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What a Whirlwind!

It has been an extraordinary time for Fife Contemporary.

Sitting in my home office after the remains of a thunderstorm, breaking a period of unprecedented hot and dry weather across Fife and the whole country, this seems a good time to be taking a short break, and allowing a bit of time to reflect on my first four months at the helm of Fife Contemporary.

Can it really only be four full months? Well, yes it can, but it feels that even by the standards of Fife Contemporary’s unusual history this has been a fairly unique time for the organisation. With the retirement of Diana Sykes, leaving after 34 years, having seen the organisation through its many changes and incarnations. This is a time to look back and celebrate, but also a time to renew, welcome some exciting and energising new team members, and look to the future.

Having lived in Scotland since 2010, I had only known and worked with Fife Contemporary through its current incarnation – as an organisation operating independent of a venue, and collaborating with artists and partners across Fife to deliver a rich variety of visual art and craft programming.

You can see from Diana Sykes’ last blog post for this website that she has left quite a legacy: steering the organisation through existential challenges, since the closure of the Crawford Arts Centre in St Andrews in 2006, by embracing new directions and maintaining a reputation for high quality art and craft programming which has impact far beyond the borders of Fife.

Like many who have admired the work of Diana and her team over the years, I have always seen Fife Contemporary as something quite extra-ordinary, achieving impact significantly above its size and beyond the borders of its location. So, no pressure then….

View across Fife fields and landscape from a train; blue sky with some puffy clouds.
Image: taken from the train on the way from my home in Burntisland to Ladybank to meet artists at Off the Rails Arthouse. We will continue prioritising public transport when we can. You also get time to take in the Fife scenery when not behind the wheel of a car.

Where to start?

Time to take a deep breath. When I joined at Easter, I already knew I couldn’t take this as a slow start and gradually get a feel for the organisation’s nuances and current activities. Too many things were already changing! Fife Contemporary was about to see another longstanding and invaluable team member, Susan Davis, retire, and the organisation’s offices where still closed due to ongoing refurbishment, meaning everyone on the team is still having to work remotely.

Yet the ambitions for the organisation to develop an updated website to continue as our ‘virtual venue’, to reinvigorate projects which had needed to pause due to Covid, and to build a new programme of exhibitions and off-site activities remain pressing. So I have dived straight into a process of recruitment and we are hugely lucky to have recruited some great new team members, whose energies will help Fife Contemporary achieve its future goals.

We have also found an exciting new partner in St Andrews Botanic Garden, who have generously offered some office space to share, giving us a base for a few days per week to work in person. These feel like the ground is well prepared for us to plant some new creative seeds as well as tend the projects we are already running.

Office space with 2 'nose-to'tail' desks, chairs and shelving, looking out of a window on the right side across St Andrews Botanic Garden.
Image: Our new part time office courtesy of our friends at the Botanic Garden, St Andrews. The space also provides us with a wonderful view of a wild flower meadow. Arlene assures me this is the best view from an office window in the history of the organisation!

The most important people…

But the most important part of the community which makes Fife Contemporary such a vibrant organisation to work for, is the art and artists who we work with. It has therefore been one of the greatest pleasures of the first four months to be able to connect with, and meet as many different Fife-based artists and makers as I can. This has all been part of a project to reconnect with Fife’s creative community, and find out what help artists across the region need to assist their creative and professional recovery in the post-pandemic world.

This project was the brain-child of our brilliant Artist Development Officer, Stef Cheong and has been supported by Creative Scotland and managed through the talents of textile artist Claire Heminsley. There is still a chance to get in touch with us to have your voice heard as part of this project.

View of invite card and watercolour paintings on a shelf at Jane Francis's Burntisland studio/gallery
Image: some of the interesting things in Jane Francis’s Burntisland studio/gallery, Glisk. Photo by Claire Heminsley.

Along with artists, another vital part of our creative eco-system are the independent curators who we have employed over the years to deliver our exhibitions’ programming and off-site projects. It was great to meet with Mella Shaw, the fantastic curator who produced REsolve, our exhibition at Kirkcaldy Galleries which closed in May. This involved the delivery of our trusty tool and packing kits to the gallery ahead of the de-rig, and a chance to meet the OnFife team based at this great gallery space.

Roll of bubblewrap and a cardboard box of blankets, sitting between two tool boxes
Image: Dropping off our de-rig kit! Lined up and ready for action…

Coincidentally, a report written by Stacey Hunter and commissioned by Craft Scotland shows how important the work of independent curators are for the craft sector as well as for visual art.  The lack of pathways to developing curatorial careers that it highlighted is something I am keen to address in our future programme. There will be an opportunity to learn about developing a career curating craft as part of our future continuing professional development programme for artists, as well as in our programmes for young people being developed this autumn. In the meantime sign up for our talk with invited guest, and jeweller turned curator and researcher, Cat Dunn, in October. Cat has been a joy already to work with and an inspiration to talk to: expect more announcements for our work together soon.

Partnerships…

Producing programmes with partner venues and organisations allows our work to be seen and engaged with by many people who are not regular gallery or museum visitors. Popping down to the beach in Kinghorn I was able to see a workshop led by Annie Lord for Kinghorn Ecology Centre, and it was fantastic to experience the work of Seb Chaloner and Lesley Acheson at the Falkland Estate, still looking great and attracting attention one year on.

Foreground shows colourful bunting attached to a railing in front of a white building with red pan-tiled roof
Image: bunting by Annie Lord catching the wind from the shore at Kinghorn, created for the Ecology Centre to celebrate and provide a sense of place for their community activities.

The next generation…

As well as the practising artists working across Fife, one of the great excitements of this role is supporting Fife Contemporary’s work helping invest in and support the next generation of artists. With the support of the Wilhelmina Barns Graham Trust, our Summer School is helping talented teenagers across Fife to learn directly from artists about the work they make, the creative process and the experience of going to art school.

Talking about art school… wasn’t it great to see degree shows at DJCAD, ECA and GSA all present ‘real’ exhibitions again? We all had the chance to see graduate work in person again, and for me, working with Stef Cheong to select candidates for our Materialise programme has been another highlight of my work so far.

Materialise offers the chance of ongoing development, platforming and networking for the next generation of graduating artists and makers. This year’s cohort will be announced soon and you can see online showcases for past graduates here.

Image of degree image artwork at Duncan of Jordanstone College of Art & Design, Dundee
Image: The work of graduates at Duncan of Jordanstone Collage of Art and Design, May 2022.

So much more… 

Revisiting our Trail of Thought at the Falkland Estate and connecting with the innovative work of the Botanic Garden in St Andrews, is inspirational for so much of our future programme. Coming out of a period of quite unprecedented weather, my upcoming focus will include renewing our Environmental Strategy and our Artists’ Environmental Sharespace. And increasing access and diversity in our programme, affording the pleasure of connecting to our equalities’ partners at Fife Equalities’ Forum, and Fife Centre for Equalities, and Pink Saltire amongst others. Oh… and feeding this all into developing our next five-year plan! 

Fife Contemporary is already keeping me on my toes, yet it already feels like home – onwards and upwards!

Carved tree on left, says 'Onwards and Upwards', Falkland Estate
Image: ‘Onwards and Upwards’ by Seb Chaloner and Lesley Acheson part of the Falkland Estate Trail of Thought.

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