Issue 208
May/June 2019

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Jul 18, 2019

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How cosy is it round the Stove?

While admiring the many achievements of Dumfries's STOVE initiative, writer Mary Gladstone confesses to a feeling of unease at a certain commoditisation of the arts

IF YOU SEARCH ONLINE for the website of Dumfries's Stove Network, you'll come across a rush of ads for wood-burning stoves. But don't be deterred. Once you've accessed this organisation, connected with the arts in the southwest and nothing to do with domestic heating, you'll pick your way through a list of Stove's events, workshops, projects and public displays.

Overwhelmed by the hyperbole, the only way I could cope was to switch off my laptop and swop these descriptions of the contemporary Dumfries arts scene, for my battered copy of Rabbie Burns's poetry, remembering that after the poet sold up in Ayrshire, he took a job in Dumfries as an exciseman. I was refreshed by the simplicity of expression, his directness, humanity, righteous indignation, love of nature, and strong Scots tongue.

But, I'm being too curmudgeonly. Since it was founded in 2011, Stove has done a lot for the area. Realising that the town and region were at a cross-roads economically, local artists wanted the creative community to take part in shaping the area's future. So, they formed a collective, comprising artists, business people and other enthusiasts, the only stipulation for membership being a commitment to expanding the arts in the southwest.

Over the years, the Network has produced projects in public spaces, hosted events and introduced groups, some for the young, at its base, acquired in 2015, at 100 High Street.

Stove has not only staged 14 major arts projects in Dumfries town centre, but organised a sculptural installation in Creetown, initiated the Environmental Arts Festival, Scotland. and drawn audiences of over 9,000 people for their arts projects that have involved 850 participants.

It's all very impressive and handy when the creative arts, now that so many local businesses have gone to the wall, is now one of the top 10 economic sectors in the Region.

Stove doesn't receive regular subsidy from Dumfries & Galloway Council, but is allocated money from them for specific projects. As one of the 121 arts organisations in Scotland regularly funded by Creative Scotland, it receives from them £100,000 per year (a fixed figure for three years, beginning in April 2018). All other grants are tied to delivery of projects.

The Network has dreamt up and carried out some weird and often wonderful schemes. For my money, I like the sound of their Nordic Skills workshop, reinstating old ties with Norway.

During WWII, Norwegian soldiers were based in Dumfries and in 2016 Stove celebrated the historical football matches played in 1941 between the local club, Greystone Rovers and their Norwegian counterpart. It also held classes in rope-making, leatherwork, whistle-making, boat-building with the Galgael Trust and the Galloway Longfhada Viking group and traditional knitting led by Vanishing Scotland.

Regardless of age, disability, sex, race and religion, Stove is about inclusivity in the practice and promotion of drama, dance, music, literature, poetry, painting, film, photography and sculpture.

At the end of August is Nithraid, the biggest event on Stove's calendar when Dumfries holds its annual River Festival and sailing boat race on the Nith.

Competitors head upriver on the highest tide of the year and finish below the caul in the town centre. Joining the onlookers is the Salty Coo, which parades through the streets, as part of the procession that awaits the arrival of the boats.

Wonderful entertainment, though this is, should the arts really be relegated to a tourism attraction or a flippant bit of fun? On the one hand, lip service is constantly paid to their seriousness in that they create harmony and social cohesion, but on the other, we allow architectural masterpieces like Mackintosh's Glasgow School of Art building to burn to a cinder.

The Scottish Government's Growth Sector Statistics pulls few punches. The arts, as part of the 'creative industries', are championed because they make money, contributing '£3.7 billion' to the Scottish economy ('£87 billion' UK wide).

Employing '73,600', the 'creative industries' are said to be larger than life sciences and tourism and to employ more than the energy sector. In Dumfries & Galloway, they were reckoned to be the best recovering sector since the 2008 crash.

Yet I wonder what we did before the arts were hijacked by the politicians, to serve as a source of revenue and soporific for a population that has lost its true connection to its roots and traditional skills.

Whereas ingenuity and skill were a given in country life, not only in gardening, farming, cooking, clothes-making, music and dance, where people's efforts were displayed and judged in agricultural shows or the Women's Institute, now practices and skills are seldom organically engendered but are too often imposed, prescribed and regimented into political correctness and uniformity.

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