Interview with Paisley Art Institute

It’s been a tough year, to say the least, but we’ve seen our Own Art galleries adapting and transforming to ensure their customers are still getting the art and craft they love.

The Paisley Art Institute have just celebrated their 132nd Annual under these unique circumstances, so we wanted to chat to Eoghann MacColl, the Exhibitions Convenor and Artist Member of the Paisley Art Institute Managerial Committee, to see how they have overcome such obstacles.

Eoghann MacColl

The Paisley Art Institute have just celebrated their 132nd Annual and had a successful launch during such a difficult year (the dreaded COVID mention here) – how did you navigate in this uncertain landscape? 

We had an almighty task to turn our Annual into an online experience. For the first time in 132 years, there were no glass plates or checking to see if something was straight next to its neighbouring work. Last year we were in the Piazza in the heart of Paisley, prior to that always in our historic residence in the Museum and Art Gallery. 2020 was a totally different proposition, like no other PAI Annual. So you can imagine the sense of relief and excitement when we saw the whole project launch with Liz Lochead’s ‘spaces between’ and some beautiful traditional music from Fèis Phàislig. 

What positive learnings would you say have come from this year’s complications?

Massive positives from this year. We realised we have an incredible ability to move and change at pace. We knew we had Members and Non-members alike with expectations and we had to meet those. Of course, there were disappointments, that is the nature of a big project, but the benefits and learns far outweighed any negatives. We also enjoyed fantastic support from our sponsors, particularly our Prize sponsors. Nancy Docherty, PAI Secretary worked wonders producing a list of prizes of over twenty. This in turn led to many artists getting additional credits and awards. We also saw sales hold up really well which was encouraging and warmly welcome.

Can you tell us about the curation/selection process when exhibiting the artworks online?

As a Committee we researched and looked out around the world, to local, national and international online collections. We sought ideas and inspiration from our peers to enable us to make the curatorial decisions we needed to make in the new format. We thought about how as an audience we ‘look’ and how we ‘read’ artworks. We knew it was crucial to allow each work to breath, even in a virtual context, maybe even more in a virtual context. We were aware due to the the scale of our Annual, close to four hundred works, we needed space and room to enable all the selected artworks to shine. Folks also needed to be supported to look at so many pieces! We enlisted the talents and skills of a digital builder, Andrew Hopkins, Berlin based and Paisley born. Andrew absorbed our ideas and set about creating the rooms and spaces for the artworks to inhabit. Of course every dialogue and decision had to be reached virtually, every detail, a phenomenal amount of work alone. The themes for the show, the catalogue, the contextual programme, the prizes, the selection process itself. So many decisions and all agreed through committee Zooms. We were Zoomed out! The outcome however was warmly and critically well received and that made it worth while. It was no men feat but we did it justice.

Do you have any tips for adapting to a digital exhibition space?

Think about what you want it to feel like. Allow yourselves to dream a little. Follow your instincts and if it feels right, it will be. We had a lot of conversations about the themes for the Annual, after all those chats they almost picked themselves. Also allow time, it takes time.

How did you find that your audience adapted to this online format and did you forge any connections outside of your existing audience from this digital direction?

Our audience figures were superb! We were wary the scale might mean folks would not catch every work, that was not the case. Artists were magic at hash tagging their catalogue number and promoting their own works and in turn the whole show. As the prizes winners were made public, we were able to highlight them. We also had a lovely interaction with yourselves at Own Art which enables artworks to be affordable across payments meaning more folk can potentially reach some real and original art. I think the digital offer also enabled us to reach a global audience. The online call for artists predominantly brought forward artists from Renfrewshire and across Scotland. But we also saw submissions from England, the USA and mainland Europe. Through our contextual programme we engaged with groups such as the Paisley Disability Resourse Centre, the Renfrewshire Carers and the Paisley Community Trust, all of whom perhaps would not have accessed our Annual in usual times as well as they did this year. We also had a Gaelic offer. The online platform undoubtedly widened our audiences. 

What are your top picks from this year’s exhibitors?

So many to chose from! Boo Paterson’s ‘Covid Old Glory’ Collage which was so iconic of the time and captured so much. Figurative works such as ‘Working Hands’ by Donna Fleureau and ‘A fisherman’s tale’ by Wendy Craig are also stand out. As is work by Kenny Marshall And John Andrew. Zoe Scott makes interesting pieces in concrete. Angela Pieraccini’s colourful and vibrant “Corona Lockdown” was memorable. I personally also liked the minimal digital captures of Euan Ross. Also Caroline Gormley’s epic scale paintings loaded with social commentary and ‘the Party’s over’ by Ann Vance. Many of these artists won awards. Of course Alastair Strachan’s ‘PAI Zoomers’ collage too.

Does The Paisley Art Institute have any more plans in the pipeline that we should watch out for?

After a short break, we will go again, like so many organisations, a little into the unknown, but aware nothing is going to phase us after 2020. We are ready for anything.  We would sincerely hope we can have some kind of physical exhibition sometime in the not too distant future. 

Visit to browse their beautiful collection.