Leah Black explains how Spring Fling, originally a visual arts and craft event, has attracted new visitors by embracing nature and the environment.

Image of dancer at Craigieburn Gardens
A dancer from Oceanallover at Craigieburn Gardens near Moffat

The arts and the environment are increasingly recognised as powerful attractions for visitors to Dumfries and Galloway, and indeed, there is a serious drive underway to interweave the two in order to maximise their potential. For those who have never sauntered along the slow, winding roads of this exceptionally beautiful region of south-west Scotland, imagine Cornwall without the commercialisation. Spectacular countryside, bold seascapes, superb light, pretty towns and villages, plus low property prices, have helped build a vibrant creative community.

One meeting point for arts, the environment and tourism is the Spring Fling visual art and craft open studios event. Now in its eleventh year, it is a high-profile showcase for what the area has to offer. Last year it attracted 10,000 visitors from 19 countries who spent £1.1 million on art, craft, accommodation, food and drink. In an area where traditional sources of employment have seen a sharp decline, success of this kind is welcome. So too is the fact that people who come for Spring Fling tend to return at other times of year.

The aim is to explore our landscape and identity and also build a biennial festival that will attract visitors from all round the UK and overseas

Since I became manager in 2011 we have been focusing on finding new ways for Spring Fling to bring in visitors, to broaden its appeal and to get involved with activities throughout the year. One initiative is the Spring Fling Fringe, which coincides with the main open studios event from 25 to 27 May. This offers a wide selection of evening activities, from music and opera (some are collaborations with the Dumfries and Galloway Arts Festival) to chocolate tasting and the chance to make your own artisan pizza.

An especially intriguing feature of the Fringe is a contemporary dance production called ‘Pollen’, performed in three great gardens, which explores the ways in which everything from people to ideas spread and migrate. Funded as part of the 2013 Year of Natural Scotland (YNS), it is a clear interaction between art and nature. There are others – many of our 93 exhibitors draw not just their inspiration, but often their materials, from the local environment. Read their CVs and you discover that some are involved with projects and hobbies from moorland regeneration to beekeeping.

The region itself boasts a UNESCO biosphere, a Dark Sky Park, plus a variety of National Scenic Areas. All these factors have helped us to develop an impressive environmental arts pedigree. For a taste of this, see Andy Goldsworthy’s ‘Striding Arches’ or ‘Yird Muin Starn’, a star-gazing public art project.

The connections between art, nature and tourism came to the fore in March when Spring Fling was officially launched by Malcolm Roughead, chief executive officer of the VisitScotland national tourism agency. He pointed out the value of the event in persuading visitors to try somewhere new – after all Dumfries and Galloway is a great alternative to places like the Lake District. And we believe there is much more that can be achieved. As a result, Spring Fling has now joined forces with arts development agency Wide Open, and new arts organisation The Stove to pioneer the Environmental Arts Festival Scotland (EAFS).

YNS is an ideal launchpad for the EAFS, which has funding from the Creative Scotland Place Partnership. Events start in July with the full festival taking place from 30 August to 2 September. The aim is to explore our landscape and identity and also build a biennial festival that will attract visitors from all round the UK and overseas. We hope it will become another important part of the region’s catalogue of high-quality events, which range from Wickerman to the Wigtown Book Festival. If this happens, we can not only use art to raise environmental awareness but can strengthen the Spring Fling brand – and beyond that we can reinforce our reputation as a place to visit for celebrations of creativity and the arts.

Leah Black is Manager of Spring Fling.

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Photo of Leah Black