Making His Mark In Mull
GORDON MACLEAN is now in his second decade as artistic director of the acclaimed An Tobar Arts Centre on Mull, where he has seeded numerous significant projects
KENNY MATHIESON caught up with Gordon for Northings, and began by asking how long he had been involved with the Tobermory venue?
GORDON MACLEAN: Pretty much since the start. It kicked off with a local committee who set about getting it together, which would have been about 1994, I think, and I got involved with that the following year. I became director in early 1998, shortly after we opened.
KENNY MATHIESON: And you are from Mull yourself?
GORDON MACLEAN: Yes, the family goes back a few hundred years here.
KENNY MATHIESON: You are also a musician, a bass player. Was that what you were doing before An Tobar?
GORDON MACLEAN: I’ve always been a musician, but alongside other things. I went to university in Edinburgh and played in Jock Tamson’s Bairns and in the scene around Sandy Bells and so on at the end of the 1970s. I moved back to Mull and have a very clear decade-by-decade career path from there – I worked about ten years on fishing boats, and then did ten years on the roads with the Council, and then moved into the arts. I’m sure you can see the logic in that trajectory … .
I like to see An Tobar as an artist support project, and I feel very lucky to have this job, and to be able to do it here on Mull
KENNY MATHIESON: I suspect being Artistic Director is easier on the back, if not necessarily the nerves.
GORDON MACLEAN: I’d say so. During that time I was involved in music, getting my own bands together and putting on gigs for other people and so forth.
KENNY MATHIESON: Are you still playing much? I know you’ve been working with your son, singer-songwriter Sorren Maclean, who seems to be making significant progress now.
GORDON MACLEAN: Yes, and I am still playing in his band, although he is looking at forming a new one now. That’s mostly been the playing I have done over the last while, and I don’t have a lot of time to do much more, although it was nice to do the project here with Michael Marra, and I did quite a few gigs with him elsewhere as well. That was one of our most successful projects.
KENNY MATHIESON: Looking at An Tobar, the artistic focus seems to fall predominantly on a mix of music and visual arts.
GORDON MACLEAN: We have always aimed at being an arts centre that covered various art forms, but those two have settled down as the two main streams of what we do. We have done some bits and pieces of both traditional and contemporary dance and forays into other areas, including puppet theatre this April, but we have always had a gallery programme. It’s only recently that we had a visual arts officer – before that it was done by a committee.
KENNY MATHIESON: Have you basically left theatre to Mull Theatre?
GORDON MACLEAN: Exactly that, yes. We did the odd theatre piece in the early years, and some dance shows, but doing theatre seemed daft. Why tread on each other’s toes, and we have enough on our plate anyway, so Mull Theatre definitely cover that side of things.
KENNY MATHIESON: Your residency programmes in both visual arts and music seem to be an important element of your work?
GORDON MACLEAN: Very much so. The visual arts residences are based around the exhibitions, and it’s often down to whether we have funding to do it. Sometimes an artist will come here and work for a period, and we will support them with studio space and accommodation. While they are here they may do workshops and so forth as well as working on their own stuff, and in some cases we will bring them to work on a specific commission.
KENNY MATHIESON: You have earned a reputation for generating a succession of fascinating commissions in both music and visual arts. Is that element of involvement in actual creation of work important to you?
GORDON MACLEAN: Very much so, on both the visual arts and music sides of our activities. We like to bring musicians over to create work in the same way as visual artists whenever we can. That goes back quite a while, and in a sense right back to the start, in that we commissioned Savourna Stevenson to write a piece for the opening. She wrote that at home rather than here, but it did set the precedent of commissioning new work.
KENNY MATHIESON: And in subsequent years you have been able to work much more directly on the ground in Mull with the artists?
GORDON MACLEAN: The Dave Milligan Trio’s Shops is a good recent example of that. That was done entirely here over a week with the three musicians, and they created the music and performed the pieces in the shops along the harbour in Tobermory before the final concert.
KENNY MATHIESON: Was that your idea to have them work with the local shops?
GORDON MACLEAN: I have to admit that was my idea, yes, and I felt that they were the kind of guys who would respond to a slightly off-the-wall concept! And they did.
Aidan O’Rourke’s piece An Tobar was another one that was very focused on the island. That was commissioned for our 10th anniversary, and Aidan came over and spent a few days here, working in the studio that Martyn Bennett had used. We did a lot of travelling round the island with him just looking for inspiration, and it was performed and recorded here.
KENNY MATHIESON: And I recall the Burt-MacDonald project we covered in Northings back in 2005 was also very local?
GORDON MACLEAN: It was very focused here, and that was one that grew legs as it went on. Keith Tippett eventually got involved in that as well, and it just kept on growing. These kind of commissions can often have a very specific short span, but that one just kept going.
KENNY MATHIESON: Do you specify a local connection when you make those commissions?
GORDON MACLEAN: We have always tried to build in some local connection In the work we have commissioned, yes, and I think the artists have generally responded very well to that. It is a two-way process – they are inspired by being here, and the people here are inspired by their presence.
KENNY MATHIESON: And the locals get involved?
GORDON MACLEAN: We have often tried to set it up so that they have a lot of interaction with the local community in various ways – Shops is an obvious example, and we did a piece with Corrina Hewat a few years ago that involved a local ladies choir. We did a piece with Ian Stephen a while back about Mull fishermen, and he was the perfect guy for that – he was going out on the boats with them and yarning round the table. It’s true on the visual arts side as well – our Tales from the Museum project was a good example of that.
KENNY MATHIESON: And you also set up your own record label, Tob Records. Was that mainly to document the music commissions?
GORDON MACLEAN: That was certainly part of it. Again, that’s being going since pretty early on as well. It started as a way of providing a record of the projects, with small pressings. We did Ian Stephen’s project, but we have done quite a number of singles with local bands over the years. We did Corrina Hewat’s piece, and one with Karen Wimhurst and various members of Mr McFalls Chamber, Michael Marra, and the three jazz commissions.
KENNY MATHIESON: Aidan O’Rourke’s project came out on Navigator Records rather than Tob. Why was that?
GORDON MACLEAN: We would certainly have done it ourselves, but Aidan is signed to Navigator Records, and they were keen to do it. They have a wider distribution and so on than us, so we were happy to see that happen. We have one coming out on Colin McIntyre’s record label quite soon as well.
KENNY MATHIESON: Do you have a policy of supporting young artists on the island?
GORDON MACLEAN: We have always tried to do quite a bit of that, both in visual arts and in music. Over the years quite a lot of musicians that we have been able to support in their early stages have gone off from Mull and made a living as a musician or in the music business, and if I can give youngsters a chance to work with experienced professionals who come here, then I always try to do that.
Karen Wimhurst’s project was like that – she worked with local youngsters and Mr McFalls Chamber, and they invited us all down to play at the Bongo Club in Edinburgh as well.
KENNY MATHIESON: You are now into your second decade at the helm at An Tobar – is your enthusiasm still high, despite the inevitable frustrations?
GORDON MACLEAN: Och yes. There are always money struggles just keeping the place going, and sometimes things come at you very unexpectedly, but I’ve never found myself waking up in the morning and thinking oh hell, I’ve got to go to work today. There is always so much going on. I like to see An Tobar as an artist support project, and I feel very lucky to have this job, and to be able to do it here on Mull. If you had said to me twenty years this would be situation, I would have laughed at you.
And even if you don’t come to An Tobar to see any art or hear any music, it’s well worth a visit just for the cafe!
© Kenny Mathieson, 2009