INVERNESS is getting closer to securing a gallery of national importance and local artists are playing a key role in ensuring that happens, according to the man leading the steering group aiming to secure it. Highland Gallery Working Group chairman Professor Duncan MacMillan, one of Scotland's foremost art historians and former director of Edinburgh University's Talbot Rice Gallery, was speaking at the opening of the annual exhibition of work from the Art Society of Inverness, the biggest group of its kind in Scotland with an age range of 13 to 93. "I think it is going to happen," Professor MacMillan said. "There is a groundswell of support for the project, which would not exist without the support of the largest art society in Scotland." Professor MacMillan, who was brought up in Glen Urquhart and still has a home there, also stressed the importance of visual art to a changing Highlands. Pointing out that the society, which is staging its exhibition in the Eastgate Centre for the first time, dates back to 1944, Professor MacMillan commented: "Thinking about change in the Highlands, it's easy to think about how much has been lost in that change, but this, of course, is Highland 2007, a festival to celebrate the Highlands and how much positive change there has been. "Inverness may be a planning disaster and I don't mind being quoted on that but it's also an economic success story. Part of that enduring success is a solid cultural base and in the 21st century the most important part of culture is visual art. I think visual art is the literacy of the young generation anyway. "The Highlands are changing in a very, very positive way. It's a much more unified country than it was before and art plays an important part in that." Professor MacMillan, whose books include "Scottish Art in the 20th Century" and "Scottish Art 1460-2000", also praised the level of artistic achievement shown by the almost 200 works on display. "You don't have selection, your president Avril Marr tells me. Well, I don't think you need it. Standards are obviously very high," he said. As is the norm, landscapes were a popular choice with many of the artists inspired by Highland scenery though some tackled views from much further afield, the most distant probably being Dorothy Nierinck's atmospheric watercolour of Cradle Mountain in Tasmania. Closer to home, Penny Veitch contributed an impeccably-detailed study of "Loch Duich/Loch Alsh", while Isobel Caldwell delivered very professional watercolours of the Caledonian Canal and Cawdor Castle and Eric Allan captured the riverscapes of central Inverness. There was a photo-like quality to Bette Inglis's oil "The Lake Drum Castle", while deft use of light and shade was a feature of Miriam Smith's "Woodland Shadows" and Margaret MacKay's "Gilbert's Farm". Poppies also proved to be a popular theme, with the best of these perhaps Christine O'Keeffe's "Summer" with its contrasting greens, reds and blacks, a deserved early sale. Poppies also featured in David MacKenzie's beautiful oil study "Jura", while Jennifer England Kerr opted for clematis and camelia for her delicate flower studies. Among the representatives of the animal kingdom was Elizabeth Bennet's ink drawing of her dog, "Meg Galloping", which won the public vote in the Merkinch Arts Festival. Eileen Addly's "High Tide" and Robert James's ghostly "Paper Thin" both managed to be spooky in their different ways, while artists opting for less conventional works included Ramunas Rupsys's pop art influenced "...?", Helen Allan's mixed media acrylics and Clare Blois's impressionistic "Summer Remembered". The exhibition will continue at the Eastgate Centre until Saturday 4th August. This year's society prize-winners are: Best new exhibitor Aileen McKinlay, "Baby Wild Man".
Best use of artists' materials Gillian Pattinson, "Oystercatcher".
Best picture William Hogg, "Bow Fiddle Rock".
President's Prize Theresa Brown, "Ram Profile".