Deep in the heart of Hampshire's New Forest a tiny miracle is unfolding. In the village of Sway, near Lymington, stands a pristine new art gallery - a white cube space with state-of the-art architecture and lighting. ArtSway, as it is called, is committed to promoting contemporary art of the highest quality. Signalling its intention to be taken seriously as a national as well as regional art resource, it is equipped with a multimedia room and has Internet facilities for linking into the international art world.
Installation, photography, painting, computer art - ArtSway aims to bring a wide diversity of exhibitions to the New Forest, each accompanied by an innovative education programme. Perhaps for this reason it has won enthusiastic local support. Funding has come from the National Lottery and Southern Arts as well as from three local councils. More unusually, the original part of the new building - an 18th-century listed coach-house at the back of a small hotel - is being leased to ArtSway at a peppercorn rent by brewery giant Whitbread. With the gallery launch at the end of January, the first part of the project was completed. Phase two, which will provide for a suite of artists' studios, is about to begin.
Most rural galleries are content to sell pretty pictures. So how has ArtSway evolved as a cutting-edge site in an area more usually associated with forest walks and ponies? Over a two-year period the idea has been driven by director Linda Fredericks with the support of a team of amazingly dedicated volunteers. Ms Fredericks was an art teacher for 13 years, first in Leeds and Manchester, then in London and the New Forest. Her career has also embraced periods in publishing and as a theatre impresario, while her interest in art education involved her in Hampshire's Arts in School Project at Portsmouth University.
Ms Fredericks says the project was inspired "first from my own personal belief in access to art for everyone, then because there was nowhere in the New Forest for a debate about art - no artists' studios and no exhibition spaces for contemporary art". She says the gallery specialises in contemporary art "because I am interested in ideas and I see contemporary art as a way of exploring the world about me - a living dynamic as opposed to heritage".
The opening exhibition, Marking Presence, shows how the local community can interact with potentially challenging exhibitions. Marking Presence is a powerful show of 25 large drawings including work by internationally-acclaimed artists Anthony Gormley, Alison Wilding and Ana Maria Pacheco. Many of the exhibitors are involved in art school education, including Deanna Petherbridge, professor of drawing at the Royal College of Art in London.
The drawings take viewers back to the roots of art, looking at how art has always been used to "mark" experience. They are accompanied by an installation by artist in residence Julie Myers, who uses video to "mark" the oral histories of local people.
School groups visiting the gallery should find the experience lively and relevant. There will be plenty of collaboration with teachers but Ms Fredericks' aim is "to develop a wider understanding of art forms and issues, as well as inspire imaginative practical work".
Teachers visiting Marking Presence can book a workshop led by a professional artist that will include critical and practical work. A variety of approaches is suggested for key stages 1 to 3 but topics will include why people make drawings, why they go about it in different ways, how they go about it, reference to subject and scale and the various types of experience and perception recorded. Follow-up suggestions are also given as back-up for teachers, extending the themes with reference to a wide selection of artists.
Jane Dixon, one of the artists featured in Marking Presence, talks about her work on Saturday March 16 and leads a workshop on March 17 (cost Pounds 6). More information about ArtSway on 01590 682260 or fax 01590 681989.