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Change ahead for the Society of Scottish Artists

By Neil Cooper, 28.11.2023
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Vasile Toch, SSA President, with his sculpture, 'Soprano's Highest Note'

When Vasile Toch was elected President of the Society of Scottish Artists (SSA) in March 2023, the Romanian born émigré decreed to give Scotland’s oldest and largest artist-led organisations a shake-up. The first fruits of this are to be found in the SSA’s annual exhibition, which, for only the third time in its 125-year existence, moves out of its regular venue at the Royal Academy Building in Edinburgh to take over the Maclaurin Gallery in Ayr.

Here, the SSA show features some 175 artworks across all forms by its members. The exhibition also features work by fifteen recent graduates from Scottish art schools. These young artists are all recipients of SSA awards following visits to degree shows by SSA selectors. A series of moving image works are staged by artist collective, CutLog, while the exhibition features new work by the Maclaurin Gallery’s patron, Peter Howson. Outwith Ayr, an SSA satellite exhibition, Connect and Grow, will run at Cass Art in Glasgow.

The 125th SSA Annual Exhibition, one of the largest and most prestigious shows of contemporary art in Scotland, is being held in Ayr for the first time in The Maclaurin Art Gallery, 19 November 2023 – 14 January 2024 © Peter Sandground

While there are moves afoot for a permanent home for the SSA in Edinburgh, dialogues are also ongoing with art galleries and museums across Scotland to make the SSA’s presence felt more beyond the central belt. Toch and the SSA are also looking to make international connections. As opening statements go, Toch’s ambitions for the organisation are outward looking and dynamic. 

“This exhibition is part of a grander plan to expand the SSA’s impact on to the Scottish scene,” Toch says. “One of my main aims is to try to get our exhibitions seen in other places in Scotland apart from Edinburgh. “At the moment we only have one exhibition a year, but next year we’ll have five. One is in Romania in Bucharest, the others are in Scotland, all over the place. In 2025 we go to Amsterdam. I hope that will bring a focus from the public on what the SSA means, and how we can be a very important agent on the cultural scene.”

A successful architect by trade, and an even more successful sculptor in practice, Toch has been an SSA member since 1988 after arriving in Scotland a year earlier. Toch’s flight from Romania, then under Communist rule, saw him smuggle out one of his works, which won an award at Cleveland International Drawing Bienniale in Teeside. While it would normally have been impossible for Toch to leave Romania, the government thought it would be useful propaganda to allow him to attend the exhibition opening. Toch never went back.

“After I arrived here, I couldn't believe I could speak freely,” he says. “So I was speaking to all kinds of television and radio stations. I later found out that the Communist Romanian embassy would have liked to have a word with me, or send someone to silence me as much as possible, if not for good, but they didn't have the money for the tickets to send someone to Edinburgh.”

Within a year Toch had been introduced to Richard Demarco, who showed Toch’s work in Edinburgh. Demarco became a significant figure in Toch’s personal history, and the pair have exhibited together many times. While Toch recently showed work in Paris, the SSA remains his priority 

“The importance of the SSA firstly is in connecting,” he says, “and bringing avant-garde art from Scotland the people. Second, I want the SSA to contribute to the education of younger generations in the spirit of art. Last but not least, I want to get Scottish art out there on the international scene, and the SSA to be Scottish ambassadors for art.”


The SSA 125th Annual Exhibition is showing at Maclaurin Art Gallery until 14 January 2024