Pittenweem Arts Festival is a home for real art

An illustration by artist and writer Alasdair Gray, who is appearing at Pittenweem
An illustration by artist and writer Alasdair Gray, who is appearing at Pittenweem
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WHERE might you be in Scotland that hosts a major arts jamboree every August, referred to by locals simply as “the Festival”, about which said locals bemoan that you can’t move for visitors, nor park your car for love or money, while simultaneously relishing the buzz, unpredictability and colour the event brings to their doorstep?

Apart from Edinburgh, the answer is in fact Pittenweem, on Fife’s picturesque East Neuk coast, whose primary fishing trade is supplemented over nine days each summer by an influx of some 25,000 art-lovers - into a community numbering around 3,000 - checking out the wares on show at the Pittenweem Arts Festival, now in its 31st year.

Reflecting the East Neuk’s sizeable resident visual artist population, the festival is predominantly exhibition-based, taking in painting and printmaking of virtually all kinds, photography, sculpture, ceramics, jewellery, glassware, woodworking, textiles and more, plus a smattering of music, theatre and film.

The Edinburgh analogy continues in the Pittenweem festival’s programming structure, whereby an “official” line-up of invited artists – this year contrasting the talents of Alasdair Gray, Brigid Collins, Keith Brockie and Johnny Hannah – alongside two annual festival bursary winners, is vastly outnumbered by self-selected exhibitors, from throughout the UK and beyond, who pay to appear in the official brochure, and are responsible for organising their own venue.

For 2013, that brochure lists a really quite staggering total of 87 exhibitions, on view everywhere from residents’ living-rooms to the high street baker’s.

The pleasures of experiencing art in unconventional contexts thus provide yet another Edinburgh parallel, as Jean Duncan, Festival chairwoman, explains: “Pittenweem itself and the whole local area are lovely places to visit, and our venues are nothing like formal galleries; it’s all much more relaxed and intimate. All the artists are here, so people can talk to them about the work, which is a real added extra.”

“One difference from Edinburgh, though, is that the vast majority of artists who come to Pittenweem are professionals.

“A lot of them see it as their major exhibition of the year, and use it to present new work – and given the overall audience, you can see why.”

It’s by no means all about the visitors, though. As that aforementioned local excitement attests, the festival is underpinned by a strong sense of pride and ownership among its home populace, parking hassles notwithstanding. “There’s often an assumption with this kind of event that the local community aren’t interested in the arts.

“Our experience shows that couldn’t be further from the truth,” said Ms Duncan.

• August 3-11, www.pittenweemartsfestival.co.uk