LOCKDOWN conditions have constrained certain forms of vital communication. After closure during the first lockdown period, the Junor Gallery in St Andrews re-opened on July 18 with the exhibition “Landscapes of Scotland and Italy” featuring a range of paintings by Sandy Moffat and Helen Bellany

Like many public forums and gathering places, the gallery has seen hard times in recent months, and closed its doors finally on August 31 but promises to open again in a new venue at a later date. Here, Alan Riach is in conversation with the gallery director, Beth Junor

Alan Riach: Beth, we’re here in a beautifully outward-facing gallery, as if the big window is addressing the public as they come and go, walking past on the street, maybe tempting folk to come inside, as people look into this oblong box of a single room, permeated with light and clarity, on whose walls paintings of various kinds, colours, media, forms and sizes, have taken their places over the last three years.

But St Andrews is a town with the oldest university in Scotland and a cohort of students and staff reading and teaching subjects of all sorts, charged by intellectual curiosity and openness to enquiry and the arts in general, so how has the gallery prioritised its address to its potential visitors?

Beth: In 2017 austerity cuts to public services began to hit home. I and two other experienced colleagues in speech and language therapy were facing redundancy. They were younger and perhaps harder hit. I could take early retirement, so began preparing my payback project to the arts that had always sustained me in life.

I came to it from the literary side, specifically poetry and non-fiction, I’d already edited the letters of Valda Grieve (Hugh MacDiarmid’s wife), for instance. Music and paintings have always given me sustenance too. The nature of galleries was already changing and I wanted mine also to be a place where anyone could walk through an open door and feel welcome, ask any questions and not feel they needed to be an expert to appreciate art.

​READ MORE: The true value of travel and the virtues of different cultures

I wanted it to be a place of discussion, debate, learning and discovery – communication again, the trait that defines us as human beings, this gift that manifests itself in many forms, whether through spoken or signed language, the written word, music or the visual arts. I deliberately described it as showing “Scottish and European Contemporary Art” because I see Scotland, now and in the future, as part of Europe. When I found this venue in St Andrews, with its strong historical relationship with Europe, the description was perfect.

Alan: One of the characteristics of the exhibitions you’ve presented here is a dialogue between paintings and poetry, with public readings and artists’ talks, for example. Was that part of the vision?

Beth: There’s been a continual dialogue within the gallery, an exploration of this relationship between the literary and visual arts with each exhibition. Poetry, novels, evoke imagery within us – unique and essentially private to each individual.

With painting the imagery is out there, it can be shared between people, a catalyst for sharing life’s experiences. It’s an enormous privilege for a gallerist to be a witness to these – the artist is back working in their studio while I’ve been able to hear people’s stories of what a painting or poem means to them.

Having Sandy Moffat’s Scotland’s Voices in the gallery for a prolonged period was a marvellous experience, to meet so many people who told me how the musicians and writers depicted had touched their own lives. During Sarah Longley’s exhibition, which featured a triptych of paintings from her father Michael Longley’s book Ghetto, people would come in and speak about how the Second World War Holocaust had impacted on the lives of their own family and friends. Ruth Nicol’s East Neuk solo exhibition conferred a status on local people’s familiar landscapes, and elicited expressions of a great love for the land of Fife. It’s the gallerist’s responsibility to convey as much of this as possible to the artists.

Alan: What does the future hold for the gallery?

Beth: I’m moving my gallery online for now, in adapting to current difficult circumstances. Hopefully, in spring and summer 2021, I’ll have exhibitions in St Andrews again, but in different premises.

It seems every time we turn on the news these days there are hundreds, if not thousands, more jobs lost. In that context I count myself and our whole country fortunate in very many ways, though I’ve had a 79% decrease in visitor numbers since March 17 [the start of the first lockdown] and a 54% decrease since re-opening in July, compared to the same dates in 2019. The other factor, of course, is rent for small business premises. Some landlords were taking 12 weeks’ rent during lockdown for six weeks’ trading time post-lockdown. This is simply a fact. Thinking still in weeks and months of rent due rather than in pandemic time of lockdown and post-lockdown days, they seem to count themselves generous for not insisting their tenant moves out before lockdown has even lifted.

READ MORE: There are differences between language, speech and the sound of music

Some landlords won’t countenance any lease flexibility, while others do. Some landlords say they’re sorry to disappoint, but they have to balance their own needs with the needs of their tenant. Which begs the question of course, what are a landlord’s needs? To make a profit or maintain a second or third income in a household at a pre-pandemic level?

And where are the needs of the wider community considered? Are we really “all in this together”?

We live in a democracy that demands constant vigilance – not only regarding how we treat each other as individuals when times are hard, but also of how the state is treating us. One of the most odious pieces of news to emerge this year was that the London Government was lobbying the US to support a controversial new warhead for Trident missiles – a letter was sent in April, yes April, at the height of the pandemic. It’s unconscionable.

What kind of culture is it we’re creating in this pandemic? These are questions that need to be asked, addressed thoroughly, and which fill me with grief and anger at us losing sight of our life-enriching values, alongside the most tragic loss of all, of so many lives.

The Junor Gallery can be visited online at: junorgallery.scot