Local Arts Officers: Clair Aldington
As part of a series of interviews with local Arts Officers, Kate Brundrett asks Clair Aldington how visual arts projects are managed on the remote island of Shetland.
The Shetland Isles are unique in geographical location and cultural tradition. 200 miles from UK and Scandinavian mainlands, Shetland hosts a dualistic culture with a unique brand. It is both remote and international, a busy port island with regular flight and ferry connections to Scottish mainland cities.
Clair Aldington is the Visual Arts Development Officer for Shetland Arts Development Agency. She moved to Shetland in 2007 having worked in Oxford as a freelance artist, artist educator, and as a Creative Arts Development Worker in Youth Justice. She remains a practising artist working with textiles, mixed media and installation.
One of the aims of Shetland Arts is to enable everyone in Shetland to develop their full creative potential.
Tell me a little bit about Shetland
I think most people don’t realise how far away we actually are from the mainland – we’re often seen in a little box on weather maps. Our culture and heritage is a mix of Scottish and Scandinavian, and the dialect that is spoken here has very strong roots in the Nordic languages – Scottish Gaelic is not spoken here. There is also a very strong textile and knitting tradition, and the music is internationally famous.
What are the key issues facing artists at the moment?
In Shetland one of the key issues for visual artists is in exhibiting work. The opportunities on the island are limited, with only two main public galleries, and to exhibit on the mainland the transportation costs are very high so that makes it difficult to get work shown. You also have to be prepared to travel which can be very expensive.
So do you help artists to export work from Shetland?
We have a Visual Artist Awards scheme, which is a devolved funding scheme from the Scottish Arts Council (now Creative Scotland) to provide funding for creative and professional development for visual artists resident in Shetland. Applications from artists can include exhibition or transport costs provided they can relate it to their creative development.
In terms of development for visual artists, this is one of my key areas, and I’ll continue to apply for that money as long as it’s available. Fifty percent of the funding for the scheme comes from the Council’s Economic Development Unit here in Shetland, so it’s actually supported by the local authority as well as Creative Scotland.
There does exist a loss of connection with what’s happening with the visual arts on the mainland, because of the cost of travel. You can’t just pop out and see a major international visual arts show in the same way that on the mainland you could hop on a train and go to your nearest city or town. I think that can be reflected in the type of work that’s produced, and this is something that local artists have commented on themselves.
During a CPD session for artists and teachers last year, I showed a DVD of Claire Barclay’s work that I bought from the Fruitmarket Gallery in Edinburgh when I was there. She was talking about her work on exhibition, and one of the artists commented afterwards that she’d forgotten that there was work of that high quality going on on the mainland. I think that’s key to visual arts practice here, it’s an issue, buying the DVD was my way round it.
Nationally, I think because of the economic climate, one of the key issues for the Arts is going to be funding. It’s already affected us – our budgets have already been cut this year, and our travel budgets are more limited. This is going to have an effect on attending conferences, network events and exhibitions on the mainland. I think people will see the value and importance of new media even more because of it. Definitely in remoter locations, and especially as a way to keep in touch with what’s happening elsewhere and with other artists. With our own website we wanted to be forward thinking in terms of social networking – living remotely it’s one of the things you rely on, especially in communicating with the outside world.
How does working with artists relate to your organisation’s policy?
One of our aims is to help everybody in Shetland realize their full creative potential, and that includes professional artists. We run CPD events, artists pop in with their portfolios, we give advice and support about where to go next, and help in any way we can to support artists and also hobbyists. Because of the emphasis on working with everybody we do a lot of projects in the community that we employ freelance artists to deliver.
In terms of artists we’ve a very healthy community, Veer North is a group of 30 members, and the Shetland Arts and Crafts Association is more geared towards makers and product related arts. Artists are attracted to Shetland for it’s location and heritage – and living remotely. There is some but not a lot of installation or performance or new media practice going on here.
Do you advertise and bring people to the island as well?
Yes we do, frequently. It’s a balance between supporting local artists and bringing in new influences – another way we try and get over the problem of not getting to the mainland quite so often to see exhibitions. This is an important part of our programme, particularly for my colleagues who run the dance and drama and music side of things. Whenever we have someone come over and perform or exhibit we always try to include workshops and education or professional development activities alongside or as part of the main event.
One opportunity that you advertised on Jobs and Opps was a residency on a tall ship, how did the residency transpire?
Yes, it’s called ‘LK 243 Undersail’. I’ve been putting together this project for a couple of years with Scottish Arts Council and the Gulbenkian Foundation alongside other Scottish island arts organisations. The Gulbenkian Foundation have been funding an arts project in the Galapagos islands (The Gulbenkian Galapagos Artists’ Residencies) and decided to look closer to home for a project connecting all the Scottish islands. In 2008 they got the Scottish islands arts organisations together to talk about what things they had in common, and what came out of that was that actually we don’t have a lot in common and that we’re all very very different. We tried to put together a proposal that would include all of us and it just didn’t work – it was like trying to force something that wasn’t coming naturally. So it was decided to run the idea out in 2 phases with independent projects and including other islands where it was appropriate. At the same time The Swan Trust who own The Swan sailing ship approached us looking to work with some artists and so the residency for the Tall Ships race came about.
What do you look for in artists you work with?
I think it would depend on each project – I have about twelve projects running at the moment and they’re all very different. For example for the sailing project we’re looking for an artist of international standing with a good track record. And then we’ve a garden project where we’ve employed an artist from outside, alongside a local artist, to design a garden with adults with learning disabilities as part of the Independent Living Project here. We have another project and exhibition by a visiting artist who is a wheelchair user who will hopefully be working with Disability Shetland and some of their clients, and there is a Restorative Justice and Arts project where we are bringing together young people involved in offending and those they have harmed through artworks. We also have the Visual Artist Awards for local artists. There’s a huge range of projects and we look to work with very different people on each.
We are also in the midst of a year long festival to celebrate architecture and place called Power of Place. We’ve been working with an artist and project co-ordinator on this project and it will be over two years by the time it’s finished. There are longer-term opportunities with some of our projects, but not permanent. For instance, we are nearing the conclusion of a two year major public art project, Mirrie Dancers, which has employed 2 artists of international standing.
How do you research artists? Does peer recommendation play a part?
We advertise all our opportunities on our website, locally, and nationally where it’s appropriate, if we’re looking for somebody from outside. I personally don’t tend to approach people directly, I’ll circulate information to artists I know but mainly it’s done through advertising, so peer recommendation doesn’t come into it quite so much.
At the moment we have installation artist Susan Leach doing a residency that was born out of the Homecoming Scotland project funding last year. We advertised for artists who had a connection to Shetland and who wanted to come back, or had maybe not even been here but had family connections.
Tell me about the highs and lows, positives and challenges of a recent project?
One recent design project had a mixture of both highpoints and challenges. We employed an assistant artist and a lead artist. The aim was for them to work together as in a mentoring role within that relationship. They ran a series of workshops together with a local client group.
The two artists hadn’t met before they worked together and I’d had this ideal notion in my head that this wouldn’t be a problem for them – but it actually was. It was just a matter of personality differences in the end. It was a big learning curve for me, for them, and for the project steering group. I’d certainly do it differently in the future. This is a common way of working so it would be interesting to see how other agencies handle similar dual artist projects. There were positives that came out of it, however, as both artists were committed to the project and to working together to see it completed. It was also a partnership project between different agencies locally and this has led to strong links between us which has already led to other projects locally.
Do you have any advice for artists applying for opportunities?
Artists don’t always sell themselves well in their applications. They need to explain why they are applying and how they respond to the brief. We have a scoring system, so it’s often hard to match an artist against the criteria if they haven’t addressed the brief properly. So my advice would be to look really carefully at what the employer is looking for, and if you’re not sure ring up and ask for more information.
LK 243 Under Sail: http://www.a-n.co.uk/jobs_and_opps/single/647100
Shetland Arts Development Agency: http://www.shetlandarts.org
Crossing Points Twitter: http://twitter.com/CrossingPoints
Mirrie Dancers: http://www.mirriedancers.com
Created Space blog: www.createdspaceshetland.blogspot.com
Power of Place: http://www.powerofplace.co.uk
Coming Home: http://www.shetlandhamefarin.com
The Gulbenkian Galapagos Artists’ Residencies: http://www.gulbenkian.org.uk/news/press-releases/2008/darwin-projects-funde...
Kate Gilman Brundrett
Kate is an artist, business adviser and consultant to the creative industries sector.
First published: a-n.co.uk July 2010
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