After several very successful years spent developing Cupar Arts, Festival Director Gayle Nelson is set to leave the role. Here, she talks to Jenny Messenger about the triumphs and challenges of running the festival, and why she would encourage everyone to get involved.
How did Cupar Arts first get started?
Cupar Arts started in 2008 under a different name (Cupar Arts & Heritage Project) and eventually the name was shortened to Cupar Arts in (I think) 2012 when the organisation achieved charitable status. Originally, various people had come together with the idea of launching an arts festival in Cupar. Some were interested in music, some in art and others were keen for the town to have a cultural event of its own. I was part of the initial steering group and I was very interested in ensuring that the visual arts element of the event was of good quality. I had moved to the area only a couple of years before, having mainly been living in cities for the past 20 years, and I felt disappointed at what was available to see with regards to visual art in non-urban areas. Most of the art which could be seen was generally of the amateur and somewhat twee variety by people who had not trained nor had a career in the visual arts, and anytime there was a festival or an art exhibition in a rural area, it always seemed to be showcase of predominantly amateur work. There’s nothing actually wrong with that in itself of course – many people enjoy painting and drawing as a hobby and need not be precluded from showing what they’ve created … but the fact that there was little of a more contemporary, professional variety which was exciting and pushed boundaries a bit, as is reflective of the wider cultural landscape – this concerned me. There seemed to me to be no platform in the more rural areas for the many working contemporary artists, and very little really good quality work to see. So this aspect of the event has grown to become what it’s principally about, and mainly because it has been my own area of interest and those of others who have come on board. And gradually over time, I think this ethos has been reflected in other rural areas around the country too.
What has been your experience of running the festival?
Running the festival has involved getting to know and work with a lot of talented and lovely people, whether those on the festival committee during a given year or the many artists, musicians and other people who become involved. It is a lot of hard work, there’s no doubt about that, but very enjoyable and rewarding. For myself it has also been something of a labour of love, as I’ve been involved in its development since the outset.
How has the festival evolved over time? Is there anything that you’ve learned does (or doesn’t) work?
The festival evolved from initially being very much a multi-arts festival to becoming primarily a contemporary visual arts festival with a smaller component of music and other art forms such as poetry. I think we learned that keeping our focus on one area of interest and trying not to over-stretch ourselves with events (when the key programme is visual arts) is best. Certainly with regards to the 2016 festival, we moved away from larger ticketed events which required a lot of coordination, and focused more on smaller gigs which were free, but still involved our working with some fantastic musicians whom we paid by applying for specific grants for this purpose. We also learned to keep the visual arts programme to a manageable size. The 2016 festival involved around 20 projects, compared with around 40 in 2013 which was really way too much. Visitors would miss around half of those, because they couldn’t see them all during one day-long visit to the town, and as curators we struggled to manage this number of projects. The festival has also been much more successful in attracting significant funding as it has evolved, and due to it’s successful track record. I have been so pleased that an event in Cupar can generate approximately £80,000 in funds – that is a fantastic thing and testament to the quality of the event we have developed and to everyone’s hard work. On a national level, so many people, particularly those interested in contemporary visual art, have heard of Cupar Arts Festival – amazing.
Do any particular highlights stand out? Gosh, I really wouldn’t know where to begin. So far, I’ve probably been involved in presenting around 150 projects, so it’s very hard to choose highlights from so many. I know that sounds like a bit of a cop out but there really have been so many wonderful artworks/performances/events by a whole range of terrific artists.
Why should people get involved with the festival? Being involved with an event of this nature means different things to different people. It’s lovely to feel that you are part of a team working together to realise something quite extraordinary, which I really believe the Cupar Arts Festival has been so far. It’s an opportunity to get to know new people, to exercise some of your own creative vision for the event, to curate, to organise, to have fun!
What kinds of opportunities are available for people looking to get involved? As with anything like this, there is the opportunity to become involved to quite a high degree, or to take on smaller roles according to the time you have available. For artists, the festival is a fantastic opportunity for ongoing Professional Development – a chance to curate and to mentor other artists, and to help realise an outstanding programme of contemporary visual art in this area. The festival also needs many people (including non artists) in a wide variety of roles – everything from book-keeping to making sandwich boards! At the upcoming AGM, which we have now confirmed will take place on Wednesday 1st February 2017 (7pm at Cupar Fire Station), several key Trustees are standing down from Cupar Arts at this point along with myself, and we are also losing our book-keeper. So the organisation does rather urgently need people to come on board if it is to stay afloat. I do hope there are plenty of people out there who have enjoyed the festival over the past years and who feel they would like to be a part of helping to sustain it.
What’s next for you? As well as standing down from running Cupar Arts this year, I’m also finishing up my three year term as President of the Society of Scottish Artists (SSA). So for me, 2017 will be the first time in roughly eight years that I have not had a key role in either arts organisation. I’m very excited at the prospect of having TIME to do other things and who knows where that will lead? I’m currently involved in some early discussions for projects involving my own artwork at the moment and looking forward to seeing how things develop over the coming year.