Volume 16 Number 6
Art for People's Sake
01 December 2003

Every summer Edinburgh becomes a mecca for artists from all over the world thanks to the Fringe and International arts festivals.

Every summer Edinburgh becomes a mecca for artists from all over the world thanks to the Fringe and International arts festivals. But what can art do for a local community with more mundane issues to tackle?

Pilton and Muirhouse, overlooking the Forth Bridge from the picturesque seashore of north Edinburgh, are known for their social problems. The area’s unemployment and drug scene was the setting for Trainspotting, the cult book by Irvine Welsh, which later became a film.

In autumn 2002, the North Edinburgh Arts Centre (NEAC) took on the challenging task of helping the community through the arts. The centre, which is now the biggest community-based arts centre in Scotland, emerged out of two successful local arts projects-the Muirhouse Festival Association and the Pilton Triangle.

‘Our main purpose is to create a strong sense of community and get involved in local life,’ says Ian Cooke, one of NEAC’s founders and its chair. ‘We also want to break the stereotype that community art is amateur and of poor quality.’ The current exhibition, Air-Art in Regeneration, helps to disprove this misconception.

Air features screenprints, graphics, photos and poetry produced by local artists in the last decade, as the result of an innovative project set up by Andy Arnott in 1989. Arnott, an established artist who grew up in a working class family on the other side of the Forth, had a vision of art as an expression of the voice of the community. His project was one of the foundation stones for NEAC.

The centre’s busy schedule of creative activities and events attracts parents and children, as well as their teachers, young mothers and anyone who is interested in contributing to the local art scene. For some it provides not only fun but career development and a road to employment.

The centre’s biggest and most challenging project so far was the creation of Oyster Wars, which tells the story of the dredging of the Forth oyster beds in the 17th Century, when oysters, until then the staple diet of the fishermen, were becoming a delicacy for the upper classes.

A hundred local people were involved, over a year, in working with a professional writer, a director, musicians, historians and artists. Their efforts resulted in a week-long festival, which included a large-scale theatre production, an exhibition and creative workshops. Everything found its use: children collected flotsam from the sea coast which was turned into the mobiles which now decorate the centre’s café.

The NEAC also offers a venue for private events. Its well-equipped theatre and sound recording studios are often used by professionals, especially during the Edinburgh Festivals. This summer, for instance, the centre hosted the Fringe Academy workshops.

The centre’s work has been crucial to social inclusion and regeneration in the area. It contributes to the local community’s self-esteem by making people believe in themselves through the power of art and creativity.
Anastasia Stepanova

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