Deveron Projects

news from echn membersInterviews

Deveron Projects is an arts organisation based in Huntly, a market town in the north east of Scotland with a population of 4,500. Deveron Projects has worked here with the history, context and identity of the town since 1995, working with “the town is the venue” methodology, creating projects that connect artists, communities and places. In 2020, they acquired a building on the main square, undertaking a large-scale capital development to introduce a community-facing project space and two live/work spaces for creative practitioners.

What’s the story behind your hub?

Our organisation was founded in 1995. We’ve been based in this small town in the rural area of north east of Scotland and we’ve been working with a particular methodology that connects the local community with the artists we work with. It was founded by a producer who ran it for the first 25 years. I took over 2 years ago. The organisation has been running for a long time and it has been changing constantly. We are now working with the legacy of the people who first started. We are really interested in thinking about why it is in this place and why we want to be here.

The organisation is a pioneer in social practices where artists work with audiences and communities. It’s a very particular kind of practice and the organisation has been leading a lot of that discourse for a long time. I think there are also lots of potential challenges. One of the things we as a team consider is the requirement for the community to be engaged. I think this is one of the main differences with other creative hubs, which are created for a very particular creative community that needs a space or a network. This is quite a different setup where we are trying to bring creative and cultural content in places that not necessarily asked for it. This is something that we think of quite a lot. Trying to find this balance between what we want to do as an organisation and what the community needs - and that is not necessarily the same thing. This has created some tension in the past. Our focus is looking in the last 25 years and seeing what worked and what didn’t. We apply that now to the way we produce our program.

How did the hub change in the last 25 years?

It’s been growing consistently. In the first while, it was really small scale and based around one person. In the last few years, we’ve grown quite significantly. The organisation took on this methodology where “the town is the venue”, meaning that we have no set venue, gallery or creative space as other hubs would. The idea was to force our organisation and the artists we work with to work in a participatory way and engage with people, in a way that is not necessarily required if you have a building. This very particular way of working really allowed us to invest more and more in different places around the town, local businesses, pubs, churches, a lot of work in the public realm and green spaces.

The priority for the town was to bring back buildings to community ownership, so we bought a building in the town centre.

This methodology has been really key to how the organisation has been operating in this premises with alternative programming and trying to bring down barriers. However, the longer the organisation has been in town, the more important the organisation has been for its well being. Our focus has been on contemporary art and culture and we all come from an art background. But we are in a rural town where there is not a large arts audience, so the expectations are not always matching.

Recently, a lot of towns across Scotland have been degenerating, a lot of shops and small businesses are gone. We are an organisation that happens to be in a town and has the resources or the ability to raise money. The priority for the town was to bring back buildings to community ownership, so we bought a building in the town centre. That proved to be a bit confusing for the community, who knew the organisation for not having a building. But we don’t see it as a venue, it’s more that we developed an open accessible space that we use along with other buildings. We have custodianship over a heritage space. It’s also a good artist accommodation and working space. Our team is also growing, we developed a reputation and increased capacity to fundraising and we have been quite lucky to get support from the government and the local cultural funding body. At the moment, we have 5 team members, which is the most that the organisation has had.

Why was your hub located in Huntly in the first place?

It simply came from the person who founded the organisation. She moved here for other reasons and she needed something to do. It wasn’t much more complicated than that. It was just a resident who wanted to see culture and creativity and internationalism in this town. Internationalism has been very important to her program and to mine too. The rural areas in Scotland can be incredibly diverse with a lot of people from a lot of different places. But it’s not necessarily a place where you find an international art organisation.

We see our program as a tool for building the community.

It’s an interesting place, because the art organisation has been here for 25 years so it’s definitely changed how the town would have ever imagined. The program last year has brought around 100 artists and creatives in this small town and that has been happening consistently every year.

What’s the impact that your hub had locally?

There’s a broad impact. We see our program as a tool for building the community. It might be ambitious but there is some tangible impact. We provide a lot of events throughout the year in a small-ish town. The engagement is high. Just being in the town has definitely influenced people moving here and community initiatives being conceived as a response to seeing projects happening. We also employ people who live here, so there is an economical engagement. We are constantly commissioning people in the area as it is very important to us to have an economical impact, because we also take a lot of room here in the town.

We don’t prescribe particular outcomes in the artists’ creative practices, except for building engagement with the local community. We feel that we have the capacity to support an artist, to just support their practice and ideas, whereas they are usually asked to work on a particular objective-centred body of work with strict deadlines. We are trying to counter that and give the artists the space to think.

How do you envision the future of your hub?

It’s a really funny time to think about the future. I know that a lot of hubs are having a hard time walking through a time of crisis. As an organisation there has just been a transition from a very long directorship and this new current team. We’ve taken a lot of time to think on how we want to work, what kind of presence we want to have in the town. In some aspects, it feels quite difficult to plan for the future.

Spotlight Practice 1: The Home Program

We’ve created the “Home Program”, which is quite central to our work. It came out organically out of the reality of being in a rural community. It also applies to any situation where you want to build and sustain a community. As a residency organisation for artists, we don’t have all the resources that one might expect in an urban place, so we had to build that. Hospitality has always taken a lot of effort from the team, but we always perceived that as something separate from the program. In the last years we started thinking on how to embed that in the organisation and the Home Program isa series of regular events primarily over food. It can be quite disorientating for locals to see all these wild ideas form the artists, it might be hard to engage, so this regular program is something we know that people understand and are comfortable with, the format never changes. It’s Friday lunch, a platform for sharing knowledge.

We bring new people into the town but we really rely on the knowledge of the people living here so we are connecting and making projects happen. It’s also an opportunity to introduce artists to the community when they first come here. They present a topic and then we eat together. We also have a reading group monthly and it’s an opportunity for artists and community members to share a piece of text that can allow them to engage audiences with their projects in a different way, not just art making but talking about something over lunch. We also have Food Chain, which is a cooking workshop and the Farmers Market, which is probably the busiest public form we have in the town. This program is really regular and locals have been engaging with that.

Spotlight Practice 2: Collaborative decision-making to achieve sustainability

When we work through difficult times, people have to be skilled and quick, resilient and adaptable. When I came into the organisation it was stuck in a hierarchy with one person on top. We prioritised how we collaborate and share knowledge across the team. We are really passionate about collaboration, we have specific rules within the team but all the decision making and programming is shared with everybody to make sure that there is a real sense of sustainability and future for the organisation. We still have different levels of responsibility but knowledge must be flat and information shared.

Natalia Palombo is the Director of Deveron Projects, a distributed hub that populates a small Scottish town with artistic interventions from international artists. Time has rooted this hub into the local community, which now recognises Deveron Projects as an organic component of the town.