SBSA: The Formative Years
The Society of Badenoch and Strathspey Artists was founded at a public meeting in May 1995 following the successful trial of an Open Art Exhibition in the Iona Gallery, Kingussie, organised by Jean Noble.
At that time, Badenoch and Strathspey had a well-established tradition in its music Festival, but this was not mirrored in the visual arts. There were few opportunities for practising artists to show their work locally; and, at a national level, exhibition space at prestigious exhibitions (such as the Royal Scottish Academy or the Royal Glasgow Institute) is so competitive that most of the works submitted in any year are not displayed. However, there was undoubtedly a burgeoning interest in the visual arts, with the establishment of commercial galleries and, also, participation in art workshops and evening classes.
The SBSA was founded to provide an opportunity for local artists to exhibit their work publicly and possibly reap a commercial return. Many artists work in isolation, so an art exhibition also encourages them to meet and compare progress; at the same time, it informs an appreciative audience. The Society’s aim of holding annual exhibitions to show-case the best visual art in Badenoch and Strathspey seemed achievable within the locality, from the points of attracting sufficient potential exhibitors and of forming a committee of those willing to give their time and expertise.
Membership is open to any person or body who is interested in the objectives of the Society and thus includes supporters who claim never to have lifted a paintbrush (or chisel). The Art Exhibition, on the other hand, is open only to those with a connection to Badenoch and Strathspey. This exclusion of others and judicious ‘hanging’ has, so far, permitted most submitted works to be displayed at each exhibition.
The aim of holding an exhibition has been fulfilled annually since the 1st Annual Open Art Exhibition in 1996. Additionally, in 1998, the SBSA in conjunction with the Highland Council organised a visual art competition and exhibition for school pupils with the theme of My World. The best works from the resulting large entry toured Badenoch and Strathspey on the Magnus Arts Bus – a double-decker which had been converted into a mobile gallery. That same year, SBSA members’ works were shown on the Magnus Arts Bus in Aviemore.
In many ways the SBSA served as a catalyst and a conduit for networking between the local visual art groups and classes which were founded by, or run by, SBSA members in every village in the area by the end of the millennium. There was a general sharing of ideas and information, with the Society’s newsletter promoting special events, places at Life Drawing Master-classes, details of touring exhibitions, reviews of national exhibitions written by members, and opportunities of exhibiting elsewhere. A newly found confidence (and a cooperative Highland Council) encouraged many SBSA members to organise their own solo or joint exhibitions in the Iona Gallery.
By 2001, the modest aim of holding an annual or biennial exhibition was set to expand with an additional winter Art Fair and a fuller programme of Art Workshops and Master-classes.
This decade saw an expansion of the Society’s commitment to providing opportunities for both exhibiting and selling work and, also, for sharing and learning new skills. The summer exhibition continues annually in the Iona Gallery although, from 2005, the dates have become flexible and are slotted into the Highland Council’s programme of national touring events. As well as the Iona Gallery being hired by members for solo or joint exhibitions, from 2003 it became the venue for an additional SBSA annual Winter Sales or Art Fair. This was usually held for two or three days in December to coincide with Kingussie’s “Christmas shopping weekend” and it provides opportunities for members to sell art and small craft items by ‘renting’ limited gallery space rather than by paying an exhibition fee per item. Talla Nan Rós, also in Kingussie, has hosted a small rolling exhibition of members’ works since 2006. Additionally, there have been several cooperative ventures during other arts events, such as themed exhibitions of members’ paintings in the Iona Gallery during Strathspé Away Dance Workshops in 2003 and 2004, and another in 2011 to coincide with Kingussie’s Film on Food festival. Moreover, younger contributors (usually related to, or taught by, SBSA members) have become a refreshing presence at exhibitions.
The establishment of the Cairngorms National Park, with its mission of finding ‘common ground’ for its inhabitants, coincided fortuitously with the expertise and inclinations of the then current SBSA committee. Two projects, funded by the Cairngorms National Park Authority, were initiated and organised by the SBSA committee. The first, Living in the Park, was an exhibition showing a mixture of adult members’ work and some of the best entries in a competition for schoolchildren in the SBSA catchment area. It was moved around the Cairngorms National Park between October 2004 and March 2005 to seven different venues (Cairngorm Mountain Gallery, Ballater, Laggan, Strathdon, Braemar, Grantown-on-Spey, and Kingussie). This entailed considerable logistical problems for volunteers in packing and re-hanging all the work and driving it around the Cairngorms in winter. In 2006, the second project, Stitches in Time, linked contemporary visual arts with local oral cultural heritage. Workshops with story tellers and specialist tutors at three venues (Carrbridge, Cairngorm Mountain near Aviemore, and Kingussie) culminated in the production of three textile wall hangings and an illustrated booklet of the stories and art work.
Amid these stimulating projects, a diverse programme of workshops has been expanded by the SBSA committee. These include life drawing, botanical painting, sketching on location, ceramics, felt-making, Celtic design, sculpture, mosaics, papermaking and book binding. Some, but by no means all, of these occurred at the Iona Gallery in Kingussie.
It is true to say that the Iona Gallery has become a pivotal venue for the SBSA – for exhibitions, for socialising at previews, and for hosting workshops. At the same time, the property and management of the gallery has dwindled owing to financial constraints placed on the Highland Council. In a bold move, therefore, the SBSA became a not-for-profit company in 2010 and took over the lease of the Iona Gallery from the Highland Council in order develop the potential of the building for the Society and for the visiting public.
The Present Day
With the change in status from a Society to a limited Company came a whole new range of responsibilities requiring a committee and directors with wide and varied skills and experience. It became necessary to take forward the refurbishment of the building; manage the rolling programme of exhibitions from High Life Highland; and develop our own programme of exhibitions for members and other artists. In addition a new opportunity was created for the benefit of members and to help raise an income for the gallery, the ‘Handmade in the Cairngorms’ gallery shop. The website and Facebook page were created helping us to reach audiences across the UK and throughout the world. Workshops for adults and children continue to be offered; and social evenings such as the extremely successful and popular ‘Blues Night’ in 2013 complete the enormous range of activities organised by this small group of dedicated people, to provide year round culture and entertainment for the local community. Kingussie High School has also played an active role in the life and character of the gallery by hosting their own exhibition since 2011.
As in everything else the economic downturn has affected the SBSA in our attempts to refurbish the gallery as potential funding disappeared as fast as we could apply for it. The plan for an instant transformation had to be rethought into a longer term project focusing on essential work first.
The small store room was the first area to be improved with new flooring, windows, sink and hanging system enabling it to be more practical in use as a workshop or small exhibition area. The bold decision to open up the partition wall between the two rooms followed soon after, transforming the visitor experience with allowing natural light into the main gallery area. This enabled the shop to be established and provide a retail outlet for members’ work. Essential electrical work and heating improvements, roof repairs and insulation followed.
Three moveable walls were constructed which allow us even more flexibility in the use of the space: they are all at once room dividers, wall-hanging space and can create much needed extra storage areas. A new gantry lighting system has been adde; and the gallery now possesses a projection screen.
The society has been responsible for the hosting of the High Life Highland (formerly Highland Council) summer programme of exhibitions since 2010. This has included hanging and dismantling the displays, advertising and supervising the gallery during opening times. A dedicated team of volunteers have devoted their time and energies to this work each year since. The exhibitions normally run for a month apiece with between four and six exhibitions per year.
The Christmas Craft Fair has been timed to coincide with Kingussie’s Christmas Shopping Sunday, and the summer exhibition with Kingussie’s Little Town of Festivals. Further links with the community are ongoing with the Food on Film Festival screenings and exhibitions in February and Kingussie High School exhibitions in November.
Art and Craft workshops continue to feature strongly in the society’s programme of events and during the winter months the gallery has been frequently used as a venue for winter workshops run by the Cairngorms Learning Partnership, in a variety of disciplines from felt-making through pottery to Advanced Art. This partnership has recently been consolidated and CLP now administrate all of the SBSA’s workshops. Links have also been forged across the Atlantic with the Homecoming Exhibitions and workshops here and in Canada in 2014
The society also has strong links with the Am Fasgadh Regeneration Project and we hope in future to be part of the creation of an arts and culture centre in Kingussie.
In 2015 the SBSA is celebrating its 20th anniversary, and the exhibition contained a special section for Founder Members, many of whom are still very active within the society. The committee spent a lot of time focusing on the building, and the exhibitions from High Life Highland, which still formed our major source of income. But our members are central to the society and this exhibition, as all the SBSA exhibitions have been, is a celebration of our community and members, and the diversity and sheer beauty of their work.
Since 2016, the SBSA has become a registered Scottish Charity. The Highland Council funding which provided the ability to host Highlife Highland exhibitions was halved in 2017, and cut altogether for 2018, but the Trustees have successfully managed to cope with the funding loss by encouraging more hires – both of the main and small galleries, with hiring of the small gallery proving a better option for both society and members than the previous craft shop. Two month-long Highlife Highland exhibitions per year are still hosted, free of charge by the Society, with member exhibitions now annual features for a burgeoning photographic group and for textile-based art as well as the Summer Festival and Christmas Fair.
Pat Hughes 2015, additions by David Fallows 2019