Galleries: The woman who took art to the heart of the town

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She skipped the cultural buzz of London life when Claudia Zeiske arrived in the market town of Huntly with her young family nearly 30 years ago. She searched for a nearby arts center around her and found that there was none.

Prior to pursuing a career in human rights work with the British Refugee Council in London, Zeiske had studied social anthropology in Berlin and London. As she says, while living in northeast Scotland at the time, focusing on human rights was not a choice.

At the National Galleries of Scotland’s Duff House in nearby Banff, she took a position as a construction manager, but still craved the artistic buzz of the arts on her doorstep.

She decided to create an arts center herself after many discussions over food and wine with like-minded peers. “At first, my ideas were quite traditional,” she recalls. “It was about taking art that was being created and shown in a city and bringing it to a smaller version in the country.”

The related donors told Zeiske that she could do a feasibility study to see whether an arts center could be funded by the city. “They said my feasibility study wasn’t feasible,” she chuckled during last week’s Zoom interview. “That’s how what is now known as ‘the city is the venue’ came about.”

With no funding in its first year (1995) and a £ 700 grant in its second from the then-Scottish Arts Council, Deveron Arts – named after one of the city’s flowing rivers – expanded gradually. Today, inspired by Zeiske, Deveron Projects is a blueprint for arts organizations around the world that are socially active.

And tomorrow, after 25 years of collaborating with over a hundred artists, completing 120 projects, engaging with 4,400 people of Huntly and covering 40,000 miles, Zeiske is going to pass the baton on to a new director.

During an online luncheon for 150 people organized by Zeiske and moderated by his longtime friend and collaborator at Deveron Projects, Anthony Schrag, this change of the guard will take place. The new director’s announcement will be revealed by John Kenny, a musician who will play an ancient wind instrument named the Carnyx. Entertainment will also be offered by long-time Deveron Projects artist David Sherry, while attendees will dine on a feast for which Huntly-based “food fusion” partnership Neep & Okra Kitchen has received a box of spices and menu instructions in advance.

Huntly is identified as his second home by Schrag, who has collaborated on several projects with Deveron over the past 11 years, including Lure of the Lost, a “art pilgrimage” in which he walked from Huntly to the Venice Biennale in 2015.

The Edinburgh-based poet, who is a senior lecturer in arts management and cultural policy at Queen Margaret University in Edinburgh, jokes, “I’ve become part of the family – they can’t get rid of me,”

“The beauty of Deveron Projects is that no one person has full control, whether it’s the community or the artist. Claudia has created a place where people believe that culture in all its forms – joyful, silly, wonderful – can change things.”

Deveron Projects has brought hundreds of artists from the United Kingdom, Europe and beyond to live and work in the city over the past 25 years, exploring themes of local and international interest. It is a combination of the melting pot of culture and social enterprise. Art may be the engine, but the glue that keeps it all together is the food, climate, and walking.

Each artist has also left a body of work behind that has grown into a wide collection over the years. In keeping with the community spirit of Deveron Initiatives, the city collection is not located in a museum or gallery, but rather in areas where they can be seen and appreciated in daily life, such as shops, schools, sports venues and pubs.

Four major legacies have also been left by the artists – all of whom come from all corners of the world. In 2008, in collaboration with Mike Scott of the Waterboys, South African artist Jacques Coezter produced the “Room to Roam” branding of the region. This was after Coetzer discovered a poem entitled Room to Roam by the Huntly-born writer George Macdonald (1824-1905).

The poem, he discovered, reflected some of the city’s attitude towards life. When he learned that the Waterboys had recorded a musical version, a group he loved as a teen,

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