You will have noticed, I’m sure, that there has been quite a buzz around Perth and its cultural offering for the past few months. Throwing our arty hat into the ring as a nominee for City of Culture 2021 has already created quite the stir. Today, Perth’s bid application will wing its way to the City of Culture board for consideration, and between now and June they will consider our proposal alongside eleven other UK cities.
Quite the nailbiting time for all of us, but this goes double for today’s Big Personality. Helen Smout is the CEO of Culture PK, Perth’s independent cultural trust which launched last year when libraries, museums and galleries split from local authority control to become their own entity.
With a career that has spanned arts and culture, childcare and time as the library services manager it was as though Helen had been working towards this new role for her entire life. I’ve never met her before our interview but as we chat over lunch in Parklands bistro, I discover a woman who – refreshingly – seems to have embraced her Chief Executive Officer’s title with gusto, originality and a willingness to roll up her sleeves and get stuck into making it the success it deserves to be for all of us.
Hailing from Cumbernauld, with her uni years spent in Edinburgh, Helen moved to Perth 25 years ago, and our Small City is now very much her home town. She has raised her daughter (and dog!) here, built a career, and found a love of walking by the River Tay and spending her hard earned cash on local art.
Her connection with the arts though goes way back to the seventies when, as a small child, she spent her Saturday mornings in Cumbernauld Theatre.
“I wasn’t really a natural performer though; I didn’t like the idea of all eyes being on me! But I did love being involved in that creative process and doing all the back stage work, up ladders and dealing with snagging on set. It’s one of the reasons I decided to do stage management – it was an obvious progression for me and I spent a very happy three years at Queen Margaret’s in Edinburgh.
Doing the course I did it felt more like FAME – you know the old TV programme - rather than drama and I had an incredible bunch of cohorts. It was a very happy time.”
The long hours and hard graft of permanent theatre work wasn’t, however, quite as appealing and Helen made a decision to follow her heart down the youth theatre path; having come up through it herself, she was interested in encouraging young people to find their creative outlet.
After Studying Theatre and Eduction at Central School of Speech and Drama she worked for Tayside Regional Council running youth projects in Menzies Hill in Dundee and Muirton Community Arts Project in Perth. Not long after, her daughter was born and this shifted her focus once again.
“I started working with the afterschool club in Scone and quickly realised that theatre is just a form of play. I stayed on that path and ended up as the development officer for out of school clubs just at the end of the nineties. It was a great job, and I learned so much. We were responsible for the out-of-school clubs, Surestart, Playstart mobile crèche facilities and wraparound care.
I worked a lot with childminders and Perth College UHI and I became fascinated with the idea of learning through play.
I went back to studying around 2006 doing a distance learning course in managing intergrated services, looking at how social work and education could integrate better. By that time my daughter was 10 and I was working full-time and doing my degree. It sounds more daunting than I remember it – she’d be out playing and I’d get an essay done. I enjoyed all of it.”
As Helen and I chat, there is an easy air of positivity and calmness around her; it’s not flippant, it’s not deliberately playing down her achievements – a single parent, working full-time and studying is a person I will always take my hat off to – but it does feel as though she’s a woman who has no desire to overplay her hand and who will happily and openly embrace the colourful route she took to get to the position of CEO for Culture PK.
By 2010 Helen was running the community wing at Perth Grammar School which is when she was approached to become the Library Services Manager.
“I was flattered that they’d thought of me to be honest. It was a bit of a leap of faith at the time - on my part and theirs - but they wanted a different approach and wondered if I’d try it as a temporary measure. You know the old story… seven years later there I was!
By the end of the first week all I could think was ‘I LOVE this!’ - I’m an avid reader and can easily get through two or three books a week. To find a job where I could bring my skills to use while being surrounded by books was perfect.
The big thing for me though was acknowledging what I was responsible for. When I asked myself the question, ‘what do libraries do?’ I realised the magnitude of it. If you’re not a regular user then you may well have missed the evolution that libraries have gone through. They are far more than lending books ; they are a safe haven for vulnerable people, a meeting place for new mums, a connection to the past… so many different types of people come in and use the library for lots of reasons and I could see that it needed a different perspective to move it forward.”
Two years later her job was made permanent having evolved into Service Manager for Culture. This new position pulled together museums, galleries, libraries and an arm dedicated to arts development and creative learning within these institutions. Helen had accidently come full circle.
“It has been quite a journey but I do believe you always end up in the place you’re meant to be. When I moved from just libraries to looking at how culture and the arts across the venues joined up I knew I had found my path.
The job may sound completely different to my previous roles but really it’s the same basic skill set – I manage expertise. I take people’s knowledge and help them get the most out of what we have. A great example is the restructuring of the inside of the museum. We had to try to reconnect with the local audience – I do think they’ve disengaged from museums and galleries but that’s true all over. If you live in Edinburgh you don’t go to the castle.
So we opened up the space to allow people to see the building for what it was and then we looked at programming. The past couple of years has been spent winning people back with things like Brick City – which has been amazing – and last year’s Player exhibition. We’ve had a fantastic response. Although we do still have the occasional person wondering where the polar bear is…!”
I ask the question that a lot of people want to know. What is the big difference between Culture PK as a trust and the council running libraries, museums and galleries? And what does it mean for us – the people of Perth and Kinross?
“I think the main difference is freedom. As an independent body we are free to make decisions and policy with no political motivations. We’re now a stand-alone body and with that comes opportunities we’ve never had before. As CPK we’re not just about ‘running venues’ we’re here to feed the creativity that runs through the city and to give people the space to try new things. You tend not to be able to do that with a local authority model.
One of the most exciting things to come out of it all is the relationship we’ve developed with Perthshire Creates. Because it’s artist driven it has attracted funding from Creative Scotland and this has allowed them to put on great events such as the Platform one that’s just gone by – it was brilliant. We can support them with our network and venues and suddenly the whole thing feels much more joined up. We’ll definitely do that again next year.”
She tells me about the 5500 volunteer hours that go into making the entire Culture PK operation work; reception at the museum and galleries, books on wheels going to housebound customers, the prison services library that brings hope and projects to assist patients working through mental health services.
Amongst all of this Helen chats about her favourite elements of creative work in Perthshire, both of us agreeing that for a small city we are certainly punching way above our weight. Chat of leisure time rolls into family life and I discover that Helen’s daughter is now at uni in Edinburgh, having – of course – been a member of PYT and Glee at Horsecross and a student of instrumental music. The pair have a mutual love of galleries and exhibitions and will spend many an hour browsing and exploring culture across other cities.
“We understand each other; we were just the two of us for so long that we learned how to just ‘be’. It’s so nice to see the individual she’s become and to see her doing so well. I suppose like any parent of a grown child your relationship starts to become one more of equals – there were times when she first moved through that I’d be sitting on a train to Edinburgh to visit her and it was weird! Now it’s just me, the nutty cat and the anxious dog.”
She tells me of road trip the pair are planning down to Manchester the following week when they will stop to take in the Yorkshire Scuplture Park with its ‘fabulous sculpture collection’ and fight over the playlist on the way down. There is the warm and tender tone of a motherly affection in her voice and you can tell they are going to have a truly fantastic time.
We talk about some of our favourite local artists and discover we both have a thing for the Ceri White ceramics – Helen has nowhere left to put another pot apparently – both love the Corbenic Poetry path – ‘it is full of the richness of language’ - and both spent more than we should have on ourselves while Christmas shopping at the museums first Perthshire Creates.
As the old saying goes, find a job where you do what you love and it means you will never work a day in your life. Helen strikes you as having done exactly that and as the person leading our cultural charge, I am not only happy for her, I’m also happy for us. Having someone at the helm who is truly passionate about they do is, without any shadow of a doubt, half the battle.
“But perhaps I need to curb the enthusiasm a bit for the sake of the bank balance! That’s the thing with culture. You don’t have to love everything but you do have to appreciate it. I am hugely in awe of people who can create something out of nothing.
I always thought I might become a writer and had endless reams of hideous teenage angst all written out in longhand. I didn’t really engage at school though – I was too laid back. My other reason for ending up in Stage Management was because it felt as though it would have far less in the way of written work than journalism!”
The frustrated writer in her became an avid reader and although Helen may not have been a library user when she started, she is now. She and some friends have a book club which uses the library’s ‘book group sets’. Elaine at the AK Bell will also source them first time reviews and pre-edited copies.
“There are these amazingly talented people working within our venues who come up with ideas on how they can make your time with us even better. The sourcing of books isn’t just because it’s me. I remember hearing about a lady who didn’t have any of her old school photographs and she came into archives and spend an afternoon patching together her past. Our team can really make a powerful impact on people’s lives.
With our services – well the majority of them – you need to walk through the doors and engage with us. There is a physical building to cross and I think that connection helps people who live alone or who want a little extra company. With the café and internet access we now have folks who will spend an entire afternoon with us. That matters. It matters a lot.”
Of course, as with all organisations they are currently looking to extend that ‘physical building’ offer to encompass more digital services. (If you don’t use their library digital e-services already you are missing out!). Plans include 3D printers, digital sewing machines and coding classes for kids.
And these plans – along with the seismic decision to transform the City Hall into a cultural centre - will press ahead, Helen assures us, regardless of whether Perth wins the bid for City of Culture or not. So what of the bid? Does she think we have a chance?
“I do. I think you should always go into these things thinking you have a chance. Otherwise, you won’t give it what it needs. We have some fantastic cultural opportunities here in Perthshire and Kinross but we have to remember there are also areas where the extra investment and profile could really make a difference. It’s not just about what you have – it’s about what you could have if you won. Could more people get involved? Could you open your doors for another event or bring children who may not have the chance to explore creativity into a project?
I think the support from culture arts and heritage organisations for the bid has been incredible but even better has been the groundswell of support from local people, all over the region, who see the bid as a real opportunity for change.”
There was a survey carried out by The Carnegie Trust recently, about the 21st Century Library and it turns out that here in Scotland we place a higher value in terms of what it contributes to society than any other of the four nations. We deemed that we would be poorer without it. Helen explains that as Scots, we understand what it symbolises and consider it part of our heritage.
As she tells me this, there is a sense that she feels a personal responsibility to ensure that here in Perth and Kinross, that legacy is upheld and brought forward so that it continues to play a part in our future and that of our children. She may be easy-going, warm, chatty and spend far too much on ceramics but there is a unspoken gravity that makes you believe she might just be the woman who can do exactly that.
“I have always felt there was a thread running through my career but it did take a few right turns along the way! I didn’t really set off down a particular career path I’ve simply taken the opportunities in front of me and been incredibly lucky that they’ve worked. It’s been more of ‘Oh Gosh! This looks good – let’s try this. And now this is where I am so let’s enjoy being here and let’s do a great job.”
City of Culture 2021 | Why Small City Supports The Bid