Miller's tales

NORWAY is a country used to basking in international admiration for the way it runs its affairs, so it takes a brave foreigner to go there and assume a position of cultural authority. Mary Miller is a Scot who has been daring to do just that. As director of Stavanger 2008 European Capital of Culture, she has spent this year presiding over the largest arts budget the country has ever had at its disposal.

Despite decades of experience in the arts as a classical violinist, journalist, broadcaster and veteran festival director (including Scotland's Northland Festival) she has found it tough going.

"Over 82 per cent of capital of culture directors either leave or have been fired," she tells me. "Directors I've talked to have said that one of the major difficulties is maintaining a really positive relationship with the local press." She won't say whether she ever became close to leaving, but she has certainly felt the full brunt of parochial doubts about the need for culture as expressed in the Stavanger press.

Stavanger is a major port with a history firmly rooted in the fishing industry. Its story is reflected in the legacy of multicoloured timber buildings that nestle round the harbour. Many of these date back hundreds of years. The city now holds a strong position within Norway as capital of oil and energy, and there is an air of elegant affluence about the place. Yet there have been major obstacles to overcome in its endeavours to extend itself culturally.

Miller plays down the effect of a spate of negative publicity on her team's morale. There is a sense that, having grown up in Scotland, she is used to a climate of criticism and her focus is on battles won. "Now people have really got it," she says, "that we are not just flying work in from other places to create a golden moment. We are doing it really to build collaborations, to share ideas and to bring people together for the long term. I can put my hand on my heart and say I don't think you will find a single project in the whole programme which has an international element which fails to build competence between nations; to bring people who live and work here together with international artists in a really meaningful way."

There are reasons why breaking through the Scandinavian sense of reserve and infusing the celebrations with a dose of internationalism has not been easy. Miller sees it this way: "This is such a well-ordered and fiercely democratic and successful country. There is a curious thing that 'we've got it all here, why would we have to bother?' There is a genuine bewilderment about why we would need to bring in so much work and so many artists from other places."

Wherever possible, Miller has seized the opportunity to take the arts outside the rarefied confines of theatres and galleries. So lighthouses became art galleries and caravans were transformed into sculptures and then put back in situ among ordinary caravans and holidaymakers. This celebration of Norway's pristine environment is a shrewd move that plays into the country's vision of itself as a rural nation – a country untrammelled by the urban/ countryside split that haunts Scotland. Encouraging an audience to go on a mountain chairlift with their skis on in order to see a performance take place in an amphitheatre of snow was a bold move. First of all, local politicians had to be convinced that it was a good idea. The event went ahead in March and it was a success that saw extreme skiers and snowboarders collaborate with dancers from the Norwegian company DansDesign to produce a groundbreaking work. And there is now talk of repeating the format in other venues in the future.

Since the time of Viking invaders there have been strong cultural links between Norway and Scotland and these have been strengthened by oil exploration. In recognition of this, the North Sea element of Stavanger 2008, which had more than 30 strands to it, ensured a constant flow of Scots and Norwegians across the North Sea, to reinforce cultural links of centuries' standing.

Six Norwegian writers visited this year's Edinburgh International Book Festival to launch their work in English, and four Scots – A L Kennedy, Don Paterson, Janice Galloway and John Burnside – reciprocated by promoting an anthology of joint work in Stavanger. Also, Edinburgh's Grid Iron theatre company marked the end of a residency in Stavanger by putting on a performance in an old shipbuilding shed on a small island.

The accountants and commentators have yet to come to their final conclusions as to the year's success but the closing ceremony, which took place at the weekend, was impressive. Over a thousand singers gathered in Stavanger harbour to present a massive song cycle built from Norwegian and international sources. The work by UK composer Orlando Gough – entitled We turned on the Light was performed as the singers departed into the fjord in an illuminated boat.

Miller's four-year contract ends in April 2009, at which point she will be on the lookout for a new post. Clearly she would like to continue to cultivate collaborations between Scandinavia and Scotland. As a Scot she feels she has an appreciation of the complex paradox combining gutsy bravado and a fear of putting one's head above the parapet. In her opinion it is a Norwegian trait as much as a Scottish one and further evidence that the two countries have more in common than drilling for oil.

As Scotland and Norway each struggle to reconcile a devotion to tradition with an outward-looking approach, Miller has this to say about the role of the arts: "I think we have to develop a fundamental belief that there is not high art and low art. There is only excellence.

"I believe very passionately in what we have done here and that culture in its broadest sense can bring people together in an unbelievably transformational way."

BACKGROUND

Skare Church

January to December

THROUGHOUT the year Skare Church became a venue for philosophical discussion about contentious subjects such as xenophobia and world poverty.

Mot Himlaleite

March

BEMUSED locals were invited to bring a vacuum flask and skis so they could see one of Norway's ski resorts in the Sauda Mountains transformed into a fire-illuminated amphitheatre. You can watch clips from the show on YouTube.

Ventetider (Waiting Time)

April

STAVANGER, Shetland and the North Sea in the years 1908 and 2008 were the settings for a play which reflected on the brutal lives of seafarers and those who wait for their return.

Bandaloop

August

DANCERS from San Fransisco-based Project Bandaloop brought the mountains of Gloppedalen to life in a fusion of music, art and daring aerobatics. Local children took part in workshops that revealed the company's unique way of working.

A World of Folk

July to October

DUTCH artist Laurens Handers played his guitar in a performance about love sickness set in a sloping house, part of an exhibition of folk art which highlighted the similarities of artistic traditions across international boundaries.