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Pier Arts at 40: 'A part of the cultural make-up of our islands'

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).

Now, 40 years on, it remains a much-loved hub of exciting exhibitions and events.

We caught up with Director Neil Firth to hear more about Pier Arts Centre's past, the impact is has on the local community and what the future looks like.

The Pier Arts Centre is 40! What journey has the organisation gone on over the last four decades?

When Margaret Gardiner made the generous decision to give her remarkable collection of art to the people of Orkney, her vision was for Orcadians to “…mould and develop it as they wish.”

Forty years on, the centre remains home to Margaret’s original gift, to which we have added works by many of the artists she collected (Alfred Wallis and Barbara Hepworth to name a couple) as well as work by contemporary artists that shares the core themes of the collection, namely light, colour and landscape.

Not only has the collection grown in size, but so has the centre itself, which underwent a large scale regeneration project, reopening in 2007 with almost double the amount of exhibition space and a fully accessible complex of buildings.

With a bigger space comes opportunities to show larger scale temporary exhibitions and more scope for events, workshops and activities, and, of course, greater visitor numbers, with the centre seeing in excess of 45,000 people through its doors each year.

What place does the Pier Arts Centre have in the local community?

When Margaret gave her art collection to the people of Orkney, she entrusted us as custodians to care for the collection and make it accessible to everyone. It is important that Orcadians have a sense of ownership of the collection and the centre and to that end, we programme our calendar of events and exhibitions to interest all members of the community as well as the many visitors to Orkney.

We engage with the local calendar of events, taking part in and facilitating activities for local events such as the St Magnus Festival, Folk Festival, Science Festival and annual agricultural shows.

Through our education and outreach programme we work with school children and further education students at all levels – we have just had consecutive displays of work by some of Orkney’s school pupils, from nursery to secondary school, an exhibition showcasing Orkney’s recent art graduates and a display curated by BA Fine Art third year students at Orkney College – as well as offering opportunities for all communities throughout our archipelago to take part in our activities.

How will you be celebrating the anniversary year?

During our Anniversary year, the exhibition programme will highlight key work from the centre’s Collection, telling the story of Margaret’s extraordinary gift with letters, publications and photographs relating to her life.

There will also be the opportunity to view previously unseen archive material and a review of past exhibitions by artists such as Sol Le Witt, Jim Lambie, Damien Hirst and Christine Borland, and plans, documents and artworks relating to the buildings, the original conversion in 1979 and the more recent redevelopment in 2007.

An extended programme of activities, exhibition tours and events will support the exhibition programme and allow visitors to delve a little deeper into the history of the Pier Arts Centre.

Special celebratory events and activities will taking place during the anniversary weekend in July. If you are interested in receiving advance information about our events, why not join our Friends scheme?

How do you see the next 40 years unfolding?

We have now filled the extra space afforded to us following the redevelopment in 2007. We know that there are opportunities and art bequests coming our way in the future and are looking at ways we can extend our capacity in order to be able to facilitate these.

In the immediate future, we are in the process of a project to develop an Orkney Arts Residency Centre in the village of Palace, in Birsay on the North West corner of Orkney’s mainland.

The centre will build on the Pier Arts Centre’s legacy of supporting artists through residency opportunities in the past working with artists such as Zoe Walker and Jenny Brownrigg and more recently through collaboration with the RSA, to offer opportunities for individuals and groups, from all art forms, interested in exploring Orkney’s rich heritage, culture and landscape.

What does the Pier Arts Centre mean to you?

The Pier Arts Centre is more than just a museum and gallery, it’s a part of the cultural make-up of our islands and I am very proud to be a custodian of it. I know the rest of the team feel the same.

It has been great to look through the archive of past exhibitions and the wealth of artists that have been shown in 40 years. Of course as that chain of temporary exhibitions featuring living artist continues to grow, it also sponsors the growth of our collection reminding us, if we needed reminding, of Margaret and the generosity of her original gift.

Find out more about Pier Arts Centre at pierartscentre.com.

This article was published on 16 May 2019