What kind of a year has 2020 been for you?
I just moved to the Isle of Skye a few months before lockdown, and the team at ATLAS were also brand new – we were really in the early stages of research and exploring what makes the Skye and Lochalsh tick. Every month has been so different as you learn and change so quickly in a crisis, it’s gone incredibly fast and has been so slow at the same time.

My January and February days were full of long car journeys across the island for different meetings, getting a sense of what is already happening here, meeting lots of brilliant people, and just beginning to think about different ways of building the programme here. Then when COVID hit, instead of driving around, this getting to know the island went online – which obviously only goes so far.

The first few months of lockdown on Skye were spent focusing on what we could do practically in our own communities whilst trying to absorb what was happening and its effect on us all. Slowly out of all this we began to shape a programme and managed to launch some slower projects with zines, books, recipes, 1-1 meetings, walks, seeds, storytelling and food. In some ways these are things we were really interested in doing anyway, but we’ve had to make them smaller, slower, more dispersed or more intimate – no bad thing.

We’ve tried not to do too much online as it’s exhausting for a lot of people, instead we’ve focused on supporting artists, fundraising for lots of paid opportunities for local freelancers, and a few different school projects for 2021.

Not having a venue means ATLAS isn’t so fixed on one way of working so we’ve been able to find different ways of continuing to work. It’s not been without difficulty, it’s been a horrible, anxious time for so many – but we’ve been so lucky. I’m so grateful to all my colleagues across the Highlands and Islands who’ve kept pushing and kept going this year. I’ve learned a lot with them.

What has changed for the better?
It’s a difficult question to answer. I think so much has still to come out in the wash, so much of the impact of this crisis is ahead of us. I really hope that together we will be able to continue to refuse how precarious we’ve all become in all walks of life and that we won’t forget how inequity affects us all. This requires big and small shifts in how we value all aspects of society and how we imagine the economy. I know in our local community how much of this thinking is already present and we have an opportunity to do some really special things together as we learn from this crisis.

What has been interesting in the arts is a general shift towards the understanding that longer term, slower ways of working make everyone feel good – artists, audiences, collaborators – and in funding streams a much stronger focus on ensuring artists and freelancers are paid well and less precariously. I hope there is now a stronger sense from art organisations that we are not gatekeepers for culture – we are stakeholders within complex communities and that the future is in unfixing a lot of what we know and our own decision making. I am trying to learn what that means and it’s a continuous task that I think can happen in exciting ways if we let it.

What do you wish had happened this year, but didn’t?
I really wish the UK had locked down earlier. It’s easy to say in hindsight, but people who have empathy for these things, real empathy, were calling for action long before March. We have to learn to listen better. Zoe Leonard’s I want a president work is cited often, but it sums this up so well for me.

What would you characterise as your major achievement this year and why?
We’ve been so lucky to not have had to furlough staff, and we’ve been lucky to have kept working, and wouldn’t want anyone to feel they had to achieve anything this year, it’s been incredibly hard. That being said, I am really proud of our team at ATLAS, how we’ve learned together this year – and despite the difficulties of being convivial this year, we’ve met some brilliant people.

We’ve started a few slow threads of projects that will build – a community film exploring land struggle on Skye, an island-wide Zine Library, a seed sovereignty programme, a Gaelic oral history residency and we’ve set up a new pay-what-you-can Publication Studio to begin to use next year. There is no way we’d have been able to start these things if we’d been running around like we used to, so I’m grateful for that.

Is there anything you’d like to have done this year but haven’t?
Everything! Nothing replaces being in a room with people having conversations or making things together. We had been looking forward to organising a series of meals around Skye and Lochalsh in different venues, with different film screenings and workshops too. But we really can’t complain, we’ve started a few things and we’ve adapted where we can, hopefully in the next 6 months these things can come back into our work.

What are you looking forward to in 2021?
Hugging and spending lots of time with family and friends.

1. Ainslie Roddick, within installation view of ‘uncertain’ by Katherine Macbride, CCA Glasgow, 2019
Photo credit: Alan Dimmick
2. ATLAS Arts, CLIMAVORE: On Tidal Zones Recipe Book Launch, Nov 2020, The Oyster Table, Portree. Photo credit: Matthew A. Williams
3. Palestine Heirloom Seed Library image. Courtesy: ATLAS

India Nielsen is part of the 2019-20 a-n Writer Development Programme that has supported eight a-n members to develop their skills in arts journalism and critical writing.