JOYCE MCMILLAN on BEHIND THE SCENES: PIER ARTS CENTRE, ORKNEY
IT’S THE BEAUTIFUL CALLUM INNES painting propped against the wall that first catches the eye. Then there’s the massive work by Alison Watt still in its packing-cases in the ground floor gallery, a Christine Borland sculpture of suspended glass medallions laid out carefully on the floor in preparation for hanging, and – in the same, room full of watery light – a beautiul, perfectly-finished Robin Gillanders photograph, in black and white, of Ian Hamilton Finlay’s sculpture Gods Of The Earth, God Of The Sea, lying in its chosen place on a headland in Rousay, one of the most magical and remote of the Orkney islands. Neil Firth, the director of Orkney’s much-loved Pier Arts Centre in Stromness, says that that image has a special significance for him; partly because Ian Hamilton Finlay was able to come to Orkney, just a few months before his death, to watch the great slab of stone being installed. But he looks around with pride at all the pieces gradually coming together to form the first exhibition to be staged at the Pier after a two-and-a-half-year closure, during which this exquisite little gallery has undergone an almost magical transformatiion.
Stromness, of course, is already famous for many things. It’s famous for its long, winding, paved main street that coils along the shore like a length of rope. It’s famous as the birthplace – and lifelong home – of the late, great Orkney poet George Mackay Brown, who first used that coiling image to describe the street that shaped his childhood. And it has been famous, for centuries, as the main port linking Orkney to Scotland. Since 1979, though, Stromness has also been increasingly well known as the home of one of the most beautiful and surprising art collections in Britain; and that fame is about to gain a whole new dimension when the Pier Arts Centre reopens its doors on 7 July.
The gallery was founded as a home for the remarkable collection built up during the 1930’s and 40’s by Margaret Gardiner, a powerful writer, artist and patron of the arts who had been a close friend and passionate supporter of the St. Ives group of British modern artists, including Barbara Hepworth, Ben Nicolson, Naum Gabo, and many others; and her decision to give this very English collection to Orkney, and to the town of Stromness, struck some as puzzling at first. Gardiner always insisted, though, that there were connections – of light, colour, landscape – that made the work right for the place, and vice versa; and over the years, her instinct has been proved right, as the collection found a home in two buildings on the Stromness pier-head, and began both to attract visitors, and to play a role in inspiring a whole new generation of Orkney artists.
Towards the end of the Nineties, though, it became clear that the old buildings could no longer meet modern standards of space and access; and faced with the choice of ripping out the heart of the building to reshape it, or expanding into new space, Neil Firth and his team applied for – and won- more than £4.5 of funding from the Scottish Arts Council and Heritage Lottery Funds, from the European Union and from Orkney Islands Council, to buy and rebuild the property next door. The result – designed by award-winning architect Neil Gillespie – is a new Pier Arts Centre that leaves the original gallery building intact, but develops its shapes and rhythms into a beautiful linked companion building, a glowing post-modern shed of dark metal and glass that’s both stunningly beautiful – as light spills through it during the day, and glows from it at night – and completely in harmony with the jostling, jumbled line of the old Stromness waterfront.
The opening exhibition is titled North Light – Cynosure, in a reference to the pole star that dominates the Orkney winter sky; and apart from visiting works by Watt, Innes, Borland, and Olafur Eliasson, it will also include work by young Orkney artists for whom the Pier became part of their childhood; and, of course, the original and much-loved Margaret Gardiner collection. And Neil Firth says that while the new gallery spaces – and a wonderful new reading-room – will allow for more and larger visiting exhibitions, his central hope for the gallery remains as it has always been; that it will continue to surprise, delight and inspire, as it has done throughout its first 30 years, and as its late patron and friend George Mackay Brown once said he hoped it would still be doing, when ten decades had come and gone.