THE NEW TOWN ART MYTH
In the Beginning ........
When I came to live in Livingston in 1980 Howden Park Centre and Studio "H" were already established having been opened by Scottish actor Ian Cruikshanks in 1972. My sister was a member of The Livingston Players drama group but on visiting HPC with her I found it to be a cliquish place and never felt welcome. In this section I want to discuss my experience as a volunteer when, later on, after finding that I could not make any inroads within the established route, I decided to go it alone by taking a DIY approach. I wanted to liven up a moribund visual arts environment which seemed to me to belong only to a small section of the community. With regard to local participation none of the art groups had ventured into the realm of contemporary art. In the 1990's a man called Don Farquharson led a campaign to have an arts centre built in Livingston. Sadly, Mr Farquharson is no longer with us and, needless to say, the arts centre never materialised. Below is an edited version of an article I wrote at the time.
Fast forward to 2005 - after the exhibition at Saint David's church some of the artists were keen to keep the momentum going by having another exhibition in the area. It was decided that we would try to locate a space and hold an exhibition to coincide with Armistice Day in November. We found an empty shop in the Livingston Almondvale shopping centre which was kindly given to us for one week. The exhibition War + Peace was born. We decided to move Donald McKenzie's 20ft long frieze "Revelation" from its previous location in Saint David's church to the shop and this piece formed the centrepiece of the new exhibition.
When a new law regarding the requirement of a Public Entertainment Licence was passed in 2012 the ability to exhibit in certain public spaces became difficult financially for us. As a voluntary, self-funding group we found it impossible to find enough money to cover this additional cost, therefore, this brought to an end the possibility of exhibiting in the shopping centre in Livingston who had been so generous to us and who we would like to thank for their support (support that we did not receive from the the local authority art services). I wrote an article at the time explaining in more detail about this law and how it could have had a better outcome if West Lothian Council had chosen to approach the implementation of it in a more considered way.
I have been a volunteer curator over the past fifteen years because I believe it has been a worthwhile pursuit. In the early days back before I actually started putting on exhibitions, I sought help from the local arts services. However, straight away I was met with negative response, I remember being told untactfully that I was trying to gain access “through the back door” (whatever that meant)? I do not want to dwell on this aspect of my experience but, suffice to say, it has had an impact on what has gone on over the years. However, it did not put me off and it still does not put me off today as I know that a healthy cultural environment is a crucial component in society. That is why I will continue to try in the area where I live to find locations to exhibit contemporary art.
In 2019 I decided to volunteer with The Living Memory Association (THELMA) who had taken over a shop in Livingston town centre, their main shop is located in Ocean Terminal shopping centre in Leith, Edinburgh. I found them approachable and, along with the WLC Museums representatives who work with them, were keen to take up my offer of help. I did harbour a faint hope that I would be able to share some space in the shop to put on exhibitions, but this did not happen. This was mainly due to the fact that they had to move a few times and ended up in a much smaller shop which did not allow for this space wise. Nevertheless, I was pleased to be involved with THELMA who do a good job in the community offering a relaxed environment where people can enjoy wandering around looking at items from the past – it is, as they call it, “a wee museum of memory”. I was able to utilise some of my retro collection in shop widow displays, I created two windows for them, one 1960’s themed and another 1970’s themed. I also took on the job of running a banner making workshop where anyone could join in and help to create a special banner to commemorate their project which celebrated the heritage of brass band culture in the area. The project was called “Strike up the Band”.
I was delighted to do this, and I am glad that THELMA will still be a presence in the area when things get back to normal after the pandemic, I will always offer them my time if they need me. However, it is disappointing that I am unable to do what I would really like to do – that is to create a more exciting visual arts culture in the area. I feel that since I started fifteen years ago the situation has got worse instead of better, there seems to be no motivation from the people who could help (and are actually paid to do this job). Throughout the time I have been engaged in this I have often felt like giving up in West Lothian, I do not know if anything will change but I do know that I care about where I live, and I have seen first-hand the positiveness people have expressed on visiting exhibitions I have organized here. In that case, if an opportunity to do something comes up, I will jump at It.
A comment from a member of the public at one of the exhibitions.
1960's Themed Window
Shown below are some of the former exhibitions I curated while working as a volunteer curator.
Top - BEACHCOMBER (The Centre, Livingston)
Middle - SEA & SHORE (Watersons, Livingston)
Bottom - THIS IS EARTH (John Muir's Birthplace Museum, Dunbar)