We continue our podcast series with a conversation with Dr Bridget McConnell. Dr Bridget McConnell CBE FRSE has a track record of achievement in the cultural and sport sector. She has been Chief Executive of Glasgow Life since 2007 where she leads a team of over 2,500 people. During her time there, she has overseen the development of the Zaha Hadid-designed Riverside Museum, which won the 2013 European Museum of the Year; the Emirates Area; and Sir Hoy Velodrome. She was a member of the 2014 Commonwealth Games bid team and organising committee. In 2015 Bridget was awarded a CBE in the New Year Honours for Services to Culture. Bridget has links with several SAHA member institutions. An alumna of the University of St Andrews and the University of Stirlling, Bridget was also awarded honorary doctorates from the Universities of St Andrews, Aberdeen, Glasgow and The Royal Conservatoire of Scotland. She is also a fellow of the Royal Society of Edinburgh. Our SAHA Conversation focuses on arts and culture and Bridget reflects on her career trajectory and the importance of culture to support our post-Covid recovery.
Resources mentioned in this episode
COP26 – Event held in Glasgow 31 Oct to 12 November 2021
[00:01:56] Cristina: Hello, and thank you for joining us today, Bridget. You have a distinguished record of work in arts and culture in Scotland. Could you please tell our listeners a little bit more about your career trajectory and how this has intersected with your studies?
[00:02:15] Bridget: Yes. Well, good morning to you, Cristina and I’m really delighted to be part of this podcast. This is a subject very close to my heart and in terms of my career and my studies they have very much been intertwined, for as long back as I can remember, I would say right back to my school days. I have been engaged in the arts in particular since I was a child, not just the usual painting and drawing, but I went to music and piano lessons from a very young age, was junior student at the Royal Academy of Music and Drama, as it was then, now the Royal Conservatoire of Scotland.
And I was just passionate about literature, about music, about painting and learning. My appetite was almost insatiable and it therefore was not a surprise, I think to anyone, least of all me that when I went to university I was looking at art arts courses, doing English, fine arts, music and basically my career once I left university, that was, was basically about how can I work in the arts. And there’s a bit of similarity with the current predicament that we are in post-COVID, because certainly in the early 1980s, the economy was in a very bad place in the country. And at that time, a job in the arts seemed both to many like a luxury and really difficult to achieve. But I was really determined that was where I wanted to be. I thought seriously at that point about doing post-graduate studies, but I instead went on and did a postgraduate qualification in administration. Interestingly, the careers advice I had at that time, I was at university in St Andrews, was that if I wanted to work in the arts I needed to go to London. And as I was the mother of a small child at that point, that did not appeal at all. So I felt if I could do an administrative course and learn the basic business skills and focus what was my practical part of that diploma on arts administration, it would put me in a very good place, I hoped, and get a job.
And I should say at that point, and this is really a message for young people in the arts who are feeling very deflated, applying for many jobs at the moment. I think then, I actually applied, I think I gave up counting after 40, 40 jobs. And finally I did get one. First of all started off working part-time teaching piano and arts appreciation at a community art centre in Dundee but then got my first full time job through a scheme that the government had created to try and tackle the significant unemployment at the time. It was through what was called the Manpower Services Commission, and I became the first curator of a traveling art gallery in a local authority in Scotland.
[00:05:20] And it was – a dream job doesn’t begin to describe it – it was a blank canvas in terms of what I could do and what it would actually achieve. And that was wonderful. And I think for me, that has been one of the amazing things about every job I’ve held in the arts since that that there has in many senses, even though there have been physical things like buildings and a mobile art gallery, et cetera, it’s still has been that ability to shape and influence in partnership with some amazing people. I have worked with incredible number of people and I should see right at the outset nothing I have achieved has been possible without the efforts and brilliance and imagination for whole lot of others. So anyhow, every job, although my job now covers sports and tourism, every job I’ve been involved in since leaving university has had at its core arts and culture.
[00:06:19] And for me, one of the big things in all of this is I have never lost my, some people think it’s a bit strange, almost insatiable desire as well to keep learning, because I think for many of us, I think particularly women in any job, feel a bit of an imposter and I just always felt and still feel, I don’t know enough. I don’t know all the answers for sure. And never will and therefore research, and I loved studying again, people find that a bit strange, you know, I did two post-graduate degrees, a master of education, done the doctorate both concerned with cultural policy. I did, both of those part-time when I was working full time. But I loved it. And that’s not to say that there weren’t moments in doing those studies and research projects that weren’t really difficult, but I still loved it. I loved that capacity to learn more, to explore, to ask questions and to work with amazing supervisors as well, who really helped me think right out of the box, I know that’s a cliché, but they are so important. That’s why I feel strongly that universities and practitioners like me have to be linked in many ways, because we don’t know the answers. And only through research and new insights and real thoughtfulness and reflection can we come to the new ways forward and solutions many of which have not been imagined yet. That’s the only way we can do it. You can’t just be in a job and keep doing the same old things. You have to keep questioning, keep being inquisitive and curious, and keep seeking for new answers to what often are perceived as intractable problems. So I hope you can tell, I am passionate about not just the work that I do, but passionate too, about the role of education and intellectual pursuits and study alongside it. I hope that’s a very long answer to your question, Cristina, apologies.
[00:08:37] Cristina: No, that was great. It was amazing to hear this and of course, we’re going to cover some of these issues as we discuss further. I wanted to probe a little bit more in the academic part and ask you if there are particular experiences or learnings that have stayed with you.
[00:08:57] Bridget: So in terms of particular experiences and learnings, I think what has been really important for me has to be being exposed and connected with people from other disciplines. I love, I mean, I remember doing my first dissertation on Russian art. And I just loved the sheer intellectual pleasure of exploring all of that. But actually when I took up employment in culture and the arts, my real thirst was to widen the opportunities for people to experience what I had had the pleasure to experience through school, through higher education and of course through my work. And what became very clear was that for too many people, and I think it’s still the case and increasingly the case post-pandemic now that many people feel excluded and that arts and culture are still difficult for them to engage with and that is despite massive developments in the school curriculum. Lots and lots of work done about widening access, but I think we still have real fundamental issues around opportunity and access.
[00:10:22] And for me, working with others who had that same agenda and particularly people in more recently, the areas of health, and understanding some of the societal and the health issues affecting people’s engagement with culture. So for me, one of the joys, I think I said at the beginning that the beauty of the first full-time job I had was basically being able to write the script. I think one of the joys of actually studying is that you can ask questions that can take you in directions that you had not anticipated. And that can take you into other fields of study and connections with experts in other areas who can really shape and inform what you’re doing as well. And for me, that’s been really important that it hasn’t just been a purist approach to study to, you know, working, as I said, my research was primarily concerned with cultural policy. But I think the real learnings, have been working with others who’ve been engaged in the arena of culture and public health and similar areas. So I think, again, the opportunities offered by an arts and humanities degree, really does open up all sorts of possibilities as I said can take you in directions that you might never have imagined.
[00:11:50] Cristina: Yes, I think that’s something that’s common with our interviewees on this podcast series. To move on a little bit, I wanted to ask you, you’ve been leading now Glasgow Life for quite a bit of time and looking back, maybe you could reflect a little bit on the key lessons that you’ve learned and also reflecting a little bit on what the different forms of culture can do for a city and its people.
[00:12:18] Bridget: I’ll start with that second part of your question first of all if that’s okay with you and really, to just state that it is absolutely abundantly clear from the work that I’ve been involved in that culture its different forms can be transformational for a city and for its people. And it can sound like old rhetoric or clichés, you know, it builds pride, sense of place, et cetera, but I have seen that, I have seen it in individuals, in communities and indeed the way a city like Glasgow is perceived nationally and internationally, and the way it is spoken about. Let’s not forget, you know, back in 1990, there were many who laughed and scoffed at the concept of Glasgow being a European city of culture and all my goodness it rose to the challenge then and has done despite many difficulties, rose to the challenge again and again, and it will be one of the things I have no doubt will help Glasgow recover from this current pandemic and the really dreadful population, health and economic impacts that we are really only beginning to see.
[00:13:36] So culture isn’t just a nice thing to have when times are good. It is absolutely fundamental in transforming both perceptions of the city, the life chances of people, and that sense of confidence, that sense of compassion and human engagement. And I think many of us have seen that through the pandemic. What have been the things that people now speak about as having helped them through. It’s been books, it’s been music, it’s been drama on the television. And indeed we know from the responses to the facilities that we have been able to open and services that we’ve been able to restart people have a thirst for culture, not just as a distraction from life, but something that affirms the goodness, the essential goodness of life and people. And as I say, that is what even in the bad times has always kept me going because I have always understood and experienced the joy of culture, but actually that ability of culture to make frankly life worth living.
[00:14:52] So it’s not as I have heard some people describe it as a bit of fluff or something that’s not essential. It is absolutely essential. And I’ve learned that from my work, especially in Glasgow Life. Basically some of the key lessons are that culture can transform opportunities and aspirations and just really change people’s lives. I’ve seen that, I’ve actually seen it. I’ve had people who’ve been young people in schools who’ve been inspired by a visit to a museum. I can remember when a museum resources centre, which can sound very boring as a facility, was first opened to school groups. Basically, you know, I have been able to witness young people who had never been in a museum and the head teacher, actually saying at the time that he felt really bad that because he’d been in a part of the city that wasn’t close to some of the services that he thought, you know, just wouldn’t be of interest to kids, he hadn’t taken them to a museum. But now that he had taken them to this store and seen the first-hand impact of the inspiration, he said we had young people now, and I heard these young kids saying things like: ‘I’m going to be an archaeologist when I grow up’ and another saying standing beside, I’ll always remember it, a big painting by John Byrne, it was a self portrait, saying ‘I’m going to be an artist like him’. And it really has that ability to, to inspire and really tap in to aspirations that are latent and I think, you know, for me post pandemic, the work we are doing is not peripheral. It is so important and has to come centre stage.
[00:16:50] Cristina: Yeah, definitely. And it’s, it’s lovely that image, ’cause I’ve been thinking about how many young people just don’t think of different career options just because they haven’t been exposed to the right environment or had the opportunity to learn through their studies. So you’ve kind of pre-empted a little bit something that I had planned to discuss a little bit later, but given that we’ve already touched on this, and you’ve mentioned several times the COVID crisis, I wanted to ask you have you seen it bring changes in your organization, but also maybe other organizations and do you think it will change how public institutions operate?
[00:17:36] Bridget: Well, I think the sad fact of COVID is it has had a tremendous impact in organizations like Glasgow Life, all across the country, all across the UK, in that many of our organizations depended on income streams from earned income which have more or less dried up and in somewhere like Glasgow, that is huge, earned income was around 38 million, this year we’ll be lucky if we manage to achieve somewhere between six and eight million. So it’s a huge drop. However, nonetheless, I think and this might seem counterintuitive, but we have seen in Glasgow, but in other places across the UK, public campaigns and protests about non-access to some facilities post-COVID primarily because of finances. And in many ways I see that as a real positive because people care, people want access to books. They want access to music. They want access to those things that are life affirming. So I have no doubts that people in positions like mine and elsewhere, we’ll continue to advocate. But importantly, this is coming back to the very purpose of our conversation, why the relationship with academia and researchers becomes so crucial to provide the evidence of the very, very real and now well logged and charted and evidenced information, showing that participation in culture, in sport, in events actually improves health, creates new skills and pathways to employment. That you know, you can’t deny it. So I think things will be more difficult now because the economy inevitably has been adversely affected and I’m not being Pollyanna saying everything’s wonderful and it will all be great. I’m sure it will be great eventually, but I equally have no doubts that the next few years will be really difficult for our sector.
[00:19:50] But it’s importance again, has become even more important that, that evidence and that central place that culture has in people’s lives and should have in our education system. We need to be keeping on making that case. I don’t think we’ll ever stop having to make the case to be honest, but I think the more and more voices we can have, because people want it, people need it. And yeah, I hope that that answers your question. I do think the economic impact will affect everything in our lives and I think from an arts and humanities perspective, there has been a sense that jobs and careers in technology, in engineering, in science, et cetera, are somehow more valuable. I think actually the pandemic, despite those negative impacts I’ve described have actually shown. Technology is wonderful medicine, science, all of it amazing. But actually we also need those very fundamental things that make us human and that’s what’s covered by arts and humanities and actually for the innovation and the imagination that we need to find new ways of living new jobs, et cetera, you need that. And that comes it’s at the heart of what arts and humanities are about.
[00:21:23] Cristina: I absolutely agree with you, of course. In terms of the relationship between the post-COVID recovery and the way that universities or, higher education institutions more widely, and their students can contribute. Can you think of a particular ways this can happen? Like what can the sector do to help society recover more widely?
[00:21:49] Bridget: Just about 20 years ago, I established what was then the first dedicated research team within a local authority, culture and leisure service. And since then, we’ve encouraged a number of staff to study for and gain a range of postgraduate and doctoral degrees as part of their in-post development. And, you know, I’ve already said how much I believe the only through study, analysis, reflection etc can we be hope to deliver better public services and outcomes for communities. But actually I think it’s enhancing and expanding that function because we need… What’s really crucial is that we find new ways of working together as communities. I think we’re moving away from the old sort of notions of public service provision where this body provides and the community accepts. I think we’ve got all the laws around community empowerment, et cetera. But I think we will move into a possession where that has to become more meaningful, more real.
[00:22:57] And that students, that universities, that service providers direct and those involved in policy, we’ll have to work much more closely co-producing with each other and communities. And I think the challenges are huge but I think the skills that come from doing an arts and humanities degree are central to this because we do need to now face up to the challenges that have landed as a result of COVID. People want to live differently. They want to have a deeper and more meaningful experience of life and a deeper and more meaningful connection with their local place, with their communities. But actually you know, with COP 26 coming, people are also outward looking, and that is where the wonders of technology can never be overstated. And it makes those communications much more possible in ways even just 10 years ago, we could never have imagined. So I think one of the very practical things is for organizations like us to continue to see research leading to degrees, and that will influence how universities structure the programs, maybe more part-time, more in-work placements, both for undergraduates and post-graduates. I think there’s a lot that we can do together, which will be, you know, an almost inevitable consequence of the situation we all now find ourselves in. I also think it’s really exciting. There’s so much doom and gloom, particularly around, you know, the climate predictions, the economic predictions. And I have no doubts that many of those predictions are going to come to pass. But at the same time, the amazing thing about being a human being is that capacity to re-imagine and to reach out and for me that is where the value of an arts and humanities education really comes centre stage.
[00:25:06] Cristina: I agree, sorry, I sound like a broken record I think but I absolutely agree with you’re saying. Would there be some kind of key advice that you would have for, for students that are just starting their degrees now, or they’re just finishing their arts and humanities degrees in Scotland?
[00:25:27] Bridget: For me, and some people might think is a bit of a luxury, but my advice … and I have, I have two children and four grandchildren and 21 nieces and nephews, many of whom now are at university or starting off. And my advice to them when they ask is always do what you love. It is a real opportunity to be at a university and do that undergraduate degree. And particularly in the arts and humanities, I think the skills and insights that come from doing that degree in what you love are absolutely transferable skills that will be required for the future. Because for a long time, I have been really saddened at the amount of advice that has been given to young people that says, oh, do something that’s vocational and guarantee you a job at the end of it. Yes, I understand that. Absolutely. But I do think that arts and humanities degrees can bring a way of working and thinking about the world that is going to be central to the responses we need to make to the difficulties economically, socially, that we are facing in the future.
[00:26:43] So, I guess, you know, my advice is don’t get too hung up on finding a degree that you feel can guarantee you a particular outcome because sometimes just the course of life and doing a degree means that that outcome disappears. So do what you love, gain experience there. And I do think universities and practitioner bodies like my own are increasingly working together. So do get experience where you can, do engage through your course with practitioners in the field, wherever you can. And also volunteer where can too. Again, you know, whether it’s at your local events organization or your local community group or your local library or museum. I think there are a huge benefits to be gained from that.
[00:27:39] And certainly I have found, and it’s not been through design or plan, there’s been a lot of serendipity and increasingly through life I have come more and more to trust my intuition and my gut feeling, which sometimes, you know, you think you shouldn’t. So I haven’t planned a career trajectory, but I do think those fundamental skills that you gain through your arts and humanities study really helps you navigate what can be a very complex and overwhelming world. And in terms of jobs, I believe strongly that many of the jobs that we need in the future do need those very human qualities of kindness, love, compassion, and innovation and imagination. And those are going to become so important for the future and will help shape the future of work going forward. So that is my advice. It’s not, you know, I’m not knocking anyone who wants to do a particular vocational course for a very particular outcome. I did do that after I did my first degree I did a post-graduate diploma in industrial administration by I moved it to work for me in arts and culture. So I’m not saying don’t do anything vocational, but at the same time, do not underestimate the value and power of an arts and humanities degree and its potential to take you in lots of different directions and not put you in a straight jacket of one option only.
[00:29:19] Cristina: Wonderful, Bridget, thank you very much. It’s been a very inspirational discussion to say the least and some very important lessons that we all need to consider. So thank you very much for joining us today.
[00:29:33] Bridget: Thank you. You’re very, very welcome. Thanks Cristina.