The annual Eyrarrós arts award ceremony took place yesterday afternoon at The Freezer Hostel in Rif, Snæfelsnes. Locals and artists mingled with the three finalists, which had been winnowed down from the 40-odd art organisations who answered the open call for entries.
The throng took a tour of the theatre and art facilities that won the Freezer Hostel the 2015 Eyrarrós award, before gathering around the stage to hear the 2016 announcement. After a speech from the local mayor championing the value of the arts to small communities, the winner was announced as Verksmiðjan in Hjalteyri—an ambitious artist-led project that has redeveloped an abandoned herring factory into a thriving arts hub in northern Iceland.
It fended of strong competition from the new Eldheimar volcano museum in the Westman Islands, and the Fresh Winds arts festival at Garður in the south west. “All three of the finalists are fantastic projects,” said Hanna Styrmisdóttir, the director of Reykjavík Arts Festival, and one of the team behind the prize. “What made the Hjalteyri Verksmiðjan stand out is firstly that it’s been running so successfully for eight years—and it’s an unbelievably ambitious project. The factory was standing empty for a long time, and they’ve given it new life—it’s made this tiny village a destination in the summer months. And their programme itself is incredibly diverse. It’s such an interesting thing to do in a place like that.”
The Eyrarrós award aims to highlight the invaluable contribution of creative labour to Iceland’s rural society. Small post-industrial villages all around the coast have long been suffering a drain of citizens, especially young people. But arts-oriented initiatives can provide a much-needed point of focus to these far-flung communities.
“Last year’s winner, The Freezer Hostel, is a case in point,” added Hanna. “As the mayor mentioned in his speech, people have come to realise that to keep small rural towns alive, it takes more than just jobs. In the past, that was enough, but now, people need more. Additionally, many of the tourists that come here aren’t interested only in the landscape, but in the culture of the people who choose to live in these remote areas.”
The director of the Hjalteyri Verksmiðjan, the smartly-dressed Gústav Geir Bollason, collected the winner’s bouquet and certificate with a shy smile. “Our project was founded by artists,” he said, afterwards, in his thick French accent. “It was an artist’s association that rented the factory. Our programme is mostly visual arts, in a very broad sense that often includes sound and music in connection with the art. Until now, our programme has been May-October—we run a residency, workshops with art schools, and a new exhibition each month. But we want to expand into the winter—that work is underway now.”
The Eyrarrós award’s patron is Dorrit Moussaieff, the first lady of Iceland, who was absent from the ceremony due to illness. Nevertheless, winning Eyrarrós is a stamp of approval that’s every bit as helpful as the prize money. “The award helps us a lot,” says Gústav. “For example, we have to renew the rental contract for the factory annually, which makes it hard to plan for the next year. Winning Eyrarrós helps us to convince people that what we’re doing is more than just ‘useless art.’ It helps them to realise our project is worthwhile, and something to believe in.”
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