WORK is beginning this month on the initial phase of a project to establish the first creative hub in the Highlands, offering a new home for artists, makers and creative entrepreneurs from the area to develop their careers and help their businesses thrive.

As one of the largest developments of its kind outside Scotland’s central belt, the initial £1.2 million phase of the Creative Academy in Inverness will provide affordable workspaces for 39 artists, groups and firms from around October this year.

Phase two of the wider £5.7m scheme to transform the Midmills buildings will provide an exhibition, performance and events space, a public cafe, workshop areas and offices for creative firms.

The hub, housed in what was once part of the Inverness Royal Academy and later Inverness College, is also expected to support employment and opportunities in a sector which provides 73,600 jobs and is worth more than £3.7 billion a year to Scotland’s economy.

“The creative economy is a significant part of Scotland’s Economic Strategy and it is important we support that in places outside the central belt,” says Audrey Carlin, chief executive officer for Wasps, the organisation leading the project.

With the tagline “we believe that art can transform lives”, Wasps, which stands for Workshop and Artists’ Studio Provision Scotland, provides affordable studios to 800 artists and 25 arts organisations at 18 buildings across the country. The Creative Academy will be their largest project in the Highlands after opening Links Studios in Nairn in 2015.

“It’s doing really well but we know that there are people travelling up from Inverness and further afield,” says Carlin, after explaining that Wasps was approached by Inverness Council to come on board as part of a consortium to transform the Midmills site shortly after completing studies on the demand for creative hubs in Inverness, Stirling and Perth.

“The one for Inverness was really interesting,” she says. “A very significant demand was identified.

“There was a large number of artists working over a huge geographical area, often very much in isolation, and while there were virtual networks there weren’t many physical networks, places for people to come along and learn from each other and maybe learn a new aspect of their profession.”

Carlin continues: “Then there are all those other things that wrap around being a creative individual, like: ‘How do I sustain myself? How do I market myself? How do I deal with the finances?’ For someone who’s maybe producing fantastic work, it’s not sustainable if you don’t have a digital presence to sell that work, or get it out there, get it known.”

From working in more rural locations such as Selkirk and Kirkudbright, Wasps has found that the needs of artists and makers working in less populated areas differ from those elsewhere.

“Artists working in more isolated spaces have to be more self-sufficient,” says Carlin. “In the central belt, a lot of that support is readily available, though they still have to look for it, and in some cases pay for it. But in more rural locations that support has not been readily available, so they’ve kind of made do. They are innovative in how they’ve developed their practice, but with some wider support they could take it to the next step.”

Wasps, which takes possession of the building imminently before Elgin-based contractor Robertson Northern begins the 22-week studio-building programme at the end of the month, liaised with artists across the area and through their local arts steering group across the project’s development period.

“We’ve got some fantastic individuals working away on everything from visual arts to photography to performance,” says Carlin. “They keep us up to date with what the needs are out there, and keep the information about the project flowing to the artists.”

Sharing skills and ideas, Carlin explains, is central to the Wasps ethos.

“We encourage learning among creatives at different stages of their careers,” she says. “So someone starting out could learn from someone who is more experienced, and it’s not seen as competition because they are working in different geographies. Wasps is very much a network. We will have staff on the ground in Inverness but we are also part of a wider network around the country. We encourage artists to take advantage of that, and to perhaps learn about others in different parts of the country that do similar practice.”

In 2014, Wasps, which had functioned as a charity since being established in 1977, was named Scottish Social Enterprise of the Year. Self-financing its day-to-day operations, it normally only seeks loans or grants for capital projects and is currently fundraising for phase two of the development.

Lindsay Dunbar describes the hub and potential performance space as a “game-changer” for emerging and established makers across art forms, including her rural theatre company Play Pieces Arts.

“I really welcome the exciting development of the Creative Academy,” she says. “Play Pieces Arts has run a successful programme of events in Inverness throughout the years, however we are often placed in a vulnerable position due to venue availability as well as limited capacity spaces.”

Matt Sillars, photographer and lecturer in photography and culture studies at the University of the Highlands and Islands, is one of more than 30 artists and groups who have so far expressed interest in the 39 spaces. Along with his colleague Rachel Fermi, Sillars plans to use the facilities as the base for the Inverness Darkroom, a community project to support the growing number of photographers across the Highlands who prefer traditional analogue photography to digital.

Fermi and Sillars also plan to host courses, workshops and other events and activities, some of which will see Inverness Darkroom working with FLOW Photofest, the biennial international photography festival launched at Eden Court Theatre in Inverness in September 2017.

“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,” says Sillars. “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.”

Sillars says the Creative Academy will be a valuable resource for the wider creative community in the Highlands.

“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 says. “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.

Sillars adds: “People are often quite dispersed and this will be somewhere they can come together. It will allow them to bounce ideas off each other and create joint projects. 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.”