As the West End Festival kicks off today, it will be the last time for its director as he prepares to say goodbye to the event he founded 25 years ago. Michael Dale spoke about his time at the helm of Scotland's biggest community festival and the challenges facing local cultural events.
The date is June 12, 2004 and Glasgow Botanic Gardens in the West End is crammed with 15,000 people. Music lovers, the great and good, friends and families, are packed out on the lawns taking in the free music and enjoying the vibe. Glasgow indie rockers Belle and Sebastian are among the performers bringing life and vigour to the city. And looking on as the afternoon plays out its harmonies is Michael Dale, the festival director who has helped make the event possible. Looking back now, he sees that moment in time as a golden highlight in 25 years of staging what became Scotland’s largest commuity festival. “I remember thinking this is the centre of the universe. “It was on the same day that Òran Mór across the road opened for the first time. “I stood on that corner, and the sun was shining, and I thought, ‘do you know what, something is really happening here’. And that something happened many times over over the years. Whether it was street performers in Byres Road or ceilidh bands on the steps of Kelvingrove art gallery, the West End Festival has had its moments. But at the end of October, Michael will say goodbye to the festival he first staged in 1996. The event could still continue in some shape or form, but it’s hard to see that it will ever be the same. If the truth be known, the festival has had to adapt since the heady, decadent days of rock concerts in the park. Even the parades that attracted tens of thousands of visitors and fixed the event firmly on the city’s calendar have not been a thing for six years. Carnival And it was the parades that got people talking. Michael recalls: “I bumped into some artists who had the idea about having a carnival procession in Glasgow. “They had got some money from what was then the Scottish Arts Council, but they didn’t really know what to do with it.” In a career that saw him running the Fringe Festival in Edinburgh and the Garden Festival in Glasgow, Michael was already laying plans for a festival in the west of the city. “I said I had a vision that if it is going to be a West End Festival it’s got to have a big public statement, so I want to close Byres Road and have a parade down Byres Road. “That’s how it started.” And the first festival did indeed feature a parade but it was four years before Byres Road was closed to accommodate the crowds. The council back then was not enthusiastic, and relations with the local authority have often been strained since. “I rang up this guy in the council and I remember saying I want to close Byres Road. 'Joking' “And there was this long silence and he said, ‘You have to be joking, Mr Dale!’ “I said I am not joking, I am absolutely not joking. And the next thing he said was, ‘supposing there was a sewer collapse?’ “Well, I said if the sewer collapses you will have to close the road anyway.” Things came to a head after the third parade, when the crowds were getting bigger. Michael said: “There was a crunch meeting in 1999 and the police were clearly onside. They wanted the road closed. “The council guy said to be me, OK but on your head be it. “Of course if was a huge hit. “You can see how many people turned up from the photographs.” Many people have made the festival a success over the years, more than just Michael. The police for a start, he says, were always hugely supportive. “The police, as a matter of record, have always been marvellous, very professional, very organised. “What they don’t like is being messed around; event organisers saying one thing and then going ahead and doing another. “But if you are true to your word and you are honest with them, then things are good.” And then there were the supporters who made things happen when problems arose. And there were plenty of problems along the way. One such advocate was former local councillor Aileen Colleran. When Michael told her one year that the parade couldn’t happen because the money had run out, she would have none of it. “She went along the corridor to see the leader of the council at the time who said they are not going to cancel. “‘How much money do they want? £50,000. Well, they’ve got it.’ “So I got it, just like that. I said I need it for three years, because what they said was we can’t give this to you forever. You had better go and get yourself some sponsorship.” Sponsorship has been hard to come by for a community event that has been run on a shoestring. A whisky distiller helped one year, but eyebrows were raised about whether that was appropriate income. Public money for cultural events was drying up before the pandemic, but the economic hit of the last 18 months has only accelerated the decline. This year’s festival which kicks off today has only been made possible with support from the National Lottery, emergency government funding and the council’s area partnership support. Of his last event, Michael says: “I’m happy that we are managing to highlight some of the West End’s key public places such as the Art Galleries, Vinicombe Street and Websters. “These typify the spaces that WEF has animated over many years and which the public appreciate because they are free and accessible.” But what next for Michael? At 71, most people would surely be contemplating a well-earned retirement. “I’ve got a few years left in me to do things. I want to do community things. “I want to do things not necessarily tied to the West End or Glasgow. “I am on the board of various organisations and you think to yourself I should be taking an interest in this. “One of them being in Edinburgh, on the Fringe. The Fringe and the festival need a lot of help, but I don’t know exactly what. “But I know a lot of people and I have done a lot of things. “Somebody said to me the other day, ‘so, are you going to retire?’ Well, what am I retiring from exactly? “My wife (Freddie) quite likes it when I’m out of the house, because we run out of things to say to each other.” Michael says the last 25 years have been “well worth it”. “It’s given me a bit of a profile. People know who I am, which occasionally does the ego some good. “But it’s much harder work than people think. “I don’t mind the work. I like doing the budgets, I like taking meetings and I keep saying to people have you organised the van? And they say, ‘I’m doing that tomorrow’. “I say, ‘No, sort it now.’ Every time something goes wrong it’s your problem.” Not everything has gone according to plan, but there have been no major dramas on Michael’s watch. “We very rarely got aggro. One guy once climbed on top of where Papyrus is, opposite Hillhead Bookclub, on the roof there, and threw a brick down onto the crowd. “I think that’s the worst we ever got.” And then there was the occasional oversight. Back to the free concert in the Botanic Gardens and the 15,000 people. “The only thing I hadn’t really anticipated was the amount of mess that would be left behind. “The concert had to end for 9pm and we had to get everybody out for 10, so there wasn’t time to clear up and I hadn’t really organised it. “So, after 10 o’clock that night I rang my friends and said ‘I know this is a big ask but at seven o’clock tomorrow morning do you want to turn up in your worse clothes with a bin bag and help me clear up the gardens? “And about 20 people came along, and it took us until lunchtime to clear up. “Yes, I should have thought about the litter. I just didn’t know that that many people would turn up. “The council said to me never again. “I don’t think I am a hippy, but I have to admit it was all a bit informal.” Michael adds: “I regret that some things fall apart, like the parade, but I’m not going to lose any sleep over it. “If there is unfinished business with the West End Festival, it’s the fact that we should have developed a more coherent relationship with the University of Glasgow - because they’ve got buildings, they’ve got people, they’ve got departments, you know. I said I had a vision that if it is going to be a West End Festival it’s got to have a big public statement, so I want to close Byres Road and have a parade down Byres RoadMichael Dale “But the timing of what we do (in the summer months) has not been good.” And on the constant struggle for funding, he says: “Trying to run things at a profit is extremely difficulty. “You have VAT, you’ve got PRS (performance rights). The venues want money. The PAs are extra. The guy to run the PA is extra. The van to bring the PA is extra. “Temporary things are much more expensive than permanent things.” Michael is scathing about the overall strategy for funding for cultural events in Glasgow. It may not just be a Glasgow thing, but Glasgow is where Michael has been bruised by experience. “The council has taken the view that anything to do with culture, sport, events, whatever, is (the responsibility of) Glasgow Life. “The independent sector has been marginalised and that is of huge concern to almost every organisation in this city as we sit here today. “The independent sector has been gradually starved to death. “I would say we are further behind in 2021 than we were in the run-up to 1990 when we were the City of Culture. “I think we have lost 30 years of progress, but not just because of Glasgow Life. “The reason we became City of Culture in 1990 is because we had an enormous richness of galleries, museums, artists, bands, theatre companies, theatres. “And not overlooking the BBC Scotland, which has always been important and which in those days was very important in terms of promoting culture in this country. “The RSNO, Scottish Opera, Scottish Ballet - none of these organisations exist at the behest of the council. “Bands like Belle & Sebastian and Blue Nile, that’s what makes us famous, and that’s what I like about Glasgow.” The council last year announced it was going to stop the Integrated Grant Fund, which the festival had relied on. Michael says its replacement has been a ‘cock-up’ and many organisations have struggled to access funds. It begs the question, what is going to happen to the festival? “I don’t know. It isn’t mine. Legally, it’s a charity and there are some trustees, so it’s up to them. “I will leave before the end of the year. “I am the company secretary and I am really the only person who knows what goes on. “I will leave the charity and it will have no debt, no liability. “Will it happen next year? I couldn’t begin to guess. “If it was to happen next year, they would have to find a different funding model because the council’s money is finished.” The reason we became City of Culture in 1990 is because we had an enormous richness of galleries, museums, artists, bands, theatre companies, and theatresMichael Dale His legacy? Simple, he says: “Part of my philosophy is to start things, and make things happen - and pass it on to other people. "On my gravestone I want it to say ‘he made things happen’." LIz Scobie, chair of West End Festival, said the board was “thankful for the enormous commitment and contribution Michael has made to the growth and success of the Festival”. She said: “After much considered discussion, the Board unanimously agreed that, if at all possible, we would wish to continue the organisation and overseeing of the West End Festival beyond Michael’s retirement. “As directors, we believe we have a duty to explore all viable options to enable this and carry forward the legacy of these past 25 years. “Michael’s are clearly big boots to fill and we’ve been speaking to him about a smooth transition and advice he is able to offer as we embark on a new chapter. “Funding, of course, has been a consistent issue and challenge and we anticipate that this will continue to be the case. “Whilst we are hugely grateful and appreciative of the funding we have received in the past, we acknowledge that the past couple of years have placed added pressure on resources within both the public and private sectors. “As always, we will be seeking creative solutions in order to move forward. “There certainly seems to be an appetite for a community based festival within the wider west end with the participation and involvement of an eclectic mix of groups and organisations. “We don’t wish to disappoint them, and very much hope we are able to continue.”