AS the sun sets on a winter afternoon, Huntly is a place of deserted streets and closed-down shopfronts. A once prosperous market town in the agricultural heartland between Aberdeen and Elgin, Huntly (population 4400, average household income £23,000) now tells the sad story of many small towns: economic decline, the slow withdrawal of services.

But a set of rooms at the back of the library are a quiet powerhouse of socially distanced activity. Huntly is home to one of the most enduring socially engaged arts projects in the country. Deveron Projects (formerly Deveron Arts) has hosted 100 artists from all over the world in its 25-year existence, and has a roster full of plans for when Covid-19 restrictions are lifted.

If all this is less well-known than it should be, it’s because the work created on these projects is rarely shown in the art world at large. The emphasis is not on making art for galleries but on how art can impact a community, on what happens if creative thinkers are encouraged out of museums to work with the population at large.

This year, Deveron Projects enters a new chapter as its director, Claudia Zeiske, the founder and driving force behind the organisation, stands down after 25 years. At a silver anniversary celebration on Zoom in December, the new director was announced as Natalia Palombo, the curator who led the development of Many Studios in Glasgow’s East End and its international programme, The Gallow Gate.

She takes up the reins at a key time in Deveron Projects’ history. In recent weeks, the organisation has celebrated two major funding awards: £272,000 from Creative Scotland’s Culture Collective Fund for projects relating to skill-sharing and urban regeneration, and a further award of £25,000 from the British Council’s Connect and Collaborate Fund to support work with artists from Kenya and Tanzania. The organisation is also part-way through refurbishing a building on the town square as a community hub.

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Ironically, buying a building was one of the first subjects discussed by Zeiske and her contemporaries when Deveron Arts was founded in 1995. A feasibility study was undertaken for an arts centre, but the project was deemed unworkable. Disappointed at the time, Zeiske said she was later relieved; without a building, the organisation could work more directly with the community. Forced to abandon plans for a building, the group had to think more creatively. It came up with the slogan “The Town is the Venue”, which has been integral to its work ever since. Artists, beginning with Aberdeen-based David Blyth in 1998, were invited to participate in residencies in Huntly, working with themes chosen to engage the local community.

Each project begins with a topical subject and this in turn determines the selection of the artist. Many of Scotland’s top contemporary artists have made projects in Huntly and increasingly the net has been cast further afield to Europe, Africa, India. Danish artist Eva Merz looked at the challenges of big retail, Dalziel + Scullion at the development of wind farms, Boller und Brot, from Germany, worked with school pupils on “remaking” fast food.

Famous and not-so-famous citizens of the town have been celebrated. Sculptor Kenny Hunter made a work in response to the Victorian fantasy writer George MacDonald; musician Emily White explored the legacy of the composer Ronald Center; Chinese artists Utopia Group brought their own perspective on Huntly-born sinologist James Legge.

The National: Deveron Projects founder and director Claudia Zeiske, who is standing down after 25 years as its driving forceDeveron Projects founder and director Claudia Zeiske, who is standing down after 25 years as its driving force

Zeiske says she did not know at first that what she was doing had a name – socially engaged art practice – or that it was a recognised strand within contemporary art practice. An anthropologist who had worked with international human rights organisations before coming to Huntly, she stepped “sideways” into curating. But her combination of skills and knowledge helped make an organisation which was years ahead of its time. “Act local, think global” came naturally. “Place-making” is an in-vogue term in art today, but Deveron Arts was doing it two decades ago. It become a model for cultural engagement which is now studied across the country.

For most people in Huntly, this was art as they’d never seen it before: art as tree-planting, bread-baking, walking, cycling, playing football. With every artist encouraged to leave a work behind, the town now has a considerable and diverse art collection, not in a single venue but in the leisure centre, the school, the library, the car repair shop.

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Deveron Projects reached a landmark in 2008 when it took on the job of the town’s rebranding. After an international call for an artist, South African Jacques Coetzer was chosen. After consulting with hundreds of locals, he found a poem by George MacDonald, “Room to Roam”, which he felt answered what he was hearing, and devised a branching logo suggestive of both roadmaps and deer antlers.

Then, in a stroke of serendipity, he learned that Mike Scott, the lead singer of folk-rock band The Waterboys, had set the poem to music. Scott, who lives nearby in Moray, agreed to “gift” the song to Huntly as the town’s anthem in a special community performance with local musicians. The brand has been widely embraced, appearing on roadsigns, a newly designed coat of arms, and in the parlance of the town. Its success is a measure of how far Deveron Projects has come.

In 2013, Huntly received Creative Scotland’s prestigious Creative Place Award, along with £100,000 of funding. Meanwhile, the participation of world-renowned artists such as Roman Signer, Hamish Fulton and Richard Long in its projects began to get Deveron Projects noticed in the art world. In 2015, it put in a bid to curate the Scotland + Venice show for the Venice Biennale. It was unsuccessful but produced a project anyway: artist Anthony Shrag undertook The Lure of the Lost, a 2500-km walk from Huntly to Venice.

Also in 2015, Deveron Arts commemorated the centenary of the First World War with the planting of The White Wood, organised by French artist Caroline Wendling. At the heart of the wood is a group of oak saplings grown from acorns collected by Zeiske from Joseph Beuys’s 7000 Oaks in Kassel, Germany, one of the great visionary projects of 20th-century art. More recently, German artist Clemens Wilhelm planted a Weeping Willow on the banks of the Deveron to mark the UK’s departure from the EU.

In 2019, Deveron Arts did something Zeiske thought they would never do – they bought a three-storey building on the town square. Secured with funding of £270,000 from the Scottish Land Trust, it is being developed as a community hub, and a lynchpin of the town’s regeneration strategy.

Amid lockdown in March 2020, Deveron Projects stayed open, running an honesty shop for the exchange of fresh produce and a heritage bakery. Instead of its annual Slow Marathon, Iranian artist Iman Tajik collected the “donated” miles of thousands of lockdown walkers until they had walked the circumference of the Earth.

When restrictions ease, Palombo and her team will be on the starting blocks, waiting to bring the world to Huntly, and take Huntly to the world.