Keeping art real in the COVID year

The return of the annual Christmas Exhibition at Orkney's Pier Arts Centre offers a small sense of normality after a turbulent 2020.

“We sensed there was an appetite for a real experience - an opportunity to stand in front of an object created with care, and to try and draw from it the artist’s intention, rather than view it on a screen.”

As director of the internationally acclaimed Pier Arts Centre (PAC) in Stromness, Neil Firth is well qualified to gauge the positive impact that contemplating artworks in situ, rather than virtually, can have on the viewer. He also understands the significance this human interaction with works has for the artists who create them.

Ever since it opened in 1979, the PAC has held a Christmas exhibition, offering Orkney’s creative community – both professional and amateur – the opportunity to showcase work within a gallery that holds one of the country’s finest collections of British 20th century modern art.

Open to anyone resident in the islands, the exhibition is always eagerly anticipated by local artists, keen to display and sell their work. It’s also a huge draw for the public and one of the festive season’s highlights in Stromness.

But like all galleries and museums throughout the UK, the PAC has been hit hard by this year’s coronavirus pandemic. Normally, the centre would welcome around 50,000 visitors a year, but instead it was forced to close its doors and furlough most of its staff when the country went into lockdown in March.

Despite the fact the PAC reopened in August, implementing a booking system for visits and introducing restricted operating hours, nobody would have been surprised had the gallery decided to cancel the 2020 Christmas exhibition, or take the event online. However, for Neil Firth and his team it was important to try and find a way of making the exhibition happen.

“The Christmas exhibition is perhaps the most important event in our calendar, with a mix of invention and artistic talent that offers a fascinating glimpse into the fireside creativity of our community,” says Neil. “It seemed important to deliver what we would usually deliver at this time of year, albeit in a slightly adapted form and with a few special measures.

“Of course there’s still a possibility that the exhibition may be curtailed because of a change in the public health advice and complying with that has been our guide in everything we have done since reopening in August.”

In previous years, submissions for the exhibition usually number 300 or so. For the unique circumstances of 2020 the gallery has placed certain limits on the size of works submitted to ensure they can be dealt with and hung by one member of staff. A system has also been set up to quarantine works between delivery to the PAC and their unpacking.

“It’s been a bit more complicated this year as we have to gather contact details for everyone who comes into the gallery for NHS Scotland’s Test and Protect system, and have to ensure we don’t exceed capacity,” explains Isla Holloway, the PAC’s marketing and customer services manager. “Artists and makers have had to book a delivery slot if they are dropping work off and a lot more folk have chosen to send their work in the post. It certainly hasn’t put people off as we have had a fantastic response and have some amazing work submitted.”

Maintaining COVID safety measures for visitors to the exhibition is also a top priority for the gallery, with a booking system in place to ensure physical distancing regulations can be rigorously adhered to.

“As available slots to visit the exhibition are being snapped up, I would urge folk to get on our website and book their visit to avoid disappointment,” says Isla. “Our team are on hand to help make a visit to the centre as relaxing, enjoyable and safe as possible.”

Orkney’s artists and makers certainly haven’t allowed the pandemic to quell their output – creative people are often the first to reflect the collective mood of the country, drawing inspiration from the good and the bad – so can visitors to the Christmas exhibition expect a strong COVID thread in the works displayed?

“There’s definitely a real feeling of hope and joy in the work that’s been submitted,” reflects Isla. “Perhaps the restrictions we’ve all been living under have allowed people the time to get their creative juices flowing. There are always common threads in the work though, and this year is no different. We have landscapes and animals, as well as more abstract works and craft items. There is certainly something to suit everyone’s taste.”

Being able to safely stage the Christmas exhibition is a significant milestone for the PAC in a year that’s seen its busy programme of events and activities severely disrupted. Neil, his team, and their partners throughout the country, are now working hard to try and stitch back together the often complex arrangements for the centre’s exhibition schedule so it can restart in 2021.

“It’s been very difficult, just as it has for families and businesses throughout the country,” says Neil. “We were fortunate to receive assistance from Museum Galleries Scotland to adapt the premises so that we could re-open safely, and the continued support of Creative Scotland and Orkney Islands Council means that we are still here with a fighting chance.

As a charity, museum and art gallery our reason for being here is to share the collection we hold for Orkney’s people with the public and to present interesting and challenging exhibitions, so bringing the Christmas event to fruition is a small step towards restoring some kind of normality in our programme.

He adds: “Under normal circumstance the opening evening of our Christmas exhibition is a busy affair and one of the first real signs that the festive season is approaching, with mince pies, mulled wine and an eagerness to see a work on the wall or to chase down and purchase your favourite piece.

“In Stromness, the Northlight Gallery and the Waterfront Gallery mount their own exhibitions too and merry parties can normally be seen threading their way between galleries and onward to the nightlife of the town. Granted, it won’t be quite the same this year, but we’re all hoping for a return to that special atmosphere for next Christmas.”

The Pier Arts Centre Christmas Exhibition opens on Saturday 28 November and will run until Christmas Eve. The gallery is open Thursday to Saturday. To secure a place, please visit the official website and click on the BOOK YOUR VISIT button.

The Promoting Orkney project has been part financed by the Scottish Government and the European Community Orkney LEADER 2014-2020 Newsletter

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