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North East Open Studios/NEOS 2012 (first published 19/9/2012)

Once a year, the people at North East Open Studios organise NEOS week – a huge event that spans the whole of the North East of Scotland. This year, NEOS is running from Saturday 15th to Sunday 23rd September. I urge anyone with even a passing interest in the Arts to grab a NEOS catalogue, and visit a handful of the exhibitions. Check out the PDF of the catalogue here: http://northeastopenstudios.co.uk/downloads/2012/neos12.pdf – any of the listed locations should have catalogues available.

As part of the development of the Creative Industries focus of the SIRA project, I’ve been driving around Aberdeenshire, visiting some of the more rural NEOS open studios. Driving around the countryside and seeing the little yellow NEOS signs pointing you to this steading or that village hall, you get a real sense of the richness of artistic activity that goes on in this part of Scotland.

The diversity really stands out too – traditional oils and watercolours reside happily next to mind blowing light and sound installations, felting and modern art (Art in the Buchat:http://www.strathdonart.co.uk). Where the open studios represent a collective from the community, these often encompass professional well-known local artists alongside members of the community displaying what they have learned, for example in a community art or photography class (e.g. Durno Gallery: www.durnogallery.co.uk). Personal highlights for me have been starting my Christmas shopping with some little hand-sewn zombies from DaisyGlaisy at Oldmeldrum Town Hall (http://www.daisyglaisy.com), seeing the breadth of artistic activity in the Glenbuchat community at The Glenbuchat Hall, and falling for the series of monsters by artist Philip Thompson – I keep finding myself wishing I could go back for a little grey monster in a glass case which reminds me of my favourite book as a child – Where the Wild Things Are (http://www.lepeep.co.uk).

The main purpose though of my NEOS journey has been to talk with people about their creative activities and the place that broadband has within this. Without fail, I’ve found everyone incredibly welcoming and ready to chat, I’ve been offered a cuppa in every studio I’ve visited and fought to resist the home bakes on offer at every turn. The striking thing is how much people vary in their use of the Internet. Many professed to use it solely for social purposes, without connecting it to their work. Others told me they couldn’t work as an artist without a broadband connection – that their professional branding or artistic identity depends upon it. For some, there was a feeling that an online presence is expected nowadays in the Arts. But there were others who worked happily from their gallery as well as displaying their work in a number of galleries and exhibition spaces across Scotland, this being enough to keep the pennies rolling in. The differences were not always generational, even though this is a strong theme in the literature. Differences in personality, lifestyle, experience and digital skills can all impact on the extent to which a person will exploit the web for their work, personal or social activities. One lady told me that her broadband connection was so poor she could do nothing with it. But when I asked her if I could interview her for my research, she simply said she was the wrong person, because even with good broadband she’d be unlikely to do anything different. Many of the NEOS exhibitors already have websites and blogs, and network successfully with other artists and potential clients through Twitter and business Facebook pages. Others haven’t dabbled into websites or social media yet but are curious and often resolved to do it at some point. For some of these though, time is a constraint, as well as skills and confidence – many of the people I spoke to felt that they would need some kind of support with embracing the web, but weren’t sure who to turn to for this. This adds weight to a finding that is arising across all of my research – in order to fully embrace and exploit the tools available online, businesses need support. A great deal of money is being spent on rolling out broadband across the UK, but this needs to go hand in hand with initiatives which help people to adopt the technology successfully, in a way that is meaningful and valuable to them. This is an idea we will be developing within certain projects and activities at the dot.rural Hub, so watch this space. Meanwhile, get yourselves a NEOS catalogue, and get out there and see what’s going on. And to finish up, here’s a picture of my daughter making a windchime at the Glenbuchat Hall:

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