New York artist Scott condemns gallery closure
NEW York artist Professor Ian Charles Scott, who was brought up in Wick, has shot a broadside at High Life Highland (HLH) over the closure of the town's only art gallery at the end of this month.
He said that "a town without art will be a town without a heart".
"The St Fergus Gallery was located in a geographical position which was just about the central heart of Wick," he said. "For decades it pumped imagination and ideas throughout the community."
Prof Scott has a painting in the present exhibition, Sea Change, made up from works in Highland Council's private collection.
HLH was set up by the council as a registered charity in 2011 and took over running the gallery with a remit to "develop and promote culture" throughout the Highlands for "both residents and visitors".
Despite the St Fergus Gallery having popular exhibitions – that have included illustrious names from the contemporary art scene such as John Bellany and Peter Howson – it was deemed that the low footfall made it no longer viable to keep open.
However, when our article about the imminent closure went online many said that they thought the gallery had already closed.
In the comments book for the current exhibition, which has run since August 2018, several people had made positive remarks about the show. However, one visitor wrote: "Signage outside would be good as the place looks closed."
The exterior of the Carnegie building – which the gallery sits within – shows minimal effort taken to inform the public a functioning art gallery exists inside, with one very tarnished and outdated Highland Council sign on a pillar outside and a tiny poster taped on the inside of the main door.
On numerous occasions over the last three years, HLH did little to publicise the exhibitions it held in St Fergus Gallery and failed to send press releases on the shows it hosted in the space.
Also, the announcement of the closure only came after HLH was asked to respond to speculation that the gallery would close.
The organisation's spokesperson said: “This decision has not been taken lightly.
"However, since the library moved to East Caithness Community Facility and the archive centre moved into Nucleus we have seen visitor numbers drop from 4500 to just over 500 visits per annum, which is no longer viable.”
Prof Scott said it was hardly a surprise there was "little foot traffic" as there had been very few exhibitions in the past few years, with little publicity produced.
"One could feel the ennui when one entered the door – it was a gallery in name alone but hardly throbbing with new exciting exhibitions," he said.
"Numerous famous individuals have shown there. I can remember meeting the late John Bellany during his show in the 1990s."
He talked about seeing a "frighting and powerful Peter Howson" work showing a rape in Bosnia that "disturbed and informed the local community" and was eventually bought by David Bowie.
He also recalled seeing works by masters such as Goya and Picasso in past shows.
"Where else will people in Wick be able to pop in and see a free high-class art exhibition?"
He recalled having a one-man show at the gallery in 2001 as part of Northlands Festival but was unable to attend due to flying restrictions after the September 11 attacks in the US.
"It is important that Wick has a gallery as I know the town has an abundance of art lovers who really want to engage with the larger art world," Prof Scott said.
"If the gallery actually closes the ghost of all these fantastic events will reverberate in the memory of all of us art-loving Wickers as we gaze up at its windows with nostalgia and recall days when Wick was truly at the cutting edge of the art world."
Ian Pearson, chairman of the Society of Caithness Artists (SCA), also spoke of his disappointment over the closure.
"The situation is very disappointing as it indicates the precarious position of the visual art scene in Caithness at present," he said.
"Without galleries such as the St Fergus then artists both practising and potential are unable to visit to be inspired by other artists' work, and indeed the opportunity for local artists to display their work has been withdrawn without any thought to the cultural development of the local art scene."
Mr Pearson recalled a very successful exhibition in St Fergus by his society which demonstrated "there is a market for a gallery in Wick".
Recently, he found himself at loggerheads with the council when increased hire charges forced him to find a new venue for the popular annual SCA show in Thurso.
Tom Barnes, co-director of Lyth Arts Centre, added to the dissent but offered some hope for the future.
He said: "It's a great shame for Caithness to lose another cultural asset. We at Lyth Arts Centre are increasingly seeing how we can do more to serve the community and help plug the gaps in provision.
"After Caithness Horizons [in Thurso] closed, we began a partnership with the Society of Caithness Artists to showcase their work throughout the year.
"We'll be speaking with Highland Council and High Life Highland to see what we can do with this situation in Wick."
HLH claims it will continue to provide "a regularly changing programme of contemporary and fine art exhibitions within Caithness" at the recently upgraded art gallery in Thurso Library and in a varied, changing exhibition programme at Nucleus in Wick.