Heather Stuart, chief executive of Fife Cultural Trust, on her return home to a key job at the very heart of our creative and cultural sector
In a small office tucked away in a Victorian building, a mere stone’s throw from Kirkcaldy court house, sits a woman who feels “glad to be home”.
Kirkcaldy-born Heather Stuart took the reins of the newly established Fife Cultural Trust in 2012 and by any standard has had an amazing first year in the job.
“We’re blessed here I think. Kirkcaldy is on the cusp of greatness; there’s huge vision being delivered by partners,” she said.
Vision - and a good business head - is certainly needed to manage 47 libraries, 12 museums and heritage venues, galleries and theatres on behalf of Fife Council.
What’s more, Fife Cultural Trust has been tasked with meeting a savings target of £1.5 million over two years.
So far, almost £1million has been met through a combination of voluntary severance and the creation of a new “mean executive team” at the top.
Frontline staff - the very people who keep Fife’s facilities open to the public - were the first to be protected, but Heather admitted the savings drive was “challenging”.
“It’s not like we just have to cut, cut, cut. How can we grasp the opportunity to still grow the business; to be ambitious about the quality and range of cultural services we can deliver in Fife?”
There was a huge focus on continuous improvement, said Heather.
“That’s how to ride out any financial storm, you make sure you are doing within any adjusted financial envelope, whatever size that financial envelope becomes, the best with whatever you have to work with and sometimes that does mean hard choices.”
“That’s not a message that’s unique to us and we do still have additonal savings to deliver.”
The key to the trust’s future is in listening to customers and responding to their needs and those needs are changing - over the past year book borrowing has dropped 13 per cent across Kirkcaldy, in line with national trends.
“I think people read books differently now. People say why can’t you have Kindle content? For the same reason that no public library in the world can have Kindle content - Amazon doesn’t licence it to public libraries,” said Heather.
“I think over time the ability of people to use it will change and so on but I also know by speaking to people that there’s still a huge demand for books.
“In Kirkcaldy alone there were 250,000 book and dvd loans. That’s still a heck of a lot of books going through the door.”
“Besides, we are seeing an increase in visitor numbers, which tells us the whole story - not all people are borrowing a book.”
Libraries are now becoming social and educational hubs which, characterised by coffee mornings, book clubs and the like, are a million miles away from the hallowed domains of irate librarians who whispered “Sshh!” at the slightest disturbance.
“People who have that impression of libraries are people, in my opinion , who haven’t been in a library for a very long time,” said Heather.
Plans for the future include a new website launch in September to better publicise events and services, and the option of introducing retail opportunities are being explored.
“It enhances the experience for the customer but also it is putting in place other opportunities for the long term financial stability of the business,” said Heather.
Nevertheless, the trust still takes its educational remit seriously and tries to instill “a love of reading” through its popular BookBug sessions for youngsters and continues to promote literacy development in conjunction with local schools.
However, the joy for Fife Cultural Trust is being able to “rip up the guidebook” and involve teenagers, say, using all assets - both its buildings and the knowledge and expertise of staff - and all mediums, including the performing arts, visual arts and even the odd book.
For example, Jump! was a year long project co-produced with the National Theatre of Scotland which involved almost 2000 teenagers in Fife and culminated in sell-out performances and rave reviews last year.
“There are things you can do with culture that you can’t do with anything else,” explained Heather, who admitted she was only too aware of protecting a legacy that has inspired previous generations, including the crime writer Val McDermid or artist Jack Vettriano.
“The big advantage for us is that culture as we deliver it now has so many strands there’s got to be something for everybody and that’s what it’s all about; finding that hook.”
It was also a privilege to be delivering services to a community she belonged to.
“It’s what they call the circle of life,” she said.
“I couldn’t get away from Kirkcaldy fast enough to go to university but came back six years ago and now, not only do I live on the same street I was brought home to from the hospital, I live in the house I was brought up in from the age of 11! It’s such a draw to come home. You see that in the libraries. People come as kids, go away to do different things, then come back with their own kids.”
The trust manages:
A total of 47 libraries and 12 museums and heritage venues, galleries and theatres across the Kingdom.
£11 million a year to run, including costs for almost 400 staff but, despite 95 per cent of its services being free, still brought in £13 million last year. “Only four out of 64 facilities make any money,” said Heather, “ and that’s the box office at our theatres.”
The Trust and Fife Council support 554 creative businesses in Fife - the fourth largest creative sector in Scotland which supports 4100 jobs and contributes £175 million to the local economy.
The museum collection:
The Trust has approximately 115,000 items in its collection, currently stored in 14 separate buildings. Less than five per cent of the collection is on display to the public at any given time.
Thanks to generous benefactors such as JW Blyth, Kirkcaldy arguably boasts the best regional art collection in Scotland.