Brian Ferguson: Big names can fall just as hard as unknowns

Andrew Dixon
Andrew Dixon
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SO MUCH for the season of goodwill for a couple of high-fliers brought crashing down to earth in the last few weeks.

Andrew Dixon and Lucy Bird had much in common – despite their highly paid jobs at the head of two vastly different organisations. And the respective chief executives of Creative Scotland and Marketing Edinburgh would no doubt have a few tales to tell were the former colleagues from the north-east of England’s cultural scene to meet up for a mulled wine or two.

Both may have resigned their six-figure salary posts rather than be dismissed, but have been left battered and humiliated, their carefully built reputations badly damaged after months of behind-the-scenes turmoil, damning criticism and dreadful headlines. It says much for those reputations that there was hardly a word of criticism when their appointments were unveiled.

If Andrew Dixon had an impressive track record leading up to his appointment at the head of the NewcastleGateshead Initiative, it appeared to be matched by that of Ms Bird, whose 30-year career in TV production, theatre administration and marketing had reached a previous peak promoting one of the area’s flagship attractions, The Sage arts centre.

On the face of it, they are probably entitled to ask themselves: “Where did it all go wrong?” The answers could fill a book. What has become increasingly clear is their positions had become untenable.

Mr Dixon simply failed to recognise, then quell, a simmering rebellion of artists and arts organisations which was to overshadow a year-long Scottish Government initiative to bang the drum for the arts.

If a scathing letter signed by many of Scotland’s leading artists signalled the end was nigh, the results of an internal inquiry – finally revealed on Friday afternoon - were almost certainly his death knell.

I suspect there was no running away from findings from his own board of a “fracturing of relations” between elements of Creative Scotland and the very communities it was set up serve, as well as an “almost universal belief” among staff of a gulf between them and the management team.

Yet many commentators have pointed out the root of Creative Scotland’s problems may lie in its ideology and remit as an extension of the Scottish Government’s cultural policies.

Lucy Bird had about a year less in her post at the head of Marketing Edinburgh, but her downfall was being predicted privately back in the spring after serious questions were raised about what her organisation was doing, how much money it was raising from the private sector and her level of support from the city council – the very organisation that had set it up.

Perhaps naively, Ms Bird assumed that she and her staff would be left alone to come up with their own marketing campaigns, free from the interference of local politicians.

If so, she had probably not researched previous hamfisted attempts to promote the city, long-running feuds with VisitScotland, the debacle over the bail-out of the Homecoming clan gathering and the length of time it had taken just to get Marketing Edinburgh off the ground.

I know I’m not the only one thinking there will be an overwhelming temptation to ensure that whoever succeeds Mr Dixon and Ms Bird will not be from “across the Border”, will be “well kent” faces familiar to – and respected by – politicians, relevant bodies and some of the harshest critics of their predecessors.

I was mulling this over during the last couple of days, before it emerged that one of the most senior figures to sign that “artists’ letter”, author Alasdair Gray, had mounted an attack on the appointment of English “colonists” to influential and powerful positions in Scotland.

There was something deeply ironic about Mr Gray providing Vicky Featherstone, the outgoing director of the National Theatre of Scotland, as an example. There are few, if any, people who would say the NTS made the wrong appointment.

His views will be very uncomfortable reading for many, but particularly Creative Scotland’s board, no doubt currently tempted to reach out to a safe pair of hands to pull the organisation out of the abyss.

But what on earth does it say about modern Scotland to suggest that someone from England cannot and should not be left in charge of a major cultural institution?

The reality is that, with the benefit of hindsight, Creative Scotland and Marketing Edinburgh probably simply made the wrong appointments.

But there is also an inescapable feeling that the set-up of these two organisations now needs dramatically overhauled before anyone else is invited to take up these positions, both of which currently have “poisoned chalice” written through them like a stick of rock.