Setting up a Stove

MIX a group of artists and an empty town centre building and the resulting alchemy is potentially a version of The Stove Network, the highly-lauded arts and community organisation that has now taken up residence on Dumfries High Street.

With a (pretty much self-financing) cafe space on the ground floor, it becomes immediately obvious, on entering, what this place is all about.

A busy calendar of events speak of diverse voices and various local passions – ranging from gaming to the conservation of the local river; from celebrating the 50th anniversary of the LGBTQ+ rights event, PRIDE, to music improvisation; and from bread-making to sign-writing.

Leaflets on the cafe tables additionally express a concern about depopulation of the town’s young people.

The how-to list might extend to the manufacturer’s name on the cappuccino machine, the grey-dotted rubber flooring and the lighting gantry that creates a pop-up performance space at one of end of the room.

But it’s also about the vision and the energy behind The Stove Network, which might not always be replicable in every part of the country.

It wasn’t quite a case of handing over the keys to a group of artists and letting them just get on with it. But nor was it a local authority initiative at risk of becoming mired in suffocating bureaucracy. 

There soon developed a mutually-respectful understanding – the telling of this story casts the artists serving the local authority by bringing life and ideas to the building and the wider area, and the local authority serving the artists by bringing administrative nous and access to specific funding sources.

Matt Baker’s background, as a sculptor, involved arts-led projects in the likes of Inverness and the Gorbals, in Glasgow. Finding himself in a pub conversation with a couple of fellow artists and the rest was soon history. He is now aptly described as the network’s ‘orchestrator’, bringing various parts of a 40-strong group of mainly ‘community artists’ into play.

He begins: “Creative people are usually people who are not afraid of putting their head above the parapet.

“A group of us simply wanted to find a way of being able to have a conversation with our town, about our town. And we felt our skills as creative practitioners were a possible way of achieving it. So we began to do things, to get people talking; such as drawing an outline of the town on the pavement of the town square, running a festival of the river and re-writing the charter of burgh rights and responsibilities which is read out annually and goes back to the 13th century.

“It definitely wasn’t about going around the town with a clipboard and asking what people want. If artists are doing stuff, sometimes crazy stuff, you hope that others might feel energised by it. When we started, we came across a general sense of disempowerment and resignation; people would tell us that there is no point in even trying.

“There is another thing about creative people and it’s a desire to keep telling the story, certainly not hiding behind closed doors in a committee room. Creative people are also good at collaborating, creating coalitions of the willing. They can also be good at cutting through the politics, because they are ‘daft’ enough to try.”

Baker is sanguine about the risk of ‘gentrification’, believing that gentrification (and therefore the probability of increased rents, etc) first requires developer pressure for land and properties, which is certainly not currently evident on Dumfries High Street.

The Stove is now a Company Limited by Guarantee, with Charitable Status. Funding sources usually require to speak to an organisation that can legitimately describe itself a ‘properly-constituted community body’ (sometimes easier said than done).

Space might have been the main catalyst for The Stove – which went on to help set up the Midsteeple Quarter, now performing the role of community property developer, bringing some of the empty buildings on Dumfries High Street back into productive use – but so too was a campaigning zeal and a diversity of views and backgrounds.

Keeping The Stove Network going over several years – it was founded in 2011 – has been primarily about regularly doing ‘stuff’. It has helped keep people motivated.

Of course, finances continue to be a challenge. It was ever thus. Salaries require to be paid, programmes require to be funded.

Adds Baker: “I wouldn’t want to give the impression that setting up something like The Stove Network is as straightforward as simply finding a building. It can be hard-going, keeping core funding and project funding coming in. It’s certainly not something that can be achieved solely through volunteers, which is an assumption I hear quite a few times. But, yes, let’s have more Stoves in Scotland, because it has been and can be done.”

Mike Wilson is a member of the Place Design Scotland team

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