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How Deveron Arts made an entire town its venue

Deveron Arts is a contemporary arts organisation with a difference - its venue is an entire town. The small market town of Huntly in the north east of Scotland (population 4,500) acts as studio, gallery and stage for artists of all disciplines invited from around the world to live and work there.

Since 1995, Deveron Arts (now known as Deveron Projects) has worked with local residents to create socially engaged projects that connect artists, communities and places. With plans for their 21st birthday celebrations in full swing, we spoke to director Claudia Zeiske about what makes the town tick, as she shares some of her personal highlights from over the years.

Huntly Slow Down Parade

How did Deveron Arts come about? What was the inspiration?

Deveron Arts was founded by three like-minded individuals who lived in Huntly and felt there was too little going on in terms of arts or cultural activities.

We all came from cities (London, Copenhagen, Amsterdam) and had always taken for granted the possibilities that urban areas offer. Aberdeen and Inverness were too far to go. One day we just decided to do it ourselves, rather than wait for the council or others to provide us with more cultural activity. This was in a living room in 1995, 21 years ago.

Artists are cultural activists and can energise people and their communities, adding vitality to our society. Everyday challenges can be untangled and conquered through the creative process.- Claudia Zeiske, Director of Deveron Arts

How has it evolved over the years?

At first it was a very small, very traditional community arts organisation, inviting touring shows - normally produced in the city - where smaller versions were designed for the country (theatre, travelling gallery, etc).

But then we attended the degree show at Gray’s School of Art and invited the first artist to stay with us for a few months; and we realised that this was a better way of engaging with the arts – with the artist directly. We then took on David Blyth the year after as the first artist in residence, which showed us that working with people is an interesting way forward. Since then we have taken this approach - that the world needs more artists, not more art.

Knockturne

Until 2002 Deveron Arts was entirely voluntary. Since then we have had staff – now we have three staff and run two internship programmes. We have a year-round residency and community engagement programme, and to date we have had 101 commissioned projects, with 85 artists in residence.

Our focus is on socially engaged or anthropological art, always looking deeply at what our very local place can offer and how it responds and corresponds to the wider world.

Man with guitar greeting people

What's been the most memorable projects for you and why?

Oh, that is impossible to say! The 21 year celebration gives us an opportunity to reflect. I have been able to talk to most of the artists this and last month via Skype – we are making a film with all the artists for this. This has been a very special experience bringing up special memories.

I'll always remember one of the very first residencies with David Blyth, when he gathered the roadkill rabbits on the streets of Huntly and gave them an afterlife. Also, the making of the Room to Roam town branding with Jacques Coetzer from South Africa; the special Fathers’ day with Anthony Schrag looking at the question of the use of a "Father" today; the Slow Marathon with Ethiopian artist Mihret Kebede; the Calabash bank with Mozambiquan artist Gemuce... The list goes on and I love them all!  We have lots of information about these projects on our website so do take a look.

Huntly - room to roam roadsign

What have you got planned for your 21st birthday celebrations?

We are planning a full "Town is the Venue" day on Saturday 3 December 2016. The day will start with the Farmer’s market at 9am. There will be talks, workshops, walks, a town collection walk, book readings and film presentations with many of our former artists and their projects.

We are also planning a PRAKTIKA 2 day with David Harding, on Positioning Socially Engaged Practice for the future in Scotland.

21st birthday

You’ve commissioned some new work as part of the celebrations – tell us more…

Jacques Coetzer will be back in town, producing an ARTocracy for Dummies booklet – helping us to articulate our vision.

[The original ARTocracy was a handbook written in 2010 by Claudia and Nuno Sacramento, providing an insight into the organisation of collaborative projects]

What makes Deveron unique - what are the hallmarks of a Deveron Arts project or residency?

What makes it unique is our dedication to the community over many years. Live where you work – work where you live! This is what makes us tick here.

This way we have been adopting a deep looking/deep mapping approach to find out the many, many organic strands of our community and how it fits into an increasingly globalised world.

Artist Gemuce

The Town Is The Venue describes the framework within which Deveron Arts works. Committed to art practice that deals with the social wellbeing of a rural Scottish town, we activate the whole of the place as backdrop for our projects. Even a small town can be a complex organism and Huntly has offered a plethora of possibilities, communities and venues for artists to engage with. Social clubs, choirs, shops, schools, churches, bars, discos, the streets and the open Aberdeenshire farm and grouseland have all been the focus of art in and around this town over the past two decades.

Outside gathering

Because the interests of all the age groups and subcultures within a single society can vary enormously, Deveron Arts finds inspiration in the polymathic approach of Patrick Geddes. The Aberdeenshire-born father of town planning had a holistic and bio-diverse view of communities and promoted a multi-disciplined lifestyle.

Geddes’ world view proposed that whatever happens on a small scale is always connected to a larger reality. The “think global, act local” mantra is attributed to him; this has also influenced our thinking, working with artists from around the world and connecting our local communities to the international sphere. All starting from our own home.

Textile lessons

The term “ARTocracy” was coined by Nuno Sacramento and myself in our book by the same title, published in 2010. The book systematically explains how the creative process of artmaking is applied within the framework of “The town is the venue” and its layers of people, context, processes and results. ARTocracy is a useful system for everyday life.

ARTocracy

Artists are cultural activists and can energise people and their communities, adding vitality to our society. Everyday challenges can be untangled and conquered through the creative process. The playful nature of art can defuse conflict by giving free reign to imagination and opening up new possibilities. ARTocracy suggests that the power of art reaches beyond the walls of the gallery.

What do you think Deveron will be like in another 21 years?

Oh, I don’t know. I hope it will still be around with someone with a love for Huntly!

But seriously: we feel our strength is that we have been around for a long time. That slowly one can show impact. In future we want to focus more on this impact by longer term engagements with artists (in the past most residencies were 3 months). We want to focus on the regeneration of the town through a programme that we call New Economies – as if people mattered.

This works in our town, but we are keen to connect it to the wider world. Recently we started programming work with artists who (for political reasons) could never come here: from Gaza, Syria, Iraq - through digital means. We have also started working with the Syrian New Scots who arrived here – on a skills sharing programme.

Deveron Arts is one of our portfolio of 118 organisations receiving Regular Funding for 2015-18.

The 21 Years of the Town is the Venue celebrations take place throughout the town of Huntly on Saturday 3 December with walks, talks, screenings and more.

Images: Jacqueline Donachie: Slow Down; David Blyth: Knockturne; Omar Afif at Slow Marathon; Jacques Coetzer: Room to Roam;  Gemuce: Calabash Bank; Alan MacPherson: Minor Path; Priya Ravish Mera: Making the Invisible Visible

This article was published on 29 Nov 2016