As demonstrated by its recent successes in the SURF Awards and elsewhere, Orkney is getting a lot right when it comes to community regeneration. In this article, local Arts Officer Pam Beasant explains why the islands’ thriving creative communities deserve much of the credit.

“Orkney’s success in culture is part of its wider success in sustaining a prosperous, attractive and secure community whose quality of life is much admired.” (Franҫois Matarasso, Stories and Fables)

Per head of population, Orkney boasts an astonishingly vibrant and evolving creative community, featuring practitioners and participants of all disciplines, and across the whole group of inhabited islands.

Stromness' Pier Arts Centre is home to a museum, art gallery & library

Stromness’ Pier Arts Centre is home to a museum, art gallery & library

Flagship organisations such as the St Magnus International Festival, the Pier Arts Centre, Orkney Folk Festival, and world-renowned jewellery, textile and craft industries such as Sheila Fleet, Kirsteen Stewart and Hume Sweet Hume, are recognised nationally and internationally.

They play an essential role in the local community, maintaining and developing opportunities and employment, and engendering a sense of place and pride that is unique, well-established and has a significant impact on the local economy.

Mighty Oaks From Little Acorns Grow

The flagship organisations grew from small beginnings. They have been at the heart of the creative community for more than a generation, attracting performers and visitors from all over the world, and local participants in a professional or voluntary role. They have put Orkney on the world map, while retaining their essential identity in the island communities.

Pull quote - Pam Beasant (1)Many organisations and festivals deliver a strong programme of annual events, mostly on the strength of voluntary effort and partnership working that is considered by many to be remarkable. This, however, is the way the community in Orkney has always worked, with people wearing several hats, and a healthy, natural cross-over and inter-connection among the creative, arts, non-arts and business communities.

The Arts Development Service in Orkney is based on the fundamental belief that the whole community can be nurtured and sustained through the arts, and the success and happiness of the local community is linked to its cultural health and activity.

The service facilitates the Orkney Arts Forum, which meets quarterly, and has representation from all the major arts organisations and festivals, and individual art form representatives. The Forum also includes organisations such as Highlands and Islands Enterprise, Voluntary Action Orkney, Orkney College, Orkney Library and Archive and Creative Scotland.

Facilitation Trumps Leadership

The acclaimed play 'Long Strides' featured in Orkney's 2013 St Magnus Festival

The acclaimed play ‘Long Strides’ featured in Orkney’s 2013 St Magnus Festival

The Orkney Arts Forum has been described as a model of good practice nationally. While formally unconstituted, the group has driven some major initiatives locally, such as the birth of the George Mackay Brown Fellowship literature organisation.

The Forum also fed into the Council’s Community Planning process, and is responsible for the content of the current 2012-15 Arts Development Plan. The Forum is highly valued by both the Council and its membership.

The local creative community is so dynamic that ultimately the Arts Development Service does not need to lead; its role is to facilitate and respond to the huge range of existing activity, and to provide a strategic role within the Council for the cultural community.

And the wider Council highly values the creative side of Orkney. During the recent recession, when other local authorities were reducing arts services, the Council not only retained the Arts Officer post and made it permanent, but protected important funding to local organisations through the Culture Fund.

This pot of money supports key organisations annually, and the remaining funds are distributed far and wide throughout Orkney through an open application process. In addition, after HI-Arts stopped operating as an organisation, the Council supported the introduction of a devolved version of the Visual Artists and Craft Makers Awards Scheme, funded by Creative Scotland, Highlands & Islands Enterprise and the Council.

It’s a small but significant pot of money, supporting individuals in their creative development, and the benefits of this were recognised and supported by the elected members. The plan went through the committee procedure with only positive comment and enthusiasm.

SURF Awards Recognition

An innovative 'Open Windows' exhibition featured 45 artists displaying their work in Stromness windows

An innovative ‘Open Windows’ exhibition featured 45 artists displaying their work in Stromness windows

A remarkable development over the past few years has been the completion of several significant capital projects. Orkney has a brand new theatre in Kirkwall, attached to the newly built Kirkwall Grammar School. In April 2015, a new facility will be opening in Stromness, housing the Stromness Library, the police station and Council customer services facilities. The building is sympathetically designed, in keeping with the award-winning Pier Arts Centre, which was extensively extended and upgraded in 2007.

The old Stromness Library building will be taken over by WASPS (Workshop and Artists’ Studio Provision Scotland), and local artists will have the chance to rent affordable studio space once the building has been repaired and converted.

For a small town of around 2000 inhabitants, Stromness has seen a truly remarkable period of regeneration and growth, and has benefited recently from the wide-ranging Scapa Flow Landscape Partnership, and the focused input of the Stromness Townscape Heritage Initiative.

Both of these SURF Award-winning projects included strong creative and cultural elements, working in partnership with the local community and organisations. Examples of these projects include the commissioning of art for the new Stromness Library, and the artist’s residency, in partnership with the Pier Arts Centre. Kirkwall is now embarking on its own regeneration phase, with the Kirkwall Townscape Heritage Initiative under way.

Pull quote - Pam Beasant (2)

Historic Treasures, Cooperative Communities

Orkney has not been unscathed by the effects of the recent recession and reduced public spending, but, relatively speaking, it has not only survived, but has developed and grown remarkably over the same period. The islands produce, attract, and retain, highly talented and creative people, especially in the fields of the creative arts, heritage, archaeology, and cutting edge sciences such as renewable energy and marine biology.

The Ring of Brodgar stone circle is a feature of Orkney's neolithic legacy

The Ring of Brodgar stone circle is a feature of Orkney’s neolithic legacy

There is a strong resilience built into island life, and a wide recognition of all the ingredients that contribute to the success and sustainability of the local community. It’s understood that we need to work together to achieve this, and it’s often said, and true, that Orkney consistently punches above its weight.

It’s impossible when living here or visiting, not to be aware of the legacy of thousands of years of life in these islands, and the remarkable Neolithic monuments, Norse culture, Iron Age brochs, and the magnificent medieval cathedral in Kirkwall.

While maintaining this heritage with pride, Orkney does not rest on its laurels. It looks out, and always ahead.

In 2012, Highlands & Islands Enterprise published a study, Stories and Fables, commissioned from writer and cultural researcher Franҫois Matarasso. It explores the reasons for Orkney’s cultural success over the past 30 years. His conclusions were that they relate to a strongly egalitarian and cooperative community, and an openness of spirit that allows fertile interaction between Orcadians and incomers.

While there is no room for complacency, a real strength is that openness, and how different sections of the community overlap and work together. It’s a strong recipe for the future.