Our website uses cookies. See our cookies page for information about them and how you can remove or block them. Click here to opt in to our cookies

Pier Arts Centre - a Remarkable Collection in an Extraordinary Place

Pier Arts Centre (photo: Alistair Peebles)

The Pier Arts Centre in Stromness, Orkney was established in 1979 to provide a home for an important collection of British fine art donated by the author, peace activist and philanthropist Margaret Gardiner (1904 – 2005).

In this Connecting feature Visitor Services Communications Officer Isla Holloway tells us more about the history of the arts centre, it's extraordinary history, collection, premises and plans for 2015.

Where did it all begin? 

At the heart of the Pier Arts Centre is a remarkable collection of art and a remarkable story of generosity. The Centre's founder, Margaret Gardiner, was a friend and patron of many of the key British artists of the twentieth century. Margaret first visited Orkney in the 1950s and returned year on year, making many friendships in the islands. Having built up a wonderful collection of artworks she decided, almost on a whim, to give it to Orkney! Her friends here lent a hand, finding a great location to create a gallery and raising support and money. Together their hard work paid off and the Centre opened in July 1979 with spaces for temporary exhibitions and beautiful galleries for our special collection of British Modernist art.

A glowing postmodern shed of dark metal and glass that’s both stunningly beautiful – as light spills through it during the day, and glows from it at night – and completely in harmony with the jostling, jumbled line of the old Stromness Waterfront- Joyce McMillan, The Scotsman

The building is extraordinarily unique. Tell us about the history?  

The Centre's original buildings are part of Stromness' seafaring history and were once the trading depot of the renowned Hudson Bay Company. The buildings were beautifully converted into galleries in the 1970s by architect Kate Heron (daughter of the artist Patrick Heron, whose work is in our collection). More recently we have added a new building that links the two original historic buildings and incorporates another older building: four buildings in all, new and old, combined seamlessly through the skilful efforts of our architects Reiach and Hall. The Centre re-opened in its new shape in 2007, winning an array of European, UK and Scottish awards. More importantly it works very well as a gallery and is loved by our many visitors.  

You have one of the most distinguished collections of the 20th century art on permanent display. What are your most celebrated works?  

Our collection is small but perfectly formed. At its core is a selection of artworks by Barbara Hepworth and Ben Nicholson. They were influential figures in bringing Modernism to the UK and in defining British Modernism. Margaret was a great supporter of their work and of the generation of younger artists that followed their lead. Our collection has early examples of work by artists such Peter Lanyon, Eduardo Paolozzi and Alan Davie as well as an array of artists from Robert Adam to John Wells. Recently we have been able to bring our collection into the 21st century, just as we've added a new layer to our buildings. Works by renowned artists like Sean Scully, Olafur Eliasson, Eva Rothschild, Martin Boyce, Camila Løw and Douglas Gordon, as well many others, have added extra breadth and vibrancy to our collection.  

This coming year we will be loaning eight artworks to exhibitions at Tate, and we’re working on presenting the collection in ways that supports our temporary programme, just as the display of the younger Scottish artists from the collection supported our Generation exhibition in summer 2014.

  • Pier Arts Centre's Collection  
  • Pier Arts Centre's Collection  
  • Pier Arts Centre's Collection  
  • Pier Arts Centre's Collection  
  • Pier Arts Centre's Collection  
  • Pier Arts Centre's Collection  

    What contemporary exhibitions are planned for 2015? 

    Our programme compliments the calendar of cultural activities that happen in Orkney. It's a very lively and busy place. A regular feature, every two to three years, is an exhibition of recent Orkney Graduates. The graduates' all received their secondary education in Orkney and have gone on to arts schools and colleges across the country. This year we will have have 12 graduates', not bad for a fairly small place!  An annual highlight is an exhibition that's open to all artists and makers living in Orkney. More than 130 participants add to a fantastic show that spans all media and talents. It's a democratic approach that's led to a real sense of community: knowing that all artistic endeavor is valued. We profile work from outside Orkney too. Over more than thirty-five years, we have worked with a great many artists from Scotland, the UK and well beyond. This coming summer’s exhibition, presented in association with ARTIST ROOMS, will be Damien Hirst. We're working hard to present another show that will compliment this exhibition in a very surprising way, it's just slightly too early to share the details. Watch this space!

    How can people get involved with Pier Arts Centre? 

    We have broad range of activities and events that support our programmes. There's always something going on at the Pier Arts Centre. We have formal and informal education programmes for schools and for colleges. Artists are supported through workshops and mentoring and there's an extensive reference library and archive for self-directed study. PierGroup is our exciting collective of young people. They have curated shows, worked directly with artists and linked up with similar groups around the country as well as being part of a Plus Tate publication. We have volunteering opportunities that cover a variety of interesting tasks across the gallery or you can always support us by joining our Friends. Find out more at 

    More Info

    To find out more about the Pier Arts Centre and their work, visit their website, follow them on Twitter @PierArtsCentre and find them on facebook/thepierartscentre.

    Pier Arts Centre is one of 119 organisations receiving Regular Funding from Creative Scotland across 2015-18.

    This article was published on 11 Dec 2014