Work underway on Linkshouse Orkney Arts Residency Project

Published: 12 Apr 2021

The exterior of the development on Linkshouse Orkney Arts Residency

Linkshouse Orkney Arts Residency site, image courtesy of Studio Niro

Work is underway on the first phase of a major project to create an arts residency centre in Birsay, Orkney.

The Linkshouse Orkney Arts Residency development is being led by Stromness’ Pier Arts Centre with backing from a wide range of public sector bodies, including Creative Scotland, Museums Galleries Scotland and Highlands and Islands Enterprise, along with a variety of trusts and foundations, with over £350,000 raised towards the project so far.

Around three years ago, the Arts Centre – home to an internationally acclaimed collection of modern art and beacon for Orkney’s creative community for the past 40 years – found itself in possession of Linkshouse, a substantial old property in Birsay village.

The house, built as a private home in 1913, had latterly been owned by the  Erlend Williamson Art Fellowship - set up by the parents of Erlend Williamson, a talented young artist with strong family and creative ties to Orkney, who lost his life in a climbing accident in 1996.

Under the Fellowship’s stewardship, and in accordance with the wishes of Erlend’s parents, Barbara and Edgar, Linkshouse offered artists – many of them part of Erlend’s wide international network - the opportunity to spend time working and reflecting in Orkney, just as their son had done. The house had actually been used as an artist residency back in the 70s and 80s, in addition to roles as guest house, field centre and hostel.

Erlend’s parents had added a clause to their will that, should the Foundation be wound up, the property of Linkshouse would come to the Pier Arts Centre, which it did in 2018.

According to the Centre’s director, Neil Firth, Linkshouse was too good a chance to pass up, helping create new opportunities for the arts in Orkney and for the gallery, which is run as a charity.

“We are often asked by individuals, groups and by art-schools about residency opportunities in Orkney.  The creation of a facility associated with the Pier Arts Centre, enhancing and expanding the activities we undertake, is something we have been considering for a while,” said Mr Firth. “With Linkshouse coming into our ownership, we’ve been able to respond to that opportunity and hope to create a multi-purpose facility with a culture of exchange and experimentation at its heart.”

“We very much see Linkshouse acting as a launch-pad for local artists and a landing strip for artists visiting the county,” he added. “Beyond that, we want it to be a focal point for the wider community, supporting other local arts organisations and festivals to nurture talent and make connections.”

The Linkshouse project is being taken forward at the same time the Pier Arts Centre is progressing the redevelopment of the former Post Office in Stromness. The plans for the Post Office are at an early stage and developing through a feasibility study, but the aim is to use the building, which lies just across the street from the Centre, as a focus for learning activities and as extra space to care for the gallery’s ever growing collection of art.

“The Centre is a charitably run gallery and museum, not a property developer, so taking these projects forward presents a major challenge for us,” said Mr Firth. “However, as a gallery and museum, we don’t exist in isolation and nor does our collection. It’s our reason for existing and the foundation for everything we do within the gallery and beyond.”

“Crucially, we look after the collection on behalf of the people of Orkney, so it’s important we allow the works we care for to act as a catalyst and an inspiration when we’re exploring how we can add to the creative landscape of our islands.”

“The gallery and the collection offer a reflective experience to our audience,” he continued. “The Post Office project will be about participation, and delivering our learning programme, while Linkshouse represents an opportunity for artistic experiment and exchange. We see these three pillars – the gallery, Post Office and Linkshouse – as providing a firm foundation for the Pier Arts Centre as we head into our next 40 years.”

Mr Firth said the immediate focus for the Linkshouse project is on halting the building’s decline. Edinburgh based architects, Studio Niro, are overseeing the redevelopment of Linkshouse, with local construction firm, Casey Construction, carrying out the work on site.

The Pier Arts Centre will shortly be launching a Crowdfunding campaign to help furnish the property, once the fabric of the building is sound. It’s hoped Linkshouse will begin its new life later this year, pandemic restrictions allowing.

“We want Linkshouse to be available all year round, supporting a broad range of activities and uses within the community, but it will always have that core aim of providing artists with the space to reflect and create – just as Erlend Williamson’s parents and peers envisaged,” said Mr Firth. “As challenging as the project is, we’ve had tremendous support from the community in Birsay and we’re very much looking forward to opening the doors of the Linkshouse Orkney Arts Residency later this year.”