Wednesday, August 05, 2009

'Surely as a town we should aim high?' An artist's perspective

Fellow Gurnites, today the Gurn has received a letter from Shuan MacDonald. If you care about your town please read his thoughts and suggestions about what we could do for the future.
Dear Gurn,
As a Nairn born Professional Artist, involved in both Visual Arts Education at Hons Degree Level, running the local Artists Studio Provision and advising and assisting within the Visual Arts arm of the Nairn Book and Arts festival I read last weeks comments and articles regarding an Arts Centre for Nairn with mixed feelings.

I have visited hundreds of Galleries, Arts Centres and National Collectionsin both Europe and America since leaving Nairn Academy in 1987. It has always been my experience that the best of those did one thing and one thing only and did it really well. In New York I once bought a two in one train ticket from Central Station that got me on the train and admitted me to the Dia Collection some 80 minutes up the Hudson River in the town of Beacon. I was amazed when I stepped off the train and into a small town the size of Nairn where a converted factory building now housed one of the Worlds best collections of Minimal Art. The Gallery was originally based in the Soho district of New York but was forced out due to high rates, rental costs and lack of space, but still it was busy, the coffee shop, the book shop the grounds where all populated by Art loving Pilgrims with various languages being spoken.

It is an unfortunate symptom of our age that new public buildings are forced to multi task. A year ago the Arts Community and General Public were asked to give their opinion on a preferred site for a proposed new Highland Gallery/Museum or Museum/Gallery (see my point) in Inverness. Things have gone very quiet since then and in light of the current economic climate that is understandable but in my opinion a fundamental mistake is being taken in again coupling these two important but very different facilities. That aside’ currently on many of Scotland’s Islands there are fantastic Art Centres and Galleries delivering innovative and informative programmes of Visual Art, if you’ve ever been lucky enough to visit any of them then like me you have probably left wondering why no such facilities exist in our Highland Capital or even near by. Eden Court does Cinema, Theatre, Dance, Music and no doubt Party Political Conferences very well. However it does not officially deliver a programme of Visual Art, yes there are exhibitions but no Exhibition Officer to curate themso it has reverted to type and now showsin the main volunteered amateur work of very mixed quality that on most occasions is ineptly hung and not worth the trip upstairs. By all accounts little in the way of support is given to the exhibiting artists who are even forced to supplement the venue by having to purchase the wine for their openings exclusivelyfrom the venue itself at £13 per bottle per cheapest bottle. The overall result is Visual Art done on the cheap and this does nothing to inspire or encourage the future generations of Highland Artists who until recently were forced to leave the area to study Fine Art to Hons Level and who still must travel to see quality exhibitions and exhibit their ownwork.

The development of an infrastructure to encourage the visual arts and in turn educate and grow a visual arts audience in Inverness and it surrounding towns and suburbs is prohibited by the lack of affordable empty buildings or space on which to build a gallery proper. This problem is coupled a real lack of vision or ambition regarding such provision. By this I mean, think about the old Tesco building behind the multi storey car park at the Bus Station a big empty well lit building with lots of floor and storage space as well as a ready made car park, next to the train station, the Bus Station’ oh and the college. It’s still empty even after a redevelopment that probably hasn’t even paid for yet.

Nairn is surely a contender for such a facility, I read each week about the empty Bus Station, Rosebank Church, Regal Cinema, Ballerina Ballroom, the Supermarket chains and Housing Developers holding us to ransom. Arguments put forward by Local Councillors that the “The town centre site is now too small for a supermarket”mean we must all now become out of town shoppers placing more pressure on a road that seems unlikely to be suddenly eased by miracle by pass which no doubt would open up vast tracks of land for even more speculative development really irk. Has no one else ever been to a supermarket with additional rooftop or lower ground parking? Beautiful Tuscan towns and Edinburgh’s Morningside can live with them then why couldn’t we?

At present some Hoteliers regularly warn their guests off the High Street after 7pm, this is appalling and we must stop the rot.

Nairn is currently actively courting a major supermarket chain who sponsor an entire wing of London’s National Gallery, they could be in a position to offer both expertise and finance. We are only some 20 odd minutes away from Inverness and the airport etc, a quarter of the time it took me to get to Beacon to see quite lot of nothing. We must think out of the box if our town is to survive and maintain its own identity out-with Inverness. Each week we read of some new proposal a “Heritage Town”, “University Town” and now an “Arts Town”.

A large gallery could even be made up of a cluster of smaller refurbished (locally architecturally interesting) buildings such as the Rosebank Church, Regal Cinema and the hanger like Bus Station. These smaller buildings could house separate collections or even themed works a little like the National Galleries of Scotland in Edinburgh, Portrait, National, RSA, Gallery Of Modern Art and The Dean only of course on a little smaller scale.

Dundee is in all probability going to soon have its very own branch of the V&A whilst Inverness would probably settle for a C&A. 70% of our Nations Visual Art is currently in storage, it is grated up and held in thermostatically controlled warehouses in Central Scotland where it inspires, educates or moves no-one, as tax payers we even have the pleasure of paying for it to not be seen.This is indeed a sad indictmentof our nation’s value of our cultural and intellectual wealth and heritage.We in the Highlands accommodate the owner of the £100m Titians and the entire Bridgewater collection but sadly none of the work (it’s housed in London and on loan to various public Galleries).

Surely as a Town we should aim high and not impede or mock such aspirations, to offer something of possible National importance that could provide our town with the heart surgery it now needs after years of neglect, indecision and short-termism.

A large amount of our local economy can be attributed to the retired and relocated but also to the tourists that may choose to rent beds elsewhere in the surrounding towns, villages and cities but whom nevertheless come to Nairn for recreation and site-seeing, the beach, to golf, to eat etc. This market is one of the few that is still set to grow as people retire earlier, live longer and work less due to Technological Unemployment.

The Blue Door Studios (BDS) here in Nairn are full (10 artists) and we now have a waiting list of 7, artists who travel in from Fortrose, Inverness, Forres, Elgin and Grantown as currently no alternative long term studio provision exists in any of these areas. The BDS have also provided temporary studio space to artists from Ireland, Spain, Norway, Sweden and Canada the latter of which resulted in a significant donation last year to The Nairn Museum by way of the portrait of “The Watson’s” by Jason Walker. Jason was charged no rent for the 3 months that he was working here and he lived with my family and I, he paid for his own flights and materials and the result is a painting for the people of Nairn by a local artist who has exhibited alongside some of the best living figurative artists in the world including Lucien Freud, Ken Currie, Stephen Conroy, Jim Dine, Frank Aurbach and Chuck Close. In the future that painting will either serve as an act of civic philanthropy to remind us that Nairn once had shops and shopkeepers, as well as a sense of communal pride in its endeavours and the altruism of it citizens and therefore it may truly belong in a Museum.

It could also alternatively be a little acorn like the Cinema of Dreams or the Book and Arts Festival whose greens shoots are now out into the light and should be nurtured.

Artists make works without pay and mostly never even knowing if they will be seen or sell or be valued in any way at any time, it’s a risk, but one they relish and actively pursue. Artists will always do their job’ after all a pencil and some paper cost pennies today but ultimately if commerce wants to profit from their endeavours some of that financial risk will must rest with them.

The Visual Arts have a significant role to play in delivering an educated and socially engaged future population but this is never attained without risk or for free and certainly not by being closed down to any possibilities.

Shaun MacDonald


Iain said...

Excellent contribution Shaun. Just the type of debate that is needed rather than the unfortunate "we have tried this before and it never worked attitude" of our local rag.

It is a pity that people have begun to define what they think is being proposed - and then knock it down. The proposals being floated are bigger than just a particular type of building offering particular functions. Whatever results, it should not compete with Eden Court, the Community Centre or the Little Theatre.

What we need to do is consider the whole space between the two sets of lights and recognise that we have a unique opportunity to put the heart back into the town centre and make it a place people want to visit. That will revive the High St as well.

We could well pursue Shaun's ideas along with those of others, but let's think bigger than just the building. Let's enhance the Vennels; add tree-shaded spaces to sit with a coffee or a snack; a fountain; specialist shops or craft workshops to look round, as well as some new venue.

Is not just a building. It's what kind of town centre do we want? That's the debate. Perhaps we have a slim chance here to create a town centre we can all enjoy and adds to all the other fine things Nairn has to offer. Let's have some vision! Let's dream about the possibilities instead seeing the problems.

Anonymous said...

Hi Gurn,

just like to say its fantastic living in a town where so many people from so many diverse backgrounds and interests care so much about the place.

events within 2 weeks here alone are something any Town should be proud of, Nairn Show, Jazz Festival, Cinema of Dreams Pilgrimage, and Games Day,

2 of these events are partly due to 2 people loving Nairn and having a commitment to their favourite art form.

Thank You to everyone who Strives to improve this much loved town

Nairnac said...

Extraordinarily passionate, knowlegable, reasoned and rational proposal from Sean.
I have previously suggested that the proposed highland art gallery/museum could come to Nairn instead of Inverness, but Sean's point about doing one thing and doing it well resonates loudly, and it makes perfect sense to separate the gallery and museum. Not being of a particularly artistic bent, this point hadn't occurred to me, but the idea of a cluster of individual gallery spaces around nairn is superb.
The Sainsburys link might actually have some economic mileage as well, particularly since they easily shrugged off the contribution to the councils woolly A96 development pot at the recent enquiry.
Chapeau Sean.

Anonymous said...

what an excellent post and a very good idea. perhaps a new library in the same building as well. i can just see it now and yes we should aim high for nairns sake.