colonists
. I was so glad to be able to tell Chris directly how much his example had shaped everything I've tried to do in the arts world, since I left Third Eye to take over running my own arts centre, the Crawford Centre in St Andrews.
I can give some sense of how extraordinary Third Eye was under Chris's direction by simply listing some of the exhibitions we mounted in just my last nine months in the centre:
• Major retrospectives of John Bellany, of the Wales-based sculptor David Nash, and of the London-based abstract painter Albert Irvin.
• The first ever survey – anywhere – of the first 50 years of Scottish photography. Most museums would take years to plan such an undertaking.
• A major survey of post-war constructivist Scottish sculpture (requiring some seriously inventive approaches to moving some of the exhibits).
• And, last but very far from least, A History of Scottish Football
, which had 30,000 visitors in six weeks in Third Eye alone, and tens of thousands more on tour.
What's even more astonishing is that all of those exhibitions went on tour to other exhibition spaces across Scotland and beyond, and many of them had major publications attached. And that's before mentioning the extensive, often ground-breaking, events programme, and the bookshop (which was Chris's initiative to make the entrance area more welcoming), and not forgetting the cafe, a crucial meeting place where ambitious new arts projects would be devised over a mug of coffee and a scone.
From today's perspective, when a single exhibition can run for up to 10 weeks, and 'turn around' time between exhibitions is often a fortnight (we had four days), the argument is often made that 'less is more'. I rather think that Chris believed that more is more, and that by producing a rich and heady cornucopia of cultural offerings, Third Eye ensured that everyone in the community would find something that would draw them in, and encourage them to come back and try an experience outside their comfort zone.
The key to how Third Eye achieved so much, simultaneously, with really a very small staff team, was Chris's ability to connect with others – researchers, curators, collectors, activists – and give them the scope and support to realise their own personal projects. Ultimately, I think Chris was quite a modest man, taking satisfaction from the activity itself rather than from any acclaim for his part in making it happen, and that may be the reason why his achievement is less widely celebrated today than it should be.
Chris's commitment to community-based work was central to his vision for Third Eye, as it had been to his previous work at Sunderland Arts Centre. Over my four years there I also worked on exhibitions about subjects as varied as: unemployment (this was the early days of Thatcherism); Paisley shawls; Glasgow's 'wally' tiles; and Hengler's Circus (including my piéce de resistance, a recreation of a touring menagerie complete with stuffed animals).
Chris was instrumental in setting up Project-Ability, an organisation bringing together the arts and people living with disabilities, and which is thriving to this day. He was involved with the setting up of the long-running Mayfest, and probably no other single individual did more, through all his work, to make the case for Glasgow to be declared 1990 City of Culture. Though not himself Scottish, he also had an unwavering commitment to Scottish artists, performers and writers, presenting them on an equal footing with international comparators, and thereby making possible the immense success, in the 1980s, of what became known as the 'New Glasgow Boys'.
But that was all decades ago. Why does Chris's achievement still matter? Because everything he did, he did out of a deep commitment to the idea of community, to making the arts accessible to everyone regardless of social standing or ability, to breaking down barriers between the arts and the rest of life, to making an arts centre a generator of creativity and connectivity. He didn't do this because funders required it, or because he was responding to the zeitgeist, or because it would win awards. He did it, quite simply, because it was the right thing to do. For him, it was self-evident.
Chris was years ahead of his time and often had to make a case for using arts funding for what might then have seemed off-the-wall projects. But then, the Scottish Arts Council of that era managed its funding with a lighter touch, leaving plenty of room for experimentation and idiosyncrasy. I know, because I found a similar openness when trying to follow Chris's example in my own programming at the Crawford Centre.
I don't want to paint an overly rosy picture. Chris, like any of us, had his flaws, the chief of which was to seem to manufacture crises by putting off key decisions until the last moment, because he worked best himself doing all-nighters, even if the result was, often, that the exhibition catalogue didn't arrive from the printers until the middle of the exhibition opening. That could be tough on the rest of us, and I don't think I've ever worked as hard as I did in those four years. But there was also a benign, slightly other-worldly quality to Chris, which meant that it was easy to forgive those faults.
Thinking of particular projects that would sum up my experience of the Third Eye under Chris Carrell's direction, I've come up with two, and it's symptomatic of Chris's broad vision that they both took place beyond the Third Eye building. The last thing he wanted to make of Third Eye was a fortress – what happened was always more important than where it happened. The first was a sold-out evening of sheer magic in the Mitchell Theatre, No Maps on My Taps
, showcasing the extraordinary talents of three great African-American tap-dancers, all in their 60s, and the second was an exhibition at the Mitchell Library, Noise and Smoky Breath
, about Glasgow as a source of inspiration for writers and artists. And, like so many of Chris's projects, it had a handsome accompanying book, complete with a cover by, you've guessed it, Alasdair Gray.
And when one considers that, at exactly the same time, Giles Havergal (also unfairly traduced in Gray's essay) was doing similarly pioneering work at the Citizens Theatre, with all tickets priced 50p, free preview nights that resulted in queues round the block, and all for a repertoire of world theatre that had no parallel in the rest of the UK, it becomes evident that real inclusivity in the arts comes from the vision of individuals, not from policies and funding obligations, and that we still have a lot to learn from what was achieved in Glasgow 40 years ago.
Robert Livingston is Director of Regional Screen Scotland