Stills Gallery is an organisation which puts education and support for artists on a par with an internationally significant exhibition programme. In taking up the post of artistic director in March 1995, I was responsible for dragging what was then a failing organisation through a complete transformation.
A major Lottery-funded capital project in 1996 enabled the organisation to create custom-built spaces including a medium-sized gallery, a unique photographic and digital education resource and a cafe. Since reopening in 1997, Stills has run a growing programme of award-winning education projects with schools, set up a large number of research and training bursaries for artists and curated a programme of innovative internationally significant exhibitions of contemporary artists' work.
Stills offers schools and their pupils opportunities to work alongside artists on practical creative projects which use a combination of traditional photography and the latest digital equipment.
Last year these projects won the Chrisi Bailey Award (made annually to the most innovative education project using ICT or photography in the UK) for the project Messages from the Future, which enabled 81 P6 pupils from Edinburgh to work with artists using industry standard software to produce images of the future.
Arts projects have a well-documented capacity to improve quality of life by increasing confidence and enhancing social and communication skills. Good arts education has the potential to develop a child's creativity and lateral thinking skills and provide them with the entrepreneurial and project management skills which they will need to secure decent employment. At Stills we can provide these benefits coupled with training in the use of com-puters and ICT.
Last week I resigned from my post as director of Stills. Despite its considerable successes, the organisation does not receive sufficient funds from its two main funders, the Scottish Arts Council and the City of Edinburgh Council, to cover its core running costs.
Last month the SAC had significant additional funds to give out and had the opportunity to award Stills sufficient funding to release the organisation from its hand-to-mouth existence and provid it with a more stable funding base from which to develop its activities. The small increase which the SAC did award will not go nearly far enough. Funding available for next year is inadequate to cover the costs of exhibitions, pay the bills, cover the real staffing costs or make any headway in paying off the gallery's accumulated deficit.
Considerable time spent on fundraising has helped Stills attract project funds for a two-year programme of education activities with children and young people in Edinburgh and the Lothians. However, without adequate revenue funding these projects become like decorations on a disintegrating Christmas tree.
The current exhibition at Stills, Secret Games, is a good example of the kind of activity Stills should be involved in, and, unless current circumstances improve, it simply won't be possible in the future. Edinburgh is the only UK venue for this major retrospective exhibition of work by Wendy Ewald.
Wendy has worked collaboratively with children for the past 30 years. She has lived in communities in North America, Mexico, India, Holland and Colombia, teaching children to take photographs of their dreams and the world that they live in. The results are startling and direct and undermine the assumptions that we make about children and about our own and other cultures. Wendy visited schools in Skye and Lewis last week and will be returning in the summer to make new work with the children.
No arts organisation will ever be free from the need to raise additional funds to realise particular projects. It is the nature of the arts to dream big dreams and to regularly perform miracles with small amounts of funding. However, this is only sustainable if basic core costs are covered.
Most depressing about the continous negotiations with the SAC and Edinburgh council is the fact that they have no consistent strategy or policy for funding the visual arts. They continue to make what appear to be ad hoc decisions which serve only to perpetuate an"equal misery for all" approach. Lottery project funds are then used to paper over the cracks in the infrastructure.
James Boyle, the incoming chair of the SAC, is being heralded as a new broom come to sweep aside some of the dust and deadwood within that particular quango. He will need to act swiftly if he is to prevent any more casualties.