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Distance makes art fonder

Delivering arts services to outlying areas is a logistical challenge. Miranda Fettes finds out more

A 55-minute journey, a ferry trip, another 35 minutes in the car, a second ferry, a quarter of an hour on the road ... You've been travelling for nearly three hours (assuming the weather is reasonable, the waters passable and the ferries on time) and you haven't even started the day yet.

This is the reality of delivering arts services to outlying island areas. The trip from Lerwick on the mainland of Shetland to Baltasound on Unst, the most northerly island, involves two ferries and 52 miles of road. It makes no sense to deliver a one-hour arts session once a week for a few weeks; instead, arrange a day.

Although it takes a good deal of planning and logistics, it is possible to deliver arts services to rural areas; you just need to be flexible and creative, says Rosemary Inkster, an officer with the childcare partnership at Shetland Islands Council (SIC). "Logistics is key," she says. "Apart from artists' fees, you have to think about transport and accommodation. And, of course, you have to pay for the artist' travel time."

ArtsPlay Scotland is a project which brings local artists together with nursery and playgroup staff to explore creative possibilities in a pre-school setting. It was delivered last year under the auspices of Shetland Pre-School Play, with a lottery grant of Pounds 33,000 and partnership funding from Shetland Childcare Partnership and SIC Creative Links. It included visual art, dialect storytelling, music, dance, drama, textiles, recycling scuplture and weaving.

Due to the small size of groups, sometimes the whole primary school or lower primary participated. "It's remote, it's very scattered, it's sparse populations, so you have to get the best value out of what you're doing for the community," says Mrs Inkster. "Everyone has a right to enjoy the arts, no matter where they live or their circumstances. No one should be disadvantaged by geographic, physical or social barriers."

With a population of 60, the south-western Fair Isle has nine children in the primary school, including nursery children, and illustrates the logistics of delivering ArtsPlay projects around the Shetland Islands. "The ferry journey is across a very difficult piece of water, so none of the artists wanted to take that on," explains Mrs Inkster.

"Working with the teacher and the community, we planned an arts experience over three days, instead of once a week. We have a play van which is a key resource for delivering the arts in rural areas. The van was loaded with the resources and had to be lifted onto the ferry because it's not a roll-on, roll-off. The artists went on the inter-island air service."

Resource costs were negligible, she says. The bulk were artists' fees, transport and accommodation. Artists worked across many different media and activities, including beach sculpture, an ultraviolet light installation called the "Discovery Box" (TESS, January 29), weaving with a tabletop loom and lantern making, while evening events were organised for the whole community.

Delivering ArtsPlay involved securing funding, appointing a part-time coordinator, recruiting local artists, promoting the programme in the children's sector, planning best use of transport, venues and resources, designing low-cost activities, supporting artists, some of whom had little or no experience of working with young children, to deliver age-appropriate workshops, and supporting artists to train the nursery staff wherever possible.

Feedback was very positive and there is demand for continued small-scale delivery. While the initial project is over, ArtsPlay Shetland is seeking funding for another phase which would focus on the therapeutic value of creative arts together with outdoor activity, play therapy and sensory therapy.

Mrs Inkster believes a similar formula could be applied in other rural areas. "Hopefully, the development potential is there," she says. "I think the value of the creative arts is not recognised enough."

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