TAKE one business studies graduate, another with a degree in geography, steep them in the artistic influence of Paris, stir with a lot of driving ambition, sprinkle with good luck and wham, bam, alakazam, an institution is born.
Not that Trudi Gibson and Anne-Marie Culhane thought that was what they were creating when they opened their arts hub at 25 Blackfriars Street in March 1994.
This was to be a place on the edge, one of alternative artistry, thumbing its nose at the national art monoliths and private galleries with which Edinburgh abounded. Yet three changes of venue, the birth of the Bongo Club and countless exhibitions, poetry readings and flea markets later, Out of the Blue is marking its 20th anniversary.
This Saturday celebrations begin with an exhibition looking at the iconic imagery used to make OOTB’s mark on the scene, along with a bruncheon which features music from Bongo Club performers, an aerial trapeze display, good food from the Drill Hall cafe, taster classes, workshops and behind-the-scene tours.
No-one is more delighted that it’s still going strong at 20 than co-founder Anne-Marie.
“I don’t think we really thought about longevity when we started,” she says with a laugh. “It started out as a desire to offer something different and I think we did that, and it still seems to be doing that. I feel really proud people have kept the energy going so it’s lasted.”
She adds: “Trudi and I met when we were both at university through a mutual friend who was living in Paris. Neither of us were artists, although I was studying art history along with geography, but every time term ended I’d leg it over to Paris and soak up the alternative art scene, the cafe galleries and the spaces where artists felt really comfortable.
“We were hugely influenced by that, so when Trudi and I graduated we got together in Edinburgh and thought ‘right we’ll open a gallery’ as you do when you’re 19 and nothing seems impossible,” she says.
Impossible was nothing. Despite having “no idea but loads of energy” the pair managed to beg, borrow and trade everything from legal advice to premises and it wasn’t long before OOTB opened.
“The whole process was hilarious,” recalls Anne-Marie. “We put together a business plan, put on suits and went out to speak to people. We got a free lawyer and a free accountant – Brian Allingham set up our charitable trust status for free, which was amazing. In fact, the whole thing was done with just £2000. Even the premises in Blackfriars Street we got rent-free for six months as we convinced the council we would give the street some kind of energy.
“But there was nothing in Edinburgh like it, so people were excited by the idea. Edinburgh was a very frustrating place . . . there was nothing for more alternative approaches all year round. We were interested in outsider art, street art and prisoner art. We wanted to provide more social engagement as we felt that wasn’t being catered for. Out of the Blue did that.”
Recalling the start of it all, Trudi has said: “The artistic community watched with some interest as we defined our ideas. We were keen to demystify the process and thus make it more accessible to, for example, community groups, people in prison and young people.
“We also wanted to make space available to new, young artists and especially provide a platform for experimental work, and for people who had difficulty in getting shows in conventional galleries.”
Certainly from the start it was about more than just exhibiting artists, although the main aim was to promote “an interaction between the artists and the viewing public”.
While the interior of terracotta walls and blue painted beams showed off artists’ work – the first to display were Jane Waygood, Tim Curtis and Lee Baker – the venue was soon attracting a literary crowd, too.
Kevin Williamson, founder of Rebel Inc and Neu! Reekie!, says: “Out of the Blue is one of those improbable art organisations that just keeps going, evolving.
“I started going to their original premises in Blackfriars Street, then seemed to live in the New Street/Bongo Club labyrinth for a few years. I’ve organised events, performed, hung out and partied there for the last 20 years. Those guys and gals are true pioneers and have been a big part of my Edinburgh social life.”
Anne-Marie adds: “I remember Irvine Welsh coming along to perform at a poetry night and other events where people would be spilling out onto the street. It became a real magnet for alternative art forms.”
It also made a big impact on Edinburgh’s street scene. Murals at the rear of the Festival Theatre were created with help from young people from Pilton and Muirhouse, while another was produced with the help of pupils at Royal Mile Primary, the Canongate Youth Project and older people at St Anne’s Community Centre to beautify the old Holyrood brewery site, before it became the Scottish Parliament.
And it was thanks to OOTB that Anne-Marie completely ditched the map reading. “I left after two years because being there made me realise I wanted to set up my own art practice so I went off and did an MA so now I’m a working artist. But I did go back and was a director for around six years.”
Two years after opening bigger premises was required, and so there was a move to the old bus station depot on New Street.
Trudi has recalled: “We immediately saw the potential of the premises as a place where we could expand our activities and ideas. We also saw that we could bring together a large number of creative people under one roof while making available affordable studio space.”
Negotiations started and though the 12,000 square feet premises were in a state of disrepair, talents were put to use re-wiring and re-plumbing and features such as old bus seats were used in the gallery.
Painting, sculpture, performance, exhibitions, public art, education projects, outreach work with discharged prisoners and more was brought together, creating an atmosphere where the artists who worked there could benefit from a cross fertilisation of ideas.
Then there was the launch of The Bongo Club, a venue on the ground floor, which became OOTB’s fundraising arm.
“It really helped with our model of being self-supporting,” says Anne-Marie. “I had some of the best nights of my life there. We were also involved in activism – especially with our Tap Water Awards.”
Those were a cheeky rival to the Perrier of Edinburgh’s Fringe – a dig at owner company Nestle’s policies in the developing world.
“We really were open to anything and everyone, perhaps naively, but what we offered really seemed to hit home,” says Anne-Marie. “And 20 years on it’s still doing the same thing. I think we can be proud of that.”
• Out of the Blue is 20! Exhibition runs till May 23. This Saturday is Bruncheon! and Taster Day 11.30am to 3pm at The Drill Hall, Dalmeny Street.
Transforming an army centre into an arts hub
THESE days, Out of the Blue can be found at The Drill Hall in Dalmeny Street – its third home in its 20-year history.
In 2002, the owners of the bus depot site in New Street wanted to sell for redevelopment (later to become the controversial Caltongate project) and so OOTB needed to find somewhere else to go.
Manager Rob Hoon says: “I was brought in for six months when Trudi Gibson was on maternity leave and 15 years later I’m still here. New Street was to be demolished so my job was to find us somewhere else to live. It was tricky because we’re not part of the establishment but we discovered that the army had put the Drill Hall on the market, so with loans from organisations which supported social enterprises we were able to move in.
“Over the years, we’ve transformed a TA centre into an arts centre. Now there are hundreds of people coming in every week for classes, workshops, exhibitions, markets or just lunch at the cafe, which we run as a training project.
“We generate income by letting the space and we also get project funding from various bodies such as the Lottery or Creative Scotland and the council has always supported us.”