Brian Ferguson: Dundee’s failure down to poor PR

Dundee has failed in a bid to become UK City of Culture. Picture: TSPL
Dundee has failed in a bid to become UK City of Culture. Picture: TSPL
Share this article
Have your say

IT IS easy to say it now, of course. But with the benefit of hindsight there were a lot of curious aspects about Dundee’s failed bid to become UK City of Culture.

That the low-key PR campaign only seemed to crank into gear in the last week or two remains a mystery – especially when Dundee’s bid was so undeniably impressive. Perhaps it was simply “too good”, as was being speculated about before the result was known.

But why keep the bid so firmly under wraps when it could and should have been shouted from the rooftops? For all the bold talk since then, there is no escaping the crushing disappointment that swept across not just the city, but the entire arts scene in Scotland.

The political dimension to the Dundee bid was intriguing – not just over the prospect of it winning the UK culture crown for a time when Scotland may be independent, even if Alex Salmond laughed off such questions last week.

As was being pointed out within seconds of Hull being confirmed the winner, its victory was being attributed to Andrew Dixon, the man all but hounded out of his chief executive job at Creative Scotland last year, only to find himself spearheading the Yorkshire city’s bid as official consultant.

It is certainly striking to note the amount of media coverage Dixon featured in and doubtless helped generate over the last few months. It was all in sharp contrast to Dundee’s bid, which Pete Irvine, of Unique Events, was the official consultant on.

Surely Irvine, a man familiar with media exposure and demands for nigh on 30 years, should have been all over the newspapers and airwaves banging the drum for Dundee’s bid. But compared to the profile Mr Dixon had enjoyed over the Border, he was invisible.

Yet there was also a curious silence from elsewhere. The Scottish Government could and should have done a lot more to raise awareness of the bid – especially when it had committed £6 million behind the scenes to the £25m budget and already had a huge stake with the investment in the V&A museum.

I can’t have been the only one who found it a bit bizarre that instead of heading up to Dundee on the day of the bid announcement to show her support, Scottish culture secretary Fiona Hyslop headed to Manchester to make her “Weatherfield Declaration” setting out the case for a public service broadcaster in an independent Scotland – and insisted we would still be watching Coronation Street.

And then there is Creative Scotland, an agency I’d have thought would have been all over the bid, despite the involvement of its former figurehead in a rival camp.

In the end, with Creative Scotland causing increasing discomfort for the Scottish Government, Mr Dixon had to go at the end of last year. But I suspect we would have heard a lot more about Dundee’s case to be a UK culture capital had Andrew Dixon still been there.

Have a go at trying to find any evidence of what Creative Scotland did actually do to support the bid until the final furlong. You won’t get very far.

Would a collective PR offensive have made a blind bit of difference to which city became the eventual winner? I don’t suppose we’ll ever know. But it all felt a bit under-sold to me.

Despite all that has been said about Creative Scotland being able to move on after Mr Dixon’s departure, how it no longer wanted to be “the story” and the heralding of a new era with the arrival of new chief executive Janet Archer, it has the air currently of an organisation resting on the starting blocks.

And for all the touchy-feely talk of “the journey” when it unveiled its “back to basics” plans for the future to artists in Glasgow on Friday afternoon, it felt like the kind of event that should have been happening before the quango was up and running – not after three and a half years.

To be fair to Ms Archer and her deputy Iain Munro, they do not have an easy task. Trying to change the entire culture of Creative Scotland, especially when its board remains intact and its remit from the Scottish Government is unchanged, will be no quick fix.

Ripping it up and starting again, as they appear to be doing with the current funding regimes, is almost certainly the right way to go.

But with funding deadlines now looming for almost every artist and organisation in the land next summer, it is likely to still be “the story” for some time.