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Artist faces legal threat in row over art college merger

The troubled Edinburgh College of Art has threatened legal action against one of its most distinguished alumni for criticising its proposed merger with Edinburgh University.

It comes a week after the scale of ECA’s financial troubles were revealed by the Sunday Herald, prompting accusations of mismanagement.

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In a letter sent to painter Barbara Rae last week, who recently resigned as chair of the college alumni, ECA’s newly installed chief operating officer, Dr Peter West, said her comments over the legality of the merger were “unwarranted, damaging to the reputation of the college, and may well be actionable”.

He added: “I must request that you immediately substantiate or withdraw those allegations. It is a measure of the seriousness of this matter that I am copying this to the College’s legal advisers, who have been consulted on this response.”

In her resignation letter, dated October 14, Rae wrote: “To be blunt, I am appalled at the gratuitous, cavalier manner in which the Scottish Funding Council, the ECA Principal, the Chairman, and the University authorities involved in the attempted ‘merger,’ are able to run roughshod over due legal procedure and process. Indeed, I regard some of their behaviour as reprehensible.

“Let no-one assume my resignation means I am retiring from the task of protecting the ECA. My intention is quite the opposite – to free myself of obligation; protocol shown to be false and exploitable by those seeking to remove the ECA from its heritage, ethos, artistic role and physical location.”

The row takes place against the backdrop of a 12-week public consultation over the future of the ECA, the UK’s oldest art institution.

The merger with Edinburgh University would rescue the college’s perilous finances. The ECA breached several of its covenants on a loan of £11.5 million for its newest building, Evolution House, and needed an advance of £1.6m on its grant to remain afloat.

The ruling courts of both institutions approved a move that would see the Scottish Funding Council, the body that distributes public money to universities, bailing out £9m of ECA’s bad debts.

In launching the consultation at the start of October, Education Secretary Michael Russell said that to keep the process “open and transparent” the Government would “pay very close attention to all the views and representations expressed” before reaching its decision.

When asked about the letter sent to Rae, a spokeswoman for ECA denied that any legal warnings had been made. She said: “No threats have been issued and indeed the college welcomes and has encouraged a healthy debate about the pros and cons of the merger proposal, provided that arguments are presented in a reasoned and rational manner. The letter you refer to was sent in response to a letter from Barbara Rae resigning as Chair of the Alumni Association, inviting her either to substantiate or withdraw two particular statements which were potentially actionable and highly damaging.”

Sources close to Rae, a member of the Royal Academy who graduated from the college in 1965, said she would “consign the ECA letter into the bin”.

It was also revealed last night that one of Scotland’s foremost patrons of the arts believed ECA losing its independence might make students ineligible for his scholarships.

Seafood tycoon Alastair Salvesen said that if a merger did go ahead he “would have to question” whether art students in the new institution would get the rigorous training needed to earn his £12,000 travel scholarship, given annually to a graduate from one of Scotland’s four art colleges.

Salvesen, who founded Edinburgh’s Dovecot Studios, said: “My biggest concern is with university spending being curtailed. If ECA is part of Edinburgh University, will they cut the money coming to the college of art? That would be a disaster. I’ve got to be satisfied that the quality of the education is what it should be and therefore justify who gets the scholarship.”

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