Ian Moir: How the community fight for an arts hub is changing Dunfermline

Dunfermline artist Ian Moir explains how 'Fire Station Creative' came about and the value of arts in the community

"DUNFERMLINE? Won’t you get bored living there?", asked all my old pals who, like me, had left the place long ago to advance their education. But as a professional artist who had been cooped up in a Glasgow flat for 10 years, Dunfermline now represented a surprisingly broad horizon when I returned to it in 2007.

It was pretty much as I had left it; ancient, beautiful and thoroughly lacking in any proper venue for visual arts. I quickly befriended a local photographer who shared my frustrations. We agreed that an expanding town with a population of 50,000, four high schools, two train stations, three art clubs and seven buried monarchs ought to, at least, offer up some exhibition space.

We attempted to highlight this scarcity by organising an outdoor exhibition of local artists who would hang their work directly on the railings of Pittencrieff Park. We spread the word and stipulated that all exhibitors had to have an honours degree in fine art. 

‘Cambodian Woman’, painted by Danielle Stewart when she was just 16

Although this specification made us seem rather exclusive, it galvanised our credibility as a serious, educated community of artists whose basic needs had not been considered. Supported by the local media, we then displayed our work with a firm sense of outrage. 

Although our 'Glen Gates Gallery' didn’t start a revolution, it got us on the radar and created a bond among the artists. We opened a business account, wrote a constitution, gave our group a name and created a website. 

We were now fully functioning as an organisation and it had cost us almost nothing. Over the next two years, we successfully delivered a few more exhibitions and events. We even published Fife’s first ever anthology of contemporary writings titled, 'Almost An Island'. 

The biggest lesson we learned on this quest was the value of patience. In any society, there will always be a high number of civic minded folk who are particularly susceptible to a good idea.

By this stage, various officers from Fife Council were helping us to locate a premises that would house our activities. A few small studios and some wall space were all we were looking for. Rent was much too steep in the private sector, so we assumed that our only option for a cheap deal would be found on the council’s books. 

Unfortunately, we met resistance with every inquiry we made. It was becoming obvious that there was considerable prejudice over the viability of an arts group as a prospective tenant. Even our attempts to occupy the redundant, Victorian gaol cells below the City Chambers were vetoed because of fire safety fears. We also asked about the old reptile house, but 'access issues' stood in our way. 

The biggest lesson we learned on this quest was the value of patience. In any society, there will always be a high number of civic minded folk who are particularly susceptible to a good idea. Once you’ve found them, you must show that you are entirely committed to your proposal and demonstrate the benefits it will bring to their community. 

17-year-old artist Danielle Stewart

So, for our part, we applied to The Big Lottery fund and received £6,500 to conduct a feasibility study. This investigation underlined a strong public demand for a contemporary arts venue and showed that Dunfermline, despite its obvious advantages, had been suffering from 'cultural leakage' - the phenomenon whereby creative people take their talents elsewhere due to a lack of opportunity on the home front.

It wasn’t long before we heard that the old Art Deco fire station was soon to be vacated. A blind man could see that it was perfectly suited for conversion to an arts centre. After the first viewing, we went straight to the local press to initiate a public campaign to prevent Fife Council from selling the building. 

Although we attracted high profile support from celebrities like Ian Rankin and Stuart Cosgrove, Fife Council was nonetheless resolute that the building had to be sold. As a result, the project floundered for two years and the fire station gathered dust.

Having raised £240,000 for the renovation, Fire Station Creative opened its doors in July, 2015. Since then, we’ve built a cultural hub that has been fully embraced by the community. 

It was only when we were introduced to Alex Rowley in 2012 that our prospects changed. At that point, Alex was leader of the Labour Party for Fife. He was full of relevant questions about the social and economic benefits this would bring to the area. 

After an in depth discussion, he pledged to reserve the building for us if the forthcoming local elections were to go in Labour’s favour. The rest, of course, is history.

Having raised £240,000 for the renovation, Fire Station Creative opened its doors in July, 2015. Since then, we’ve built a cultural hub that has been fully embraced by the community. 

The ‘Land, Sea and Sky’ exhibition by Richard Jobson, former lead singer of Skids

As a registered charity, we provide an art therapy suite, studio space to 30 artists and we now employ over 20 people. Our cafe is always thronged with customers and, so far, we’ve had 13 exhibitions, some of which have been covered by the national media.

Most important of all though, I feel we have created a  platform for successive generations of local artists to launch their careers from. Local prodigy, Danielle Stewart, has, at the age of 17, already exhibited in our gallery alongside our community of in house professionals. This experience represents a significant advantage to her as she begins her bachelors degree in fine art. 

By giving the town access to its own artistic community and building a professional network, we are finally closing the circle. Fire Station Creative is fast becoming a powerhouse of creative energy and Dunfermline won’t look back.

Pictures courtesy of Steven McClaren

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