• Pier Arts Centre, Orkney

New opportunities for arts in Orkney

Art is so much more than paint on a canvas, a sculpture, or a static gallery collection…art provokes, challenges, calms and inspires.

Always dynamic in terms of influence, it also acts as a catalyst for change, growth and development.

Nothing stands still, even here in Orkney, where our community’s passage through time is etched into the landscape all around us. But we generally approach change with sensitivity and proper consideration, being informed by the past but not held back by it. And we recognise opportunities for evolution and enrichment when we see them.

In Stromness, the Pier Arts Centre - home to an internationally acclaimed collection of modern art and beacon for Orkney’s creative community for the past 40 years - has found itself at one of those defining moments in its journey through our islands’ timeline. And it’s choosing to grow.

Pier Arts Centre - image by VisitScotland/Kenny Lam

Around three years ago, the Pier Arts Centre – which is run as a charity – 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 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. It did so in 2018.

Archive image of Linkshouse, Birsay

As generous a gesture as this was, the Pier Arts Centre is a charitably run gallery and museum, not a property developer. Selling Linkshouse and using the cash to support gallery activities would have been an obvious course of action for the Pier Arts Centre to take, and nobody would have given it a second thought.

But, as the gallery’s director Neil Firth explains, the Pier Arts Centre, its board and staff felt Linkshouse was too good a chance to pass up, helping create new opportunities for the arts in Orkney and for the gallery.

“We are often asked by individuals, groups and by art-schools about residency opportunities in Orkney,” says Neil. “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. 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 launchpad for local artists and a landing strip for artists visiting the county, but 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 project would be enough of a challenge on its own to progress for a small gallery team. However, when Linkshouse officially became the property of the Pier Arts Centre, Neil and his colleagues were already fully committed to another major project to redevelop the former Post Office in Stromness. The aim is to use that building, which lies just across the street from the Pier Arts Centre, as a focus for learning activities and as extra space to care for the gallery’s ever growing collection of art.

“As a gallery and museum, we don’t exist in isolation and nor does our collection,” explains Neil. “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 continues. “The Post Office project will be about participation, and delivering our learning programme, while Linkshouse represents 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.

Securing funding for arts projects is also a fairly onerous task at the best of times. Add the backdrop of a pandemic to the process and it becomes even more of an uphill struggle. Trying to find the cash to deliver two major redevelopment projects, almost simultaneously, suggests the Pier Arts Centre team are gluttons for punishment, but against all the odds, they’re pulling it off.

The long-term plans for the Post Office have been developing through a feasibility study, while the Linkshouse Orkney Arts Residency (to give it its proper title) has received backing from a wide range of public sector sources, including Creative Scotland and Museums Galleries Scotland, and a variety of trusts and foundations.

“Our immediate focus for the Linkshouse project has been on halting its decline and dealing with the issues that invariably come with an old Orkney house, built in a fairly exposed location,” says Neil. “It’s been a challenge undertaking the work needed on the property during the pandemic, but we’re getting there.”

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,” says Neil. “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.”

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