How to come third and win

16 Oct 2012 in Robert Livingston Blog

We are binary creatures, cursed by our bilateral symmetry to think in terms of pairings and oppositions: black and white, right and wrong, formal and informal, incomer and native. We are (no pun intended) uncomfortable with shades of grey. We are sceptical of politicians who offer us a ‘third way’. After all, three’s a crowd. One of the most resonant titles in film history is ‘The Third Man’, and to compound the ambiguity the eponymous Harry Lime went from being a cowardly villain in Orson Welles’ portrayal in the original film, to a suave jetsetter in Michael Rennie’s character in the subsequent, very popular, TV series. So, introducing the concept of a ‘third place’ might be an uphill task. But bear with me.

In HI~Arts we’ve been thinking a lot about what it might mean to be a ‘creative community’. In part that has been prompted by Creative Scotland’s ‘Creative Places’ awards, currently in the process of being judged for the second year. But we’re also exploring a more fundamental question of how culture works as a driver in terms of a community’s energy, cohesion, and sense of identity.

We all know a creative community when we see one. Some might say that the whole of Orkney is such a place—certainly Stromness is, and the island of Westray, and also the even smaller island of Papa Westray, with its extraordinary programme of ‘Papay Gyro Nights’.  Ullapool and the wider Lochbroom area is another, so is the island of Eigg. Indeed, most of the community land buy-out areas, whether it be Assynt or Gigha, tend to have a strong cultural character. What we’ve been thinking about are the factors that help to bring such a situation about, and how far they may be transferrable or replicable.

That’s probably why I’ve found myself on an External Advisory Group for the Scottish Government’s Review of Town Centre Regeneration. The Group’s work kicked off two weeks ago with a two day seminar in Kilmarnock, ably facilitated by Neil McInroy, Chief Executive of CLES. The Centre for Local Economic Strategies was new to me, but exploring their website, and the contents of their magazine, New Start, has led me to some interesting ideas, and one of those is the concept of ‘Third Place’.

It’s very straightforward. Where we live is our First Place, where we work our second. Third Places  are informal meeting spaces where we go to make social glue. They are essential to a healthy community. In the past, of course, churches occupied that central role within the community, and in many parts of the Highlands and Islands they still do, especially if, as in the church in our village, the formal service is followed by informal chat over coffee and biscuits. The classic English pub is another obvious example, staple of so many soap operas precisely because it can function as neutral ground where all the drama’s characters can interact.

When we bought our previous house in Anstruther we were nervous about being just across the road from a pub, imagining late night revellers and general rowdiness. We needn’t have worried. The Dreel Tavern was run by a London couple who ensured it had the feel of a classic ‘local’, with regulars propping up the bar, a roaring fire throughout winter, and good homely food for all comers. We ended up eating there most Friday nights. But in recent years pubs have been closing in their hundreds, and the percentage of the population who regularly attend church is a tiny fraction of those who actually profess some form of religious belief. So, reading about the concept of ‘Third Place’, I began to think about how far cultural centres can be third places. And it’s easy to name some that are: Taigh Chearsabhagh in Lochmaddy in North Uist is perhaps the most often cited example—after all it even houses the local post office—but Timespan in Helmsdale is another (and the biggest employer in the village). Nor do such centres have to be ‘not for profit’: most people would cite Ullapool’s emergence as a ‘creative place’ as having been kickstarted by Jean and Robert Urquhart’s vision of the ‘Ceilidh Place’ as a hotel and eating place that was also a haven of culture and creativity.

Indeed there may be times when the private sector is actually better than the charitable or funded sectors at creating a cultural ‘third place’, and I say that with no ideological intent. Balnain House is one of Inverness’s most important historic buildings. The group that set out to save its fabric envisioned it as the ‘home of Highland music’; but, probably because it was located on what was, at that time, the ‘wrong’ side of the river, its cafe, bar and shop all lost money, and it became unsustainable. Some time after its closure Kit Fraser opened Hootananny’s as a pub with music, bang in the centre of the old town, and more than a decade later it’s still fulfilling that valuable social function.

Similarly, in Kirkwall in Orkney the talented musical sisters Jennifer and Hazel Wrigley invested in ‘The Reel’ in a prominent central location, next to St Magnus Cathedral, as a cafe/bar, music shop, performance space, and site for classes, workshops, rehearsals and recordings. It’s a private business, but exercises a crucial and multifaceted function within the lively musical life of the islands.

We’ve just had a short break in rural Perthshire, which gave us the chance to experience two very good examples of cultural ‘third places’, one commercial in nature, one charitable. Though to define Pitlochry Festival Theatre by its charitable status would be very misleading—indeed the ‘commercial’ character of its productions has, in the past, been a reason for it not receiving Scottish Arts Council funding. Enter the theatre at any time of the day or night, even this late in the season, and it’s clearly a vibrant social hub for the area. But it’s social/entrepreneurial role goes well beyond that informal level, as it is also behind the local community company which promotes a range of tourism initiatives in the area, most prominently the annual ‘Enchanted Forest’  which, this year at least, fully lived up to its name.

And then, just a few miles away in Aberfeldy, there’s the Watermill  which combines in one handsomely converted historic building a gallery showcasing work of international standard (Paolozzi, Barns-Graham, Alan Davie, and Victor Pasmore, when we were there), with an award-winning bookshop and an excellent cafe. There seems little doubt that this thriving private business is the ‘third place’ for a large cross-section of the local community.

So, how does a cultural centre—a museum, gallery, theatre or arts centre—achieve the status of a ‘third place’ and so become of central importance to its community? I don’t think it’s straightforward. It’s certainly not just a matter of being an ‘ace caff with a quite nice museum attached’ as the V&A once notoriously promoted itself. The team behind the enlarged and rebuilt Pier Arts Centre in Orkney took the brave decision not to include a cafe in the new building, and thus avoid competing directly with existing local businesses. That may pose revenue challenges for the Pier, but it hasn’t stopped it, in its new form, becoming a wonderful focus of creativity and good fellowship, with an almost tangible spiritual quality about it (and that’s a word I use very rarely and hesitantly).

At the opposite extreme, I’ve written elsewhere of my experiences in the Third Eye Centre in Glasgow in the early 80s when, despite being in most physical respects a complete dump, it was such a vibrant ‘third place’ for so many Glaswegians that the scriptwriters of an early episode of ‘Taggart’ could refer to it as a rendezvous for two of their characters without further explanation. But a change of identity to the ‘CCA’ and the single biggest Arts Lottery grant given in Scotland turned the building into a forbidding temple of art, an impression which the current CCA team, under Francis McKee, are making great efforts to overcome.

As with the CCA, therefore, sometimes the greater the investment in the fabric of the building, the greater the distance from a sense of being a true ‘third place’. The enlarged An Tuireann in Portree on Skye opened with a great spirit of optimism but when some years later, in 2007, financial problems caused the centre to close, it had become sufficiently distanced from its wider community that there was no concerted campaign to reopen it, and the successor initiative, Atlas, was expressly designed not to be tied to a specific building.

For many independent museums in the Highlands and Islands, as elsewhere, there is a particular challenge: the need to charge admission to help to meet basic operating costs. Many such museums have seen visitor numbers plummet in recent years, but perhaps even more damagingly, they have also moved (conceptually speaking) to the periphery of their communities, unable to provide that crucial ‘third place’ function. In March 2011 the West Highland Museum in Fort William took the brave step of dropping admission charges and has since seen visitor numbers quadruple. It also has a very high rating on Tripadvisor, with many of the reviewers commenting particularly on the free admission. But only time will tell if this results in a viable financial model for the museum, or indeed for those of its counterparts still applying such charges.

All cultural facilities are under huge pressure to be more financially robust in these hard times. Sometimes this can result in some very crude pressures to ‘earn income’. As Balnain House showed, being good at running a music centre is no reason why the same people should be good at running a cafe, bar or shop. Perhaps thinking in terms of ‘Third Places’ will make it possible to approach these challenges in a more nuanced way, understanding and evaluating the ‘social capital’ wrapped up in a cultural facility’s assets and functions. And perhaps it can also break down those crude oppositions, between ‘charity’ and ‘business’, between ‘commerce’ and ‘culture’, between so-called ‘artistic elites’ and ‘ordinary folk’.

Almost thirty years ago we visited Dervaig in Mull for the first time, to see the original ‘Mull Little Theatre’ set up and run by Barrie and Marion Hesketh. On arrival we first went into what was obviously the original ‘village store’. There was very little actually on display, and what there was had a fly-blown, ‘beyond its sell-by date’ look. Apart from the elderly local woman behind the counter, we were the only people in the shop, and we left having bought nothing. A few doors down we squeezed into a tiny shop that was selling wine, coffee, cheese and books. You could sip coffee while sitting at a cramped table sampling one of the books. It was packed, and it was run by a Yorkshireman. There I go, falling into the trap of binary opposition: incomer dynamic/entrepreneurial versus local apathy/lack of energy. We need more subtle tools to understand how these circumstances come about, and how we can foster and sustain truly effective ‘third places’ in our communities.

© Robert Livingston