The Out of Towners: Art Outside the City

Scotland's contemporary art scene exists beyond the usual city limits. The artists and curators involved in this welcome trend are making the most of the critical distance allowed by their unusual locations

Article by Adam Benmakhlouf and Jessica Ramm | 07 Oct 2015
  • Lorna Macintyre

For those of us living and working in Scotland’s central belt, Glasgow, Edinburgh and Dundee are the usual beginnings for an exploration of the Scottish contemporary art scene. But while there’s a greater concentration of artistic activity in these cities, it would be easy for the more solipsistic to miss the radically different contexts and locations that thrive beyond.

This month we catch up with artists, curators and directors who choose to put distance between themselves and the larger cities, sometimes generating radically different encounters as a result. So what can Scotland’s host of arts organisations working in smaller population centres tell us about the networks they are part of?  

We spoke to Claudia Zeiske, Lorna MacIntyre, Jenny Brownrigg and Laura Simpson, who give a sense of the excitement that comes with making and facilitating art outside obvious art scenes of 'the centre'.

For Claudia Zeiske, director of Deveron Arts in Huntly, Aberdeenshire, the town itself provides the venue, ensuring that social engagement with the local community is a key concern for any visiting artist. Shunning the traditional, dedicated exhibition space, instead “the people here provide the starting point for our work. Their concerns are our topics (unlike other places, which might start with an artist or even a venue).”  

Balancing Criticality with the Community

Zeiske propounds a “50/50 approach” to balancing the need for artistic criticality with that of community involvement, as well as the need to be conscious of both global and local contexts; a balancing act that is instrumented throughout the whole organisation, from its funding to its board of directors.

However she is clear that compromise is not an option and that artists coming to Huntly must have a socially engaged practice, while artists within the community are “nourished to be socially engaged”.  

Unlike other organisations, she sees the model that Deveron Arts follows as being successful precisely because it is more than 25km from any major cities, partly since working in a smaller town gives access to a more diverse community of interest: “We refuse to just work with one demographic of people – it’s about avoiding classification and breaking down barriers.”

The sensitive balancing act Zeiske describes as “a conundrum between community and artist, hospitality and criticality” or “global and local” seems to generate productive tension for all the organisations we speak to. Laura Simpson, programme manager at Hospitalfield House, Arbroath also adds the need to recognise the heritage of her building whilst ensuring that it functions as “an active space dedicated to supporting living artists.”

Though she describes Hospitalfield as “looking like a castle”, she emphasises that the estate was bequeathed on the understanding that it would be used to provide “a legacy for art education… and that this is what roots us so clearly in supporting practice now, rather than having a solely museological approach.”

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This sentiment is echoed by artist Lorna Macintyre, who spoke to us about how working within the characterful stately home Mount Stuart informed a different process of exhibition-making. Located on the Isle of Bute, Mount Stuart came with “such a rich history” that for MacIntyre it was “almost overwhelming as a context.” This rich context is understandably a visitor attraction in its own right with its lavish decoration and ornament.

“There were some groups and individuals going over especially to see the show,” Macintyre remembers. “But the reality is that most of the people who saw my work were there to see the house.” Sharing the headliner spot with the space itself necessitated a different exhibiting attitude. “I didn’t want to completely dominate the spaces in the house … I didn’t want to disrupt the atmosphere of the house but work with it.”

Though presenting logistical considerations and difficulties, the benefits of being outside Glasgow for MacIntyre, whether on residency or exhibiting, always become completely obvious after returning. “I think I’ve always returned to Glasgow thinking, 'Maybe I didn’t do very much there?' and months later realised I’ve started a whole new body of work, read numerous books, met some new people."

Similarly, Simpson describes Hospitalfield as having “a productive, secluded feel, which means people can have a different experience here, if they’re used to living in the city”

While Simpson recognises how beneficial working in a relatively secluded environment can be for artists, she also states, ‘‘Although we’re not in one of the big cities, we’re not actually that far away, and if you think of wider networks across Europe or wider, across the world, it doesn’t really matter whether you're 30 minutes away from the Gallery of Modern Art in Glasgow, or two hours”.

Geographically distributed social networks are of crucial importance to Hospitalfield, informing the entire structure of their programme, which up til now has been predominantly event based.  

Working Outside the Centre

Jenny Brownrigg, Exhibitions Director at GSA, also spoke of coming to Glasgow from outside, but on more of a biographical timeframe rather than on specific occasions. Brownrigg considers her formative experiences of growing up in Central Scotland, practicing as an artist in Orkney, working in Changing Room in Stirling and time spent making shows “in the middle of a forest in the Lake District” (Grizedale Arts).

A certain trimming of assumptions towards curating came out of her past positions: “There was no gallery at Grizedale. I got my first full time job curating at Duncan of Jordanstone. I’d been so used to working outdoors… we would [sometimes] do things in marquee tents. Then suddenly having galleries was a shock to the system.”

Speaking about her current position in GSA, Brownrigg acknowledges, “Glasgow is perceived (as well as Edinburgh) as the centre.” She goes on: “Because I’d worked for a long time outwith the centre, I had to really think about what it was I could contribute, and was very aware of my position there and came back to work here.”

Continuing to make use of the particular geography of Scotland, in an early project in her GSA position she sent a group of artists to the island of Raasay to make work for an exhibition on St Columba. Putting artists out on the island made for the kind of productive seclusion already spoken about by MacIntyre and Simpson. No surprise, then, that for Glasgow International, Brownrigg is thrilled to be working with Serena Korda, who will have a residency between GSA and Mull to create a film in which “one space will flip into another”. Once complete, the work will be shown both in Glasgow and on Mull.

Working off site, remotely or out of centre, Brownrigg asks succinctly the same question as all the above contributors address in their practices: “What are the ways you can disrupt givens?” And the given centre itself is restless, she recalls while explaining her research into the time of St Columba when, by their situation on the islands, the monasteries defined their location as the centre – making places like Glasgow the outskirts.

Yet, it’s not the location of the “centre” that’s now being challenged. Without precedent, diasporic artists and organisations, dispersal and partnerships between remote areas and the city are working to make anachronistic the very concept of the dominant “centre”.