Mull Theatre board all urged to ‘stand down’

The board of the acclaimed Mull Theatre have all been told to quit over speculation two long-standing members were forced out of their jobs. Picture: Contributed
The board of the acclaimed Mull Theatre have all been told to quit over speculation two long-standing members were forced out of their jobs. Picture: Contributed
Have your say

THE entire board of an island arts organisation has been urged to stand down over claims that two long-serving cultural figures have been forced out their jobs.

Alasdair McCrone, Mull Theatre’s long-time artistic director of Mull Theatre, and Gordon McLean, his counterpart at the An Tobar arts centre, in Tobermory, for the best part of 20 years, are said to have been ousted in the wake of a recent merger.

Union leaders have blamed financial mismanagement within the Comar arts trust, which was created just two years ago, for their sudden departure.

Comar’s board says a “restructure” was necessary to allow the fledgling organisation to live within its means and operate as a “multi-platform” organisation.

It has insisted that it is willing to discuss “potential freelance work” with any individuals affected by a shake-up of its three creative director posts, adding: “We very much hope to continue to draw on their specialism and skills.”

One of Comar’s main funders has admitted the organisation is in a “difficult financial position” and the body itself claims its funding settlement from Creative Scotland is around a third less than what it asked for.

However Equity insisted the arts on Mull have never been better funded and blamed the redundancies on a boardroom “failure” to produce a proper business plan, which has left the organisation “in crisis.”

Mr McCrone, who oversaw the theatre’s move to a purpose-built new base on the outskirts of Tobermory seven years ago, and Mr McLean, a musician who has performed with Dougie MacLean, King Creosote and Roddy Woomble, are both highly-regarded figures in the Scottish arts scene.

They are thought to have lost out to an artist and singer, Sion Parkinson, who moved to the island just two years ago, for the newly-created post of artistic director, which all three were asked to apply for.

Mr Parkinson has been responsible for film and visual arts at Comar, which has been awarded £1.65 million by national arts agency Creative Scotland for the next three years.

All three creative directors have been working under chief executive Caroline Winn, one of seven existing board members, who told The Scotsman the board losses were “unavoidable” because of the need to make savings.

Equity, which is representing Mr McCrone, said it was calling on the board to “resign en masse” over the redundancies.

An Equity statement said: “Comar’s business plan, funding application and agreement with Creative Scotland were all predicated on the contribution Alasdair and Gordon had made over many years to the communities on Mull and Iona.”

Lorne Boswell, Equity’s Scottish secretary, added: “The failure of the board to produce a budget that allows for any meaningful level of artistic activity, despite the resources available to it, shows a new start is required.”

Local MSP Michael Russell said: Making Alasdair and Gordon redundant is an extraordinary wrong-headed decision and must be opposed.”

Scots-born Hollywood actor Alan Cumming said: “This makes me so sad. Another example of the accountants take over at the expense of the art.”

It is understood that Norman Quirk, the chair of the board since the merger, recently stood down from his post due to ill health.

Norah Campbell, his deputy, who is now the board’s acting chair, said: “Having assessed the resources available to Comar and after consultation with funders, board members and staff, the difficult decision was taken by the board to restructure to ensure long-term sustainability.

“It remains committed to ensuring Comar is a well-used and vibrant arts organisation serving Mull and Argyll, creating opportunities for artists and touring quality art productions within Scotland and beyond.”

Kerrie Grant, of Highlands and Islands Enterprise, said: “We supported the merger of the two organisations in conjunction with Creative Scotland as this was recognised as a way of strengthening the two key arts bodies on Mull, to expand and grow the delivery of high quality arts and cultural activity across Mull, Argyll and wider Scotland.

“We are working closely with the Comar board and chief executive and recognise the difficult financial position that is currently being addressed.”

Leonie Bell, director of arts at Creative Scotland, said: “Comar is a vital organisation for arts provision on Mull and in Argyll & Bute more broadly, with a well deserved and established reputation for artistic excellence and community engagement.

“That is reflected in their inclusion in our portfolio of 119 organisations across Scotland who benefit from three-year funding.

“Overall budgets are, of course, limited and we are supportive of Comar finding ways to ensure that their funding is applied in a way that enables the organisation to continue to produce and present great work for the people of Mull and beyond.”

Joyce McMillan, theatre critic at The Scotsman, said: “It seems astonishing that after receiving the best funding package in the history of the arts on Mull, Comar’s board has responded by making redundant some of the key artists responsible for that success, notably Alasdair McCrone, the director of Mull Theatre, who has been the heart and soul of that organisation and of creative life on Mull for more than 20 years.

“In that time, Mull Theatre has moved to its new base near Tobermory, commissioned more than 24 new plays, and produced some truly brilliant shows.

“There is something wrong with a management system which leads any arts organisation to prioritise structural change over talented and dedicated individuals in this way; and it’s hard to avoid the conclusion that these decisions are based on a fundamental and deeply worrying misjudgement about what arts activity is, and how great creative work can be achieved.”