WORK is set to begin early in the new year to develop a game-changing creative arts hub for the Highlands.
The first phase of a £5.7 million scheme to transform the former Inverness Royal Academy building at Midmills into a new Inverness Creative Academy is expected to be completed by the summer.
The initial £1.2 million project will provide high quality, affordable workspaces for 39 artists and makers.
The venture – a first for the region – is being led by Scottish award-winning charity and social enterprise Wasps Artists Studios which is also fundraising for work on a second building to provide exhibition, performance and events space, a public café, workshop areas and offices for business working in the creative industries.
Matt Sillars, who will run a community-based photographic initiative called the Inverness Darkroom at Midmills, welcomed the imminent start of work on the B-listed building.
"The arts community has been hoping that Wasps would set up a major centre in Inverness for years so the enthusiasm was overwhelming when it was announced," he said.
Lindsay Dunbar, of rural theatre innovators Play Pieces Arts and also an arts columnist for Scottish Provincial Press, welcomed the development.
"Play Pieces Arts has run a successful programme of events in Inverness throughout the years," she said. "However, we are often placed in a vulnerable position due to venue availability as well as limited capacity spaces.
"The creative industry hub, as well as potential performance space, would be a game-changer for not only Play Pieces Arts but for the emerging and established makers of all art forms who want to base themselves in the Highlands."
As one of the largest developments of its kind outside the central belt, the centre is expected to play a valuable economic role by supporting jobs and providing new business opportunities.
Tenants could include everything from visual artists, theatre groups and craft makers to media companies or businesses at the cutting edge of the digital arts.
Inverness visual arts producer Kirsten Body was involved in the initial demand study for a creative hub in 2015 and was struck by the responses.
"There is undoubtedly a strong need for a focused, vibrant space where people can come together to share ideas," she said.
"I’m really keen to see this new hub as a place that caters for events, provides networking opportunities as well as a gallery space for emergent contemporary artists to showcase their work and take risks.
"The Midmills building has huge potential to function as a production centre and true meeting place highlighting the wealth of creative talent from our area."
Audrey Carlin, Wasps chief executive, said although Scotland was a powerhouse for the arts, craft-making and the wider creative industries, people in the Highlands wanting careers or to build businesses in those sectors faced major obstacles due to an acute shortage of quality workspace and hubs to allow them to collaborate and generate new ideas.
"We are very proud that this will be one of the largest projects of its kind in the whole of Scotland and we hope it will enable creative people from all across the Highlands fulfill their ambitions and dreams," she said.
The project is supported by Highland Council, Highlands and Islands Enterprise (HIE), Creative Scotland, Inverness City Heritage Trust and McCarthy and Stone Retirement Lifestyles Limited.
Phase one is being carried out by Robertson Northern of Elgin.
James Gibbs, area manager for HIE, said Wasps had an excellent track record of bringing economic benefit to cities.
"HIE assisted Wasps’ development to help grow a strong creative cluster in Inverness and bring new economic activity to the city centre," he said.
His views were echoed by Clive Gillman, of Creative Scotland, who said Wasps had built a strong sustainable model for supporting creative communities across Scotland.
"We are proud to have helped them on that journey and especially through partnerships such as that in Inverness, which will see a significant building brought back to life to support the rich creative community in and around the city of Inverness," he said.
A new darkroom and photography workspace will be among the facilities provided by the first phase of the Inverness Creative Academy Project.
Matt Sillars, a photographer and lecturer in photography and culture studies at the University of the Highlands and Islands, and his colleague Rachel Fermi will use the space for the Inverness Darkroom, a community project to support the growing number of photographers across the Highlands who prefer traditional analogue photography to digital.
Courses, workshops and other activities will also link in with Flow Photofest, the biennial international photography festival.
"There’s a real rise in the interest in analogue photography," Mr Sillars said.
"Digital technology has made photography accessible to all but as people find its limits they often want to explore further and discover all the things they can do with the older analogue techniques.
"There’s also a real excitement and ‘magic’ about being in a darkroom environment and making a photograph, using the chemicals and watching the image emerge in front of your eyes.
"People really engage with the physical object and it is quite a different experience from images on a screen."
He believed the darkroom would attract people from a large catchment area, with those living within 50 miles of the city using it regularly, and those within 100 to 150 miles attending for courses and workshops.
"People are often quite dispersed and this will be somewhere they can come together," he said. "It will allow them to bounce ideas off each other and create joint projects.
"Inverness and the surrounding area have a large number of highly creative people and the Midmills project will provide them with more of the facilities and affordable studio spaces they need.
"It is also exactly the sort of centre we need to encourage more of our highly talented young graduates to stay and work in the area."
The Creative Academy will provide:
39 studios for artists and makers.
54 workspaces for creative industries and cultural social enterprises.
Public café within the restored former assembly hall.
Public exhibition, events and workshop spaces.
The only creative hub in the Highlands.
Opportunities for collaborative working, skills sharing and networking.
Public access to historic buildings and community creative activity programmes.
Support for, and retention of, creative talent in the Highlands.