‘Crazy’ decision to close the Park Gallery
Published on 24 Sep 2009
Barely a week ago, The Herald ran a front page story which reported that local authorities would have to reduce their costs by up to a third if they were to ‘successfully meet the challenges of the long-term funding crisis’.
You’d have to be living on a different planet not to know we’re all tightening our belts in the current economic climate, but when the going gets tough, the world of contemporary visual arts always seems the first port of call for a doing by the controllers of the public purse strings.
Step forward Falkirk Council’s leisure and tourism committee, which last week inexplicably voted 7-4 to close the small but perfectly formed Park Gallery on the edge of Callendar Park and ‘relocate‘ it to nearby Callendar House by April next year.
Citing drawbacks such as its size, ‘low headroom’, lack of storage space and the absence of a staff toilet, Community Services Director Maureen Campbell did concede visitor numbers were high and the gallery was ‘a venue which artists and exhibition lenders are happy to be associated with.’
As one artist put it this week: “So American basketball players are out of the picture… but nobody has mentioned the toilet issue. Ever. There’s a loo next door in the tearoom! As for the gallery size, well, that’s one of its plus points.”
The decision is an entirely baffling one. Just five months ago, The Park Gallery was being touted by Falkirk Council in its 2009-2012 Strategy for the Arts as one of the key reasons why ‘Falkirk is being increasingly recognised as a place that values the arts and culture and one where there are an increasing number of opportunities to take part.’
The proposed new venue, Callendar House, is a handsome Georgian building modelled on a French château. A lively and accessible public amenity, bringing social history to life for thousands of visitors each year, it is by no stretch of the imagination fit for the purpose of hosting contemporary art exhibitions.
With one full-time employee and two part-time staff, The Park Gallery, set up with Lottery funding in 2000, costs the council £50,000 per year to run, but has access to external funding – and a tenaciously committed arts development officer who even fills in the funding application forms for struggling artists.
It also regularly holds selling exhibitions which generates income (taking 23 per cent in commission), including the annual Winter Warmth show, due to open at the end of October. This show features work by 60 textile artists, including Stirling-based Iona Crawford, recently named by Vogue as ‘one of the most avant-garde young Scottish fashion designers emerging today’.
Next summer, the highlight of the gallery’s year is an exhibition of work by that towering figure of modern British art, Grangemouth-born Alan Davie, timed to celebrate his 90th birthday and the gallery‘s 10th anniversary.
Speaking from personal experience, having finally got round to seeing a touring Joan Eardley exhibition in March when it made a handy central belt stop-off there, it’s one of these places that you go to and think, why didn’t I know about this before?
I’m not alone. By July this year, visitor numbers had exceeded the figure for the whole of 2008. By the end of the year, 50,000 people will have been through the door.
This year, the gallery has hosted several lively exhibitions, including a hugely successful exhibition by Denny-born painter Lesley Banks, which sold £23,500 worth of work, the Joan Eardley show, and a fascinating show by Catriona Taylor on the theme of emigration.
Ironically, the current exhibition features fresh and thought-provoking work by Jason Nelson which examines our understanding of community and of the spaces we inhabit.
It is a theme which the gallery has returned to time and time again. Last year, through an artists’ residency at nearby high flats, a magazine for its elderly residents, The Village Voice, was established and continues to this day.
Nelson, who collaborated with individuals, groups and organisations within the area to produce new work, spoke this week of his dismay on hearing the news of the proposed closure.
“Out of all the small contemporary art galleries around, The Park Gallery is the most eclectic I’ve come across. It’s also the most thoughtful about its audiences.
“Places like this are invaluable, and for a council to have a cultural strategy without a gallery like this is crazy. They have the capacity to make connections and share expertise. They’re vital to the lifeblood of a town like Falkirk.’
Falkirk has several inspired attractions, including the newly-refurbished Bo’ness Hippodrome cinema, The Helix Project and Big in Falkirk, the town’s annual street arts festival. All of the above tick the required bureaucratic boxes of allowing the wider community to engage in the arts.
It may be small, but The Park Gallery punches above its weight in a purpose-built space, which is not intimidating – like many contemporary art galleries I’ve visited.
The staff are friendly, there’s a wee tea shop next door and a car park just across the way. All that and it’s smack bang in the middle of Scotland. Note to Falkirk Council: Please keep it that way.