IT’S NOT the debut that anyone would wish for when starting a new job, but when the head of Glasgow’s newly formed culture and leisure department took over her first day coincided with day one of a library strike.
Dr Bridget McConnell CBE had been appointed the first director of culture and leisure for Glasgow City Council, a role created after the local government reshuffle which saw the end of the former Strathclyde Regional Council in the late 1990s and the creation of 32 local authorities including Glasgow.
“When I started in 1998 things were pretty bleak. Staff went on strike on the first day I started. In the days of Teletext, it came up the night before ‘library staff are going on strike to meet the new director.’ For a moment I thought what a shame, but that was me,” said Dr McConnell.
“Glasgow has always felt special to me and when I got the job here I couldn’t believe it. One thing I didn’t appreciate that being in Glasgow the press are much more interested than you would have imagined. That was quite a shock and took quite a bit of getting used to.
“What I did know that in the city, politically, all the political parties really did want the city to succeed and that’s what I wanted to work with – that whole thing of widening access.”
After 24 years at the helm of it the city’s culture and leisure services, firstly under Glasgow City Council and then as chief executive of arms-length organisation Glasgow Life, Dr McConnell is due to retire in May.
However, she is not winding down just yet and has the small matter of the £69million revamped Burrell Collection to reopen later this month. It is the latest high profile museum to open under her tenure following on from the refurbishment Kelvingrove Art Gallery and Museum, and the opening of the Riverside Museum. Under her leadership culture and sport attendances have grown by a third to more than 18 million in the year before the pandemic. Glasgow Life Museums became the most used and visited museums service in Scotland, but it’s not all been plane sailing.
Losing tens of millions of pounds during the local government shake up meant services were competing for any cash they could get. Library staff were on strike for eight months in the late 1990s and venues were open for just a couple of days a week to lend books and it was looking grim for the future of those services.
However, an opportunity to work with the then Glasgow Development Agency who had money to invest in technology began to turn things around.
Mrs McConnell, who is married to former First Minister Jack McConnell, added: “Performance indicators in our libraries were among the worst in the UK at the time, but we got through it and persuaded the council and GDA to come in and develop learning suites with computers, train up staff and in some places co-locate, which for some people is still an issue, but it was fantastic. There was objection at the time, but within weeks uncertain staff became the biggest advocate and more people were using the service.
“There was no library in the Gorbals it had been shut many years before and we reopened that. We ended up extending the library service. In Pollok the library was literally falling down so we located it in the leisure centre. In Springburn we had problems with the old library building and eventually we created a two-level library with a computer suite. With co-location we had more people using the service.”
An element of Mrs McConnell’s role was look at future partnerships and who else they could work with and it is how she first met the late Lord Macfarlane, who was a passionate patron of the arts in Glasgow and helped them raise £12millon for the £35m Kelvingrove Art Gallery and Museum refurbishment. He also helped the council buy the handwritten original Robert Burns manuscript of ‘Auld Lang Syne’ in 1998 for around £100,000.
“It came up for sale in New York and one of the library staff said to me this was happening,” said Mrs McConnell. “They said we have this amazing Burns collection but you never buy anything in Glasgow for the libraries and I thought why not?
“We went out and we got that manuscript at auction in New York and it is now in Glasgow. That has been at the heart of what we have been able to do. It has been about working with others and seeing opportunities as they arise. In the face of it when I started in 1998 having lost all that money from Strathclyde and sadly we did have to make a lot of compulsory redundancies at the time, the reality is if we hadn’t gone into partnership with others and hadn’t changed how we did things we wouldn’t have had the credibility or the partners to do a lot of what we did.”
It was former city council chief executive George Black who recognised that the halcyon days would not last forever and understood what was coming down the line in terms of the scale of investment for services and reductions in local government funding.
In 2006 that it was felt for culture and leisure to be successful a new way of working had to be looked and also to reduce the burden to the council given increasing demands on the likes of social care and education budgets.
This led to the setting up of Glasgow Life in 2007, a charitable organisation that could run culture and leisure on behalf of the council, and brought an immediate saving to the council of tens of millions of pounds just in rates, along with VAT benefits.
“We also recognised it would be a way of bringing in people like Lord Macfarlane on to our board,” added Mrs McConnell. “We saw this as an opportunity immediately to save money year in year out – one off saving isn’t enough and we needed to bring in people who could help us bring in additional money.”
Glasgow’s cultural and sporting successes propelled the city’s global reputation as a first choice leisure and business tourism destination. In 2019, before the pandemic struck, Glasgow welcomed some 2.5 million domestic and international visitors; boosting the city’s economy by a record £774m and supporting thousands of jobs across every part of Glasgow’s tourism and hospitality sector.
However, the pandemic meant the doors to Glasgow Life’s venues were closed and it was facing a financial black hole. It lost £38m due to the pandemic and estimated revenue for 2021/22 was £6.4m. With services and cultural attractions at risk, it led to The Herald launching A Fair Deal for Glasgow campaign calling for both the UK and Scottish government to support a new way of funding these treasures.
So how does she think Glasgow can best funds its cultural offering in the years ahead.
“Glasgow isn’t just like any other local authority. It is different. It is the biggest city and is home to so many cultural services and resources that it directly funds through Glasgow Life, but the whole ecology whether it is support for the Royal Scottish National Orchestra, based in one of the city’s venues or the Glasgow Warriors playing at Scotstoun, it goes beyond direct funding. I believe there needs to be recognition that some of these services are nationally and internationally significant and should be funded accordingly,” said Mrs McConnell.
“I think we need to look at a different view of public health. It can’t just be about campaigns to stop smoking, it needs to be about how can you live a healthy life in your community and that means local resources, services whether it is libraries, sports, or development staff. We need advocates to look at ideas for the future and there needs to be a sense of urgency that we need to do something more.”
Her passion for culture and widening access, she says, stems from its ability to change people’s lives and goes back generations for Mrs McConnell whose inspiration was her grandmother Bridget Airlie, whose name appears on a remembrance plaque in Kelvingrove Art Gallery and Museum.
“My grandmother was a miner’s wife, had seven children and her father before her was a miner. She had six daughters and one son who was killed in the pits.
“She was born in 1899 and lived until she was 99. She had a huge family who were involved in the pits. Relatives had died from having lung disease – I had great uncles who were like demi-gods – grumpy and gruff – but I loved them and the stories they would tell as boys being in a pit at the age of 14 crawling in areas which were 3ft high.
“Her passion was for education and my memory of her was stick in at school as this was the way out of the pits for her. For me history from 1899 right through the 20th century wasn’t just in a book. I heard it and lived it listening to these people. I can remember my Uncle Thomas, who was killed in the pits when he was 30, his wife was pregnant at the time and lost the baby, he would listen to opera such as La Traviata.
“I remember during the miners’ strike, I had a lot of relations who were involved in that, there was always this dilemma – there was the pride of the mining communities but actually they didn’t want that for their kids. They wanted somewhere where they could breathe, live and they could use their brains. The thing that really struck me about my gran, who was in service as a young girl, was her teacher trying to plead with her parents about to let her stay on at school, but they were poor. Being in service wasn’t like being in Upstairs Downstairs, I think it was pretty miserable, but here was this bright woman who could recite Wordsworth and there was this sense of a great mind not challenged enough so she lived it through her children and grandchildren. The mantra for her was education, education, education. There was a passion about access to arts and that it should be there for everyone and that still drives me to this day.”
While she recognises she is extremely privileged now, she was brought up in a room and kitchen with her siblings and an outside toilet shared with another family, but she said she never once felt poor.
“I felt rich and it was rich in community, the church was a big thing for us and lot of the social life, entertainment and arts experiences stemmed from there. I ended up playing organ in the Twechar Church for six years from the age of 12 because my gran had bought the organ in memory of her late son. I can remember the opportunities there were growing up. If I hadn’t had a full grant when I went to university I wouldn’t have been able to go.”
Her first job after leaving St Andrew’s University was with Fife Council’s travelling art gallery in 1983.
“It was Manpower Services funded and the council had put a lot of money into funding arts teams, dancers and writers in residence which was unheard of. I got the role of the first curator of the travelling art gallery which is exactly what it said on the tin. It was a converted caravan and we had a local farmer who agreed to tour it. It was about going to communities all over Fife and taking contemporary and local art to communities. It was that whole thing about access to arts.”
Despite the headline grabbing achievements of multi-million pound museums opening and her role in helping to bring the Commonwealth Games to the city in 2014, which she is immensely proud of, it is some of the initiatives that have been life-changing that mean the most.
“For me it is the little things. We were doing some work at the library in Bridgeton and one man talked about how the library saved his life. He had lost his job, felt suicidal, and it wasn’t just that the library provided a safe space, it is the moment when it gave a reason for living.
“Seeing the change in some of the young people from the criminal justice reform programme volunteering at the Commonwealth Games – it was a moment when you see how culture and sport can change lives.”
As she looks to the future what’s next for Mrs McConnell – does she see a future in politics. And her response was not a yes, no or maybe – it was a never.
“It is not a no – it is a never,” she declared. “Politics doesn’t appeal partly because I like to change my mind a lot, but I also have found that across all the political parties it is about being able to work with a common interest in doing more for local communities and for people. If you can work with that across parties as sometimes my experience is that parties can create divides, so no it is a never for me.”