Joyce McMillan: The closure of NVA is immensely sad, but the company leaves a lasting legacy

Angus Farquhar of NVA at St Peter's Seminary, Cardross PIC: Robert Perry
Angus Farquhar of NVA at St Peter's Seminary, Cardross PIC: Robert Perry
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On its website – still live and beautiful, for anyone who wants to see it – the Glasgow-based arts company NVA, which announced its closure last week, explains the meaning of its name. It says that it’s an acronym of “nacionale vita activa”, a phrase which – for the company’s founder Angus Farquhar – expresses “the Ancient Greek ideal of a lively democracy, where actions and words shared among equals bring new thinking into the world.”

Further up the page, NVA explains that its mission “is to make powerful public art that reaffirms people’s connection to [their] built and natural heritage”; and those two sentences, taken together, help to explain both why NVA’s work has meant so much to many who have experienced it over the last 25 years, and why there is such a bitter and alarming irony in the fact that the company is closing down now, at a moment when Scotland has never been in more need of an “active national life” that goes beyond the sterile binaries of everyday politics, into a deep celebration of a landscape and its people.

There’s no secret, of course, about the reason for NVA’s closure. A decade ago, Angus Farquhar became fascinated by the existence, and the fate, of the fabulous modern ruin of St Peter’s Seminary at Cardross, once destined to educate Scotland’s rising generation of Catholic priests, but closed down because of declining numbers within 14 years of its completion in 1966. It’s a beautiful, complex modernist building of global significance, designed by the Glasgow architects Gillespie, Kidd and Coia, and one that carries huge resonances. It is speaks of the high hopes and vision of the 1960s, of the collapse of many of those hopes in the decades after 1980, and of the decline of religious faith across western Europe in the late 20th century.

Yet even in the 1970s, the cost of its upkeep was proving too much for the Catholic church; and the vast sums involved - well over £10 million just to stabilise it as a ruin safe enough for long-term public access – finally overwhelmed NVA, despite huge, successful, fundraising efforts. As a relatively small arts organisation – whose board would be personally liable for any shortfall in funds, and which cannot legally trade at a loss – NVA realised in autumn 2017 that it would have to withdraw from the St Peter’s Project, and began to campaign to transfer responsibility for the building to Historic Environment Scotland.

In a cruel twist of timing, though, that realisation came six months after the company had submitted its three-year funding application to Creative Scotland, including the full St Peter’s Project; and when Creative Scotland refused to allow NVA to adjust its application, and then – in this year’s controversial January funding round – removed it from the list of regularly funded organisations, the writing was on the wall, even for the modified future NVA was beginning to plan for itself.

Amid the inevitable recriminations about NVA’s closure, though – and it does suggest yet another failure of imagination and judgment at Scotland’s beleaguered arts funding agency – it is vitally important to recall and celebrate the scale of the company’s achievement. Even people who have never heard the name of NVA may have had their lives and their sense of Scotland’s physical and cultural landscape changed by the company’s work. Farquhar is the man who – back in 1988, after a fierce decade in London with his legendary industrial band Test Dept – returned to Scotland and created the modern Beltane Festival that still sets Calton Hill alight every spring. Twenty years ago, Farquhar and NVA set about creating the Hidden Garden that occupies the once-bleak industrial space behind the Tramway in Glasgow; and in spectacular natural locations from Glen Lyon in Perthshire (The Path, 2000) to the Isle of Skye (The Storr, 2005) and Arthur’s Seat In Edinburgh (Speed of Light, Edinburgh International Festival 2012) Farquhar and his team have brought together stunning installations of light, sound, land sculpture and movement, often athletic as well as dance-based.

My own first encounter with Farquhar’s work came during Glasgow 1990, when Test Dept combined with writer Neal Ascherson and an astonishing team of dancers and artists to create Second Coming at the old St Rollox Railway Works, a jaw-dropping meditation on industrial loss and heritage; and since then, from the chilling Fall From Light at Alloway in 2002 to Hinterland at St Peter’s in 2016, with occasional much more intimate shows like Graham Cunnington’s Pain or Dael Orlandersmith’s The Gimmick, NVA has been one of the great forces pushing at the boundaries of the arts in Scotland, sweeping fearlessly across traditional art-form barriers, and exploding our awareness of the landscape we inhabit, its memories and meanings.

Although the closure of NVA marks an immensely sad moment, in other words, the company leaves a legacy that cannot easily be extinguished. Last week, for example, Scotland’s Culture Secretary Fiona Hyslop asked Historic Environment Scotland to make proposals for the future of St Peter’s, adding a first great modernist masterpiece to a portfolio of sites still dominated by ancient castles, brochs and monuments. NVA is still at work on its final project, Make Me Up, filmed at St Peter’s with award-winning artist Rachel Maclean as part of a UK-wide project to mark the 100th anniversary of votes for women. Farquhar – who has gone on retreat for a few weeks, to reflect on his transition out of the NVA years – insists that his creative fire remains undimmed, and will find new ways of expressing itself. And we can only hope that at a time of apparent breakdown in many of the cultural partnerships and commitments that drew so many artists back to Scotland in the 1980s, he does not find, in future, that that fire has a chance to burn more brightly elsewhere.