Tiffany Jenkins: Scottish culture legacy to be lost

Richard Demarco. Picture: Danny Lawson
Richard Demarco. Picture: Danny Lawson
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Unless urgent action is taken Richard Demarco’s treasure trove of art and records may disappear forever, writes Tiffany Jenkins

There are hundreds of boxes stacked away in Craigcrook Castle, in Edinburgh’s Blackhall area. Inside them you will find around 2,500 artworks including paintings, prints, drawings, sculptures and 20,000 multilingual publications. Approximately 500 hold correspondence, manuscripts, as well as extensive film and audio. But calculating the extensive number of papers, artworks and writing tells us little about what they could reveal in the right hands and under the right conditions. Forensically documenting a pivotal period in the arts in Scotland and Europe from the 1960s, and even earlier, to the present day, they are a large part of the archive of Richard Demarco – the artist and lynchpin for the visual and performing arts in Scotland for over 50 years.

The archive urgently needs a proper home. The castle has been sold so the material needs to be moved and soon. Besides, housing it there was far from ideal because most of it was not on show and it could not be properly attended to. The problem is, despite the significance of this resource, and despite the widespread recognition that Mr Demarco has won here and in Europe – he is a CBE, and was recently presented with the 2013 European Citizen’s Medal, the only UK recipient of this year’s award – we do not value the past. We pay lip service to the importance of history, but do not take any care to preserve it.

Not only is the future of this archive at risk, another – the records of HI-Arts, the now defunct cultural development agency for the Highlands and Islands, which was in operation for 23 years – has no home. When the organisation was shut down care was taken, and rightly so, to completing or transferring the artistic projects, but no-one was interested in the history of them or HI-Arts; that’s over two decades of cultural endeavour in the Scottish Highlands. If this work meant anything to anyone it deserves more than a dustbin. One man, who was the director of HI Arts – Robert Livingston – is valiantly trying to save the records. Let’s hope he succeeds.

We currently suffer from an arrogant assumption that what is important is now – the present – not what came before us. But the past should be paramount. We learn from it. We understand how things were and thus how they came to be. And if we want to improve on any human activity – art, or politics – then we need to appreciate earlier lessons and how we got here. Archives are a thread that connects what happened to what is and in turn inspires what could be. We can only stand on the shoulders of giants if we know what they achieved.

We need to change our attitude towards the past. We need to create a permanent complete archive of the Richard Demarco collection, but what is required is no small matter. The resource should be held in perpetuity and therefore housed under the aegis of an institution associated with a university or universities, a library, or archives, and with staff to work on it; or else it just gathers dust. It requires money. The Government (Scottish or UK) has thus far failed to provide financial support for its preservation, upkeep or development. That could change if we explain to them the significance of what we are in danger of losing.

For anyone interested in art, Scotland, or the history of Europe, the archive of Mr Demarco is essential. He was one of the co-founders of the Traverse Theatre, in 1963. Later, he and other organisers left the Traverse, to establish what became the Richard Demarco Gallery. The Gallery presented European artists to Scotland and established outgoing connections for Scottish artists across Europe. The archives contains the history of the Traverse Theatre, and the Gallery; the history, during the Cold War, of the Polish avant-garde; the Romanian avant-garde; the former Yugoslav avant-garde, and more. Mr Demarco was involved in bringing artists to Edinburgh that include Paul Neagu; a Romanian sculptor and teacher who influenced a generation of artists, later settling in Britain and becoming a citizen, as well as Tadeusz Kantor; a Polish painter and theatre director renowned for his exciting performances. Mr Demarco worked with the Serbian artist, Marina Abramovic, credited as the “grandmother of performance art”, and Mr Demarco also developed a strong collaborative relationship with Joseph Beuys, the German performance artist, who visited Scotland on eight occasions between 1970 and 1981.

Alex Herod, who is about to commence PhD research at Leeds Metropolitan University, is one researcher who has been awarded funding to examine these records.

One aspect of her work looks specifically at the work Mr Demarco did in the 1970s to bring Eastern European artists to Edinburgh. She will focus on the importance and legacy of opportunities for Eastern European artists to share work with Western audiences during what was a turbulent political era. What is touching is her commitment to the material and in making it accessible to others. Alex explained to me that she hopes to assist in bringing the archive to life for many more people: “It is a resource of unique value to students and academics across a number of disciplines.” What’s more, she points out: “It’s important to recognise the potential for public interest and the pure artistic value of the archive, with thousands of artworks and artists represented and a rich history of cultural events documented.”

As we reflect on the closing of Edinburgh Festivals of 2013, it is worth noting that this resource also contains the history of the Edinburgh Festival from 1947-2013. Mr Demarco has been present for every single year and it includes a collection of drawings, paintings, sculpture and photographs which document it. These are unique and precious materials, providing a direct window onto our history. If lost, they cannot be replaced. Our Scottish and European cultural memory is too important to forget. We have to keep it, nurture it and protect this past for the future.