Art Fund Prize 2008 - The Pier Arts Centre, Orkney

By Caroline Lewis | 03 April 2008
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photo of two building gables on a waterfront, one is stone and the other is metal

The Pier Arts Centre reopened in July 2007 after a striking yet sensitive redevelopment. © Pier Arts Centre

The Art Fund Prize judges have already started their deliberations over the ten longlisted museum for the Art Fund Prize 2008 and their shortlist is due in April, but who do you think should win the coveted prize?

To help you decide, the 24 Hour Museum continues its alphabetical round-up of the museums on this year’s longlist by looking at The Pier Arts Centre in Stromness, Orkney.

The £100,000 Art Fund Prize is awarded to the museum or gallery whose project demonstrates the most originality, imagination and excellence, and the Pier Arts Centre is on the longlist for a sensitive and well received redevelopment.

In July 2007, the Pier reopened after a £4.5m project that updated its waterfront buildings into a 21st century venue worthy of its remarkable collection of modernist works and respected programme of contemporary exhibitions and outreach activities.

Positioned on the Stromness waterfront at the edge of a conservation area, the atmospheric buildings required some special treatment in their transformation. And that’s exactly what they got from the Edinburgh based architects Reiach and Hall, who created a striking new glass and zinc space at the heart of the Centre.

photo of a gallery with a bulbous sculpture and an abstract painting

The Centre's founder was a keen proponent of artists such as Barbara Hepworth, whose sculpture is shown here alongside a new acquisition by Callum Innes. © Pier Arts Centre

The 18th century buildings have seen some interesting changes of use in their time. From 19th century merchant’s home and stores they went on to be part of the turn-of-the-century herring boom and a cooperage. After that industry went into decline, the pier found itself in a backwater.

Things livened up again when the Royal Engineers requisitioned part of it in the Second World War. The buildings went back to being dwellings and business places until the arts centre was established in the 70s with paintings and sculptures by the likes of Ben Nicholson and Barbara Hepworth, and other St Ives School artists.

“The Pier Arts Centre opened in 1979 on the gift of a remarkable collection gifted by author and philanthropist Margaret Gardiner,” explains Centre Director Neil Frith.

“It took the form of two harbourside buildings that were unconnected, one pushing out on a pier,” he says. “They served their purpose very well and were beautifully converted at that point, but as time has gone by we began to outgrow the limits of the building, and to experience difficulties in ensuring that we were providing the right kind of environment for the collections, and the right access.”

Photo of an art installation consisting of squares featuring text hung on the wall and a spinning top in a glass case

An installation view from the current Colin Johnstone exhibition. © The Pier Arts Centre

The need to link the buildings came to the fore, but the brief wasn’t simple as the buildings mark the beginning of a conservation area and space was constricted.

Luckily, the Centre was able to acquire a delapidated building next door and refurbish the collection of structures with a connecting space. The construction took place over a period of nearly two years, with all the hard work well worth it - the venue has already won two awards for its physical overhaul.

“We’ve won the Andrew Doolan Award for the best new building in Scotland, from the Royal Incorporation of Architects in Scotland, and we also recently received the Civic Trust award,” says Neil.

The judges for the latter praised it as a strikingly modern restoration that sits comfortably with the surrounding buildings.

“The uncompromisingly contemporary choice of materials fit surprisingly well with the local style of stone houses and boat sheds,” commented the judges. “In particular, the dark zinc cladding of the Arts Centre complements the slate roofs of the adjoining properties.”

The new space houses new acquisitions that appropriately augment the collection on which the Pier was built. It includes work by Turner-shortlisted Scottish artist Callum Innes amongst others that cement the reputation of the Pier as internationally important.

Detail photo of part of the glass and zinc building with a neon sign installation visible through the widow that says 'I heart real life'

A Civic Trust plaque was proudly received in recognition of the way the new building fits in with the local vernacular, in particular the slate roofs. © Pier Arts Centre

In addition to this collection and its fantastic newly styled premises, the Pier carries out work on Orkney mainland and further afield, making a focus for the whole Orkney community as well as an indisputable visitor attraction.

“It was always well embedded in the community, delivering art,” says Neil. “As an archipelago we see the whole of the islands of Orkney as our stamping ground and we try to take satellite activities to other places in Orkney.”

A variety of educational and outreach activities with community groups throughout the islands takes place, as well as Stromness-based activities such as the ‘Pier Group’ for young people interested in the arts.

The Pier is currently working with the Triangle Arts Trust, bringing international artists to work in Orkney. One of the residencies the Pier has been involved in saw an artist work with the agricultural community, leading to an exhibition of photography by Orkney farmers.

photo of a modern harbourside building with an inverted l-shaped swathe of windows on it

© The Pier Arts Centre

The Pier has clearly evolved from a core collection focusing on influential 20th century artists to something much more dynamic. Margaret Gardiner, who passed away aged 100 in 2005, would surely be proud.

“The collection’s a very important thing, but we also have a continual programme of exhibitions of contemporary art that can range from – at the moment – a local artist who deserves wider attention (Colin Johnstone), to an artist who has been working with people in the oil industry for the last 25 years – Sue Jane Taylor,” says Neil.

So why should the Pier win the Art Fund Prize? Is it the buildings, the collection, or the work it does to engage Orcadians in art?

“Well,” says Neil, “I think it’s the effort that has been put in by the team, and the community, in order to make this happen. It’s certainly something that wouldn’t have happened without the backing of the local authority and local community in the first instance.”

“We would be delighted, absolutely thrilled to win.”

And where would the £100,000 prize money go?

Neil isn’t giving too much away: “We would think carefully before we spent it, I can tell you that!”

The Pier’s redevelopment was made possible with more than £3million from the Scottish Arts Council Lottery Fund and the Heritage Lottery Fund, and further support from the EU, Orkney Islands Council and Historic Scotland.

Following the judges’ visits, four museums and galleries will be shortlisted and announced in April. The winner will be announced on Thursday May 22 at the Royal Institute of British Architects in London during Museum and Galleries Month 2008.

Before then we would like to know what you think. Do you think The Pier Arts Centre should win the 2008 Art Fund Prize? Vote for this museum or any others on the longlist here.

More on the venues and organisations we've mentioned:
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