Scotsman obituaries: Chris Carrell, arts administrator who made mark in Glasgow

Chris Carrell, arts administrator. Born 9 March 1941, Barnard Castle, County Durham. Died 13 April, 2021, Portsmouth, aged 80

Chris Carrell championed community engagement (Picture copyright Alan Wylie, 1989)
Chris Carrell championed community engagement (Picture copyright Alan Wylie, 1989)

A visionary arts administrator who spent 13 years at the helm of Glasgow’s Third Eye Centre, Chris Carrell was a crucial figure in shaping Glasgow’s successful bid to be 1990 City of Culture. His energy and ability to enable others helped shape the grassroots arts scene for which the city is now internationally recognised.

Born Ronald Christopher Carrell in Barnard Castle in 1941, he never knew the father after whom he was named, Pilot Officer Ronald Carrell, who died in a bombing raid in Germany in October 1940. After the war, his mother and stepfather, Frank Hutchins, moved to Kent.

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Chris attended Worksop College in Nottinghamshire as a weekly boarder and studied art at Kings College, Durham (then based in Newcastle), where his tutors included Victor Pasmore and Richard Hamilton. His work was selected by Pasmore for the Young Contemporaries exhibition in London in 1962 which included artists such as R B Kitaj, David Hockney and Peter Blake. The following year he married artist Rose Frain, with whom he had two children, Severin and Shanna. Later, he had another daughter, Lucy, with Bronwen Ross.

After a brief time as an art teacher and lecturer in the North-east, he co-founded Ceolfrith, a bookshop and poetry press in Sunderland which championed the work of local poets. From there, he founded Sunderland Arts Centre, where he began to put into practice the ideas he would use to great effect in Glasgow: mixing “high” and “low” art forms, championing community engagement and reaching out to new audiences. Highlights of his time in Sunderland include Beyond the Horizon, a festival of science fiction, and Ha’way the Lads, an exhibition and book dedicated to Sunderland Association Football Club, to mark its centenary and celebrate its 1973 FA Cup victory.

In 1978 he was appointed director of the Third Eye Centre, taking over from founder Tom McGrath. He built on and expanded McGrath’s model, attracting a wide range of audiences and helping to make the Third Eye Centre an iconic venue in the city. An exhibition, A History of Scottish Football, attracted 30,000 visitors in six weeks in 1984 and went on to tour Scotland.

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Alasdair Gray’s seminal novel, Lanark, was launched at the Third Eye Centre in 1981 and, in 1983, Chris organised Noise and Smoky Breath, an exhibition in the Mitchell Library which celebrated how Glasgow had inspired writers. The accompanying book was one of the first to bring together in the same volume the burgeoning literary talent in the city at the time.

Artists from Scotland were given the same platform at the Third Eye as top artists around the world. Notable exhibitions included John Bellany, George Wyllie, the New Glasgow Boys, the first survey of the first 50 years of Scottish photography and a celebration of the work of Jimmy Boyle and the Special Unit at Barlinnie prison.

In 1986, working with Malcolm Maclean, Carrell programmed an exhibition As an Fhearann (From The Land), exploring the Highland Clearances and Gaeldom. It went on to tour in Scotland and Canada for four years. Maclean says the show was instrumental in inspiring the Scottish Arts Council to engage seriously with Gaelic culture. The accompanying book was regarded as a key text on land rights. The Third Eye Centre also championed marginal communities, staging a season of work by artists with disabilities out of which grew Project Ability, of which Chris was a director.

Chris’s approach embraced all art forms, from fashion and rock music to experimental visual art and performance. Major exhibitions were put together with what seemed like astonishing speed. Colleagues describe Chris as a modest man with a legendary ability to connect with others and enable them to realise their own projects, thereby conjuring a large and varied programme despite a small team and limited budget. His team-building abilities were also legendary and might involve bussing the entire staff, including the cleaners, with a crate of beers, to a muddy field out of town to play rounders. The fact that he did not seek recognition for himself might explain why his name is less well known today than his achievements deserve.

It was a crucial time in Glasgow’s history, when the city was recognising the importance of culture in post-industrial renewal. Carrell was on the board of Mayfest, the Glasgow Garden Festival (the precursor and test-bed for the City of Culture bid), and a driving force in the bid itself, which ultimately put Glasgow on the map as a cultural destination. Andrew Nairne, who worked for Chris at the Third Eye, said: “His achievements in Glasgow were truly remarkable. He is one of a very small number of people who were the catalyst for the Glasgow we take for granted now – a dynamic, creative city of international standing.” Another former employee, Robert Livingston, wrote of him that “probably no other single individual did more... to make the case for Glasgow to be declared 1990 City of Culture”.

At the end of the 1980s, as Soviet Bloc countries were beginning to open up to the West, Chris fostered links with Eastern Europe, programming seasons of work from Poland (Polish Realities: New Art from Poland) in 1988 and Russia (New Beginnings) in 1989.

Scotsman theatre critic and columnist Joyce McMillan was one of a group of journalists Chris took to Russia in 1989. She describes the trip, on which they met everyone from dissident artists to Soviet culture ministers, as “life-changing” and a tribute to Chris’s ability to organise and build connections.

After the closure of the Third Eye Centre in 1991 (it would later reopen as the CCA), Chris moved to Portsmouth as city arts officer. Over the next decade, he continued to implement his ideas of inclusiveness and engagement, bringing together arts and science in Shock Waves, a festival marrying the arts with quantum physics, technology and science-based industries. For the Europe in Portsmouth Festival, he brought artists from all over the EU to install large-scale works around the city, and was detailed to escort its most famous visitor, Princess Diana, on a tour of the works.

In Portsmouth, Chris met his second wife, Carole Pook, and became stepfather to her three children. In retirement he became interested in biography and social history, recording several oral histories of servicemen, including his own stepfather. In 2017 he travelled to the Commonwealth war cemetery at Charlottenburg, Berlin, to visit the grave of the father he had never known.

He died after a long battle with Parkinson’s Disease. He is survived by his second wife Carole, three children, four grandchildren, his stepchildren and his brother John.

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