Interview: Michael Dale from the West End Festival

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Eat, drink, learn, walk, dance, laugh, sing and be inspired – it’s all going on at the West End Festival 2017. This year there are over 400 events in 75 venues, including a performance from Chaka Khan and a new free family event on Sunday, 11 June in Kelvingrove Park — the Big Sunday.

Other highlights from the programme include:

• West End Fiesta’s Kool and the Gang (June 9), Chic featuring Nile Rodgers (June 11)
• The second “Voice @ the Bandstand” will take place on Sat 24 June – this is a free celebration of singing with at least 10 choirs and choral groups.
• New for 2017 is a series of free community events supported by the National Lottery “Awards for All”. These will be at the newly created pedestrian zone in Vinicombe Street, outside the Art Galleries and in the Botanic Gardens.
• The Open Air Ceilidh will be on June 4, with a repeat on June 10
• Bandstand Cinema Club, 5-8 June
• Great Get Together, culminating in The Big Lunch – 17-18 June
• A free vintage bus service – 25 June

You can find all the events here.

We spoke to West End Festival founder Michael Dale.

Glagowist: What’s your West End story Michael?

Michael: My story is that I moved to Glasgow in 1986. I used to run the Fringe in Edinburgh and I came here to run the Garden Festival, which was in 1988. After that, I was over in Glasgow for the Year of Culture. I was thinking of doing other things, so I started the West End Festival in 1996 and this is year 22. I used to be young and have lots of hair [laughs].

My main idea really was to have something a bit like the Fringe in Edinburgh, because I had experience with that. I wanted to have a sort of umbrella and get lots of organisations to take part underneath it.

I got involved with Cottiers Theatre early on. I ran Cottiers for a number of years, programming it and everything.

What do you think the West End Festival has become now?

It’s not really an arts festival. I don’t call it an arts festival. I’d call it more like a cultural event … Because what I really want is lots of quite accessible things, like markets, and Shakespeare in the Botanic Gardens and stuff like that and, of course, what I always wanted was to have events out in the street so my ambition was always to have a parade.

We could have had a parade in year one but I couldn’t get the road closed. It took me five years to get the road closed. That has become a huge event. For years, we’ve not done it for various reasons, sometimes political, sometimes financial.

We’re not going to be able to do it this year. I mean, the cost of it has gone up hugely. We’re just going to have to wait. It’s no good just breaking ourselves in half to try and get the road closed and everything like that. I’m not prepared to do it if it’s just a half-hearted thing. I want to do it properly. People expect it to be done properly.

The focus on outdoor gatherings this year will be Ashton Lane and Kelvingrove Bandstand then?

It was a disgrace that the Kelvingrove Bandstand sat derelict for about 20 years. The renovation came into being eventually for 2014 for the Commonwealth Games so you’re right, we’ve got a good selection of things for the Bandstand this year. Some of them are free, some of them not.

We’ve got a family day event in Kelvingrove Park on Sunday the 11th. We’ve had events in Kelvingrove Park, in the parks and the Botanic Gardens before, but this is a full family day with a fun fair, and stalls.

One of the features that has come up in the last 12 months is the partial pedestrianisation of Vinicombe Street at the top of Byres Road, opposite Waitrose.

I’ve been instrumental in a group of people trying to improve Byres Road and we’re making some progress there. It’s very important, you have to understand, that people are working in cooperation with each other.

At the end of the day, the council holds all the cards, holds all the money and all the power. When you come to a city like Glasgow the West End is not a priority area for them so we have to prove that it’s important that the West End thrives both for trade reasons and employment reasons, the university and stuff like that so we managed to get some money together to pedestrianise part of Vinicombe Street.

It looks a lot better than it did. My long-term ambition is to get a lot more places in Byers Road to look a lot better.

And also, more gathering spaces seems to be part of the plan?

That’s exactly right. You only have to look at the Mound in Edinburgh during the Festival. That’s the kind of thing which people will turn up at, have fun and see things and also, to be honest, it gives an opportunity for the very many people that contact us to say, “Can we perform?”

Glasgow’s full of talent. They come out of the University and come out the Conservatoire. They come out of the colleges. They come out the schools. There are young musicians or actors and it’s really hard for them to find platforms on which to perform.

I think the West End Festival has an obligation to sort of try and make opportunities possible for them. We try and get talent on stage in places like Vinicombe Street. Maybe some street theatre, a market, dancing.

It’s a start and these things start small and tend to grow and then that way we can get the traders involved, get the public involved.

Byres Road

Byres Road

When you look back in terms of the way that the West End Festival started small and can compare that to what you have now, where have you seen that growth? Is it just that there’s more venues involved now or is it the range of things that you’re involved in too?

There are more venues. I think the answer to that question is that it has become the highlight of the year for many smaller groups. I’m able to work with the amateur groups and semi-professional groups.

People like Samba Ya Bamba, they are going strong and they have been to the Notting Hill Carnival and they have a youth band now. They have made it very clear that the West End Festival is their number one event of the whole year.

They say it’s better because it’s more community focused. The fact that there’s tens of thousands of people there doesn’t stop it being a community thing, you know? It’s just a matter of trying to get everybody to see it the same way and get onside so, in terms of participation, we now have a lot more choirs and singing than we used to have.

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This year there are around 400 events across 75 venues, how much of that is programmed directly from the Festival and how much of that is venues just coming up with their own ideas and then submitting that to the event listings?

It’s mostly the latter. It’s mostly other organisations but what tends to happen is people get in touch with me and say, “We want to do something. What could we do?” And so we have a sort of discussion and then we come to the realisation of an idea and I push organisations in the direction of venues.

They sort it out amongst themselves. We don’t have any programming money to do that so places like Cottiers, Websters, Oran Mor, they want to have as full a programme as they possibly can. Consequently, you have things like the Oran Mor West End Festival All Dayer.

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That’s 12 bands. So they’re proud of that. Sometimes I do stick my oar in and I say, “Look, we’ve got to have this” so, for example, last year, Belle and Sebastian who have done gigs on and off especially the famous open air gig in the Botanic Gardens in 2004, I said to them would they like to do something because it was their twentieth anniversary and it was our twentieth anniversary so the band said, “Yeah, we’ll do it” so they did three gigs at the QM. And then they did some other events.

I wonder, just looking back over the last two decades, how do you think that the West End itself has changed as a community?

Well, there’s always been a kind of middle class feel to the West End but that’s not unique for Glasgow. There’s plenty of areas of Glasgow which have lots of nice middle class people in them. It’s been a secondary centre for Glasgow but Byres Road used to be a lot better than it is now. Byres Road is dying and it’s partly because it’s become known as a drinking area. You don’t have the variety of shops.

But that’s life, isn’t it. You go into the centre of town and people are getting licences to serve alcohol at three, four, five o’clock in the morning and it’s become an alcohol driven thing.

It seems to be the independent traders on Byres Road that have been squeezed in more recent years.

The Byres Road Improvement Group which I helped found four or five years ago, you find out a lot about how the world works. A place like Byers Road, there’s no one organisation, there’s no one bunch of people who’s in charge, who rule the roost.

The council, obviously, is important but, personally, I’d like to see Byres Road closed every Sunday during the West End Festival for a start. There’s been a lot of publicity in the last few months about air pollution and I’ve actually spoken to people who would welcome road closures but road closures are a very, very difficult thing to do. People really resist it and it’s … why are they resisting it, you know?

When I was a kid, buses drove up and down Buchanan Street. Now it’s completely pedestrianised. The Royal Mile – when I was running the Fringe, I tried to get the Royal Mile closed. They wouldn’t do it. Now, it’s closed for three weeks during the festival.

Pedestrianisation does encourage people to come but also it’s also doing a sort of more social service by encouraging people to walk and cycle and, you know, hang out and stuff like that. God knows, we need as many opportunities to hang out as possible because some days, even in June, it’s pissing with rain.

In terms of development, I’ll just keep pushing for more public spaces to be used in more ways, try and get more people to come together.

Vinicombe Street rocking the #glasgow #sun! #WEF2016 #community #westendfestival #westisbest #streetparty

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When we interview people in Glasgow, they often mention the Garden Festival and they mention the Year of Culture. It’s like there was a Glasgow before those two festivals and then there was a Glasgow afterwards. It’s a marker in the city’s psyche. When you look back at those festivals and their impact, what do you think yourself.

Okay. What I think is that there was a Dark Ages for Glasgow which was the 1970s and then the Garden Festival was created. It was literally a creation of government and local government and space development agencies, specifically, in order to have a sort of economic driver for part of Glasgow that was derelict.

And, to a certain extent, it’s still derelict so that was a creative thing. It happened to coincide with a letter that arrived from Westminster to say there’s this idea going around about a European City of Culture. Who wants to join in?

That letter nearly didn’t get found on the Chief Executive’s desk in Glasgow but, by chance, it got found and a man called Eddie Friel who was very keen in using culture as a way of reviving Glasgow, he said, “We’ve gotta go for this” and then I just arrived to run the Garden Festival so I spoke with him and put that together but, you’re absolutely right, it was a coming together of two or three things and what I think I realised once we were awarded the City of Culture which was at the end of 1986 but it happened in 1990 … what I realised was that Glasgow was already a city of culture and the people just didn’t know it.

People who lived here knew it but even people living in Edinburgh, let alone London and Birmingham and Europe, they didn’t know Glasgow had an orchestra, a dance company, an opera company, fantastic galleries, fantastic parks.

Because when I was putting together all the people that we already could count on for the Year of Culture, it was a very impressive list which included the RSAMD and Scottish Television and the BBC for Christ’s sake. The BBC … really important for doing things like that so it was a shoe-in really and, when you look back on it, it wasn’t that we had to create lots of culture just to say that we were a city of culture. It was already here and then you add to that galleries, individual artists, the New Glasgow Boys, as well, all the bands, you know? Postcard Records, the up and coming groups, The Blue Nile. There’s so much of it.

The writers, Alisdair Gray, Liz Lochead. It was just so obvious and I think the triumph for Glasgow was the fact that they managed to package that up and sell it to the rest of the world.

And we’re still benefiting from that. Before that, we were sort of local city like Leeds or Birmingham where stuff was going on but people didn’t really know about it and then after that we could wrap it all to come on into a lovely package, sell it to the world.

A kind of tourism was invented on the back of these two events. Tourism for Glasgow was invented.

Do you know when I was at the Garden Festival, we did an audit of the number of hotel beds and all that kind of stuff and Glasgow had tonnes of hotel beds but what it did not have was any kind of bed and breakfasts. I think there were less than 200 bed and breakfast beds in Glasgow in 1982 and now there’s a lot more but hotels continue to be built, yeah it’s good for business but we gotta keep it up. I think that part of the criticism of what’s happened since then is that we’ve built lots of buildings but where is the money to sustain them?

And I fear for my life for places which have been built which don’t have enough money to run them. I think we have too many buildings and not enough grants or products to sustain them so Glasgow has been put on the map forever. We have crossed the line. We’re not going backwards. We’re never going to go backwards but things like the West End Festival, I think are important because it represents a more localised community culture.

The Glasgow Garden Festival site

The Glasgow Garden Festival site

I think the important thing is, and hopefully there’ll be more of it – with the Festival or with community based events, they area a showcase for people who are talented in Glasgow. They don’t have to go off to London. They don’t have to go off to other cities, and people can come here from other cities to have a platform.

But why shouldn’t people come to us? It is possible. I could tell you lots of other places where it is possible to get people and a festival is a very good way of making people who don’t have an interest in going to theatre or music or whatever and the people who don’t quite get round to it, get them to come along. I see that in myself. I go to more things in August at the Edinburgh Festival in the Fringe than I do the whole of the rest of the year.

It’s perfectly all right to go to four or five shows in a day in Edinburgh. Perfectly all right. You’d never do that. Even in London. Why not do that at the West End Festival or other Glasgow festivals?

It is good for business. We are a much more tourist and visitor orientated society now for restaurants, cafes, shopping. That is the economy these days. Unfortunately we don’t make steel ships any more. That’s just gone. We’re never going have them so having people travel to come and see us is a new economy, a new way of providing jobs.

If we offer nice experiences in the West End whether that’s Woodlands or Byres Road or Partick, wherever you think the West End is, that encourages people to say, “Do you know, Glasgow’s all right?”

And there’s a theory that this brings business in. Big employers like banks, one of the reasons they all go to Edinburgh is because they think it’s a really nice place. But, my experience, and I’ve lived in both cities, is that Glasgow is probably a much better place to live.

I think you have to experience it for yourself. You have to see it for yourself.

The other point I would make is that the West End Festival it’s sustainable. The biggest problem with these mega-events like the Commonwealth Games, the Olympic Games is that they cost stupid amounts of money. Absolutely insane amounts of money for ten days and then nobody really has any idea how to keep it going after that.

A thing like the West End Festival – I’ve got 200, 300 groups and individuals on the books. If they all did an event, we’d be a really huge event but they’re here and they are motivated. They want to take part. I don’t have to bribe them with money.

It’s really about a collective thing of people being proud of their own city.

The West End Festival takes place from Friday 2nd to Sunday 25th June.

#kelvingrovebandstand mobbed with #WEF2016 #samba event! #westisbest #westendfestival #community #sun #glasgow

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