The Pier Arts Centre collection was founded on an extraordinary act of generosity: author and peace activist, Margaret Gardiner, a friend and supporter of Barbara Hepworth and the other St Ives artists, decided to offer to the people of Orkney a number of works she had acquired over the years for her own home. Thus, in 1979, the Pier Arts Centre was established in an 18th century merchant’s house on the pier at Stromness. The curators have continued to add to this extraordinary collection of mid-century British Art, but on a scale that suits Gardiner’s values and the domestic scale of their building. As the Pier closed for refurbishment in 2004, the National Collecting Scheme for Scotland enabled them to consider, for the first time, an active programme of contemporary collecting.
“Light and colour are the primary elemental forces”
Given the compact and distinctive character of their mid-century holdings, director Neil Firth and curator Andrew Parkinson were determined that the contemporary work they acquired should correspond both visually and philosophically with the existing collection. As Firth remarks,
"The significance of Margaret Gardiner’s bequest, which forms the core of Pier’s collection, rests in the outstanding quality of the works and in her decision to locate them in Stromness. Margaret’s brilliance was to recognize that her collection of Modern British art, gathered in from artists working beneath the heat of a Cornish sun, would hold an additional charge when viewed under a cooler Northern light. Light and colour are the primary and elemental forces that define the Pier Arts Centre’s Collection. The works that Margaret collected reveal a feeling for colour that is sometimes reserved, sometimes jaunty and often bold.”
Thus inspired, the curators sought out contemporary artists that shared the collection’s strong use of light and colour. They chose works that also resonated with the dialectical strands within the collection represented by Ben Nicholson’s geometric abstraction, and Barbara Hepworth’s biomorphic sculptural forms.
Abstract allusions to landscapes and horizons also appear in the collection. One is sensitized to one’s environment in Orkney, and within the Pier’s gleaming glass extension, that immersion in the landscape is further heightened - the sea and the hills are an immediate and impressive backdrop.
New artworks, new spaces
With the renovations designed by Reiach & Hall due for completion in 2007, the curators knew they would have striking new spaces to show the works they were buying. One of the first acquisitions was a series of works by Roger Ackling, his small pieces of wood painstakingly inscribed with sun-burnt lines. The architects took note of Ackling’s aesthetic, and incorporated it into the striated design of the roof of the extension.
There is a delicate playfulness in Ackling’s gesture which recurs in works by Olafur Eliasson and Camilla Low, whose patterns and colours can be dis-assembled and re-arranged for every display.
Martin Boyce’s "Untitled" is another playful work, which operates like a modernist pun. His small sculpture is at once a modernist mask - a historical premonition of a new era - and a disguised bird box. It recalls, perhaps, the archeological finds littering Orkney’s agricultural land.
Making discoveries, building relationships
Orkney has a unique vantage point, sitting at a crossroads to Scandinavia, and overlooking the UK from above. The collection’s kinship with St Ives and with Scandinavian artists vividly expresses this expansive perspective.
But their location can make it costly to travel. For a while, the National Collecting Scheme for Scotland enabled the curators to travel more widely and with more intent. In 2003, the advent of Frieze Art Fair provided a critical introduction to the art market for Scottish curators and indeed Scottish commercial galleries. It enabled early introductions to artists’ representatives that have since deepened into ongoing relationships. Following their first introduction to Scandinavian artists Low and Eliasson in London, the Pier’s curators recently visited Oslo in 2013, and acquired another work from Camilla Low, nearly ten years after their first acquisition. “Cinematic” resonates strongly in a collection of circles, but also with another newliy acquired monochromatic work by Eva Rothschild, “Little Cloud” which featured in Hot Touch, Rothschild’s exhibition inaugurating the new Hepworth gallery in Wakefield.
The curators recognised that there was a strong female flavor to the collection, founded on the importance of the relationship at its heart between Gardiner and Hepworth, and they have sought to continue this with a number of their contemporary acquisitions. Crucially, in 2007 the Pier acquired a number of Margaret Tait’s films – through gift and purchase. An Orcadian, Tait qualified as a doctor before becoming immersed in the Italian avant-garde and developing a practice as a filmmaker and poet. Her company Ancona Films was established initially in Edinburgh but eventually returned with her to Orkney.
The acquisition of this important suite of films co-incided with growing interest in Tait’s work, and the Pier has recently collaborated with Lux and Glasgow Film Festival to offer an award and residency in her name, to contemporary artists working with moving image.
The Margaret Tait works bring a significant new dimension to the collection’s theme of light and colour, and indeed expand what is encompassed within mid-century British art. Her animations on film also prompted an exhibition called Living Colour in 2014, showing work by Norman McLaren (whose archive is held at Stirling University) Len Lye, and Oskar Fischinger, as well as contemporary artists working with animation, including Katy Dove.
Bodies of work
Pier’s acquisition of Dove’s animated film work, “Meaning in Action,” came about some time after receiving two of her prints in gift by Creative Scotland. As with the original collection, and as with Margaret Tait, and indeed latterly Camilla Low, holding a body of work by individual artists gives the curators more scope to present audiences with a more profound perspective.
The Pier Arts Centre has worked regularly with Artist Rooms, and Pier’s rootedness, its ability to draw on its own holdings, and secure significant groups of loans from artists, has enabled them to create distinctive exhibitions in collaboration with Artist Rooms that could not be shown elsewhere. The recent pairing of Margaret Mellis and Damien Hirst, situated downstairs in the temporary galleries, revealed an extraordinary relay of ideas and correspondence between an older mentor and a younger rising star. This was shown alongside Edmund de Waal and David Ward (Hirst’s tutor at Goldsmiths), who were permitted the unique privilege of re-arranging the permanent collection displays upstairs in ways that added further depth to the presentation of the four artists, revealing unexpected affinities in their approach to collage and assemblage.