The origin of East Ayrshire's Fine Art collection, housed mainly at The Dick Institute in Kilmarnock, can be dated back to 1831.
It was in 1831 that a group of local amateur artists formed
the Kilmarnock Drawing Academy. Their aim was to encourage the
patronage of gentleman of the town in building a collection of
works of art which could be used as examples to emulate by these
artists. Sadly, the Academy was short lived, coming to an end the
following year when a nationwide cholera epidemic overtook
In 1892 a donation of a geological collection to the Burgh of Kilmarnock prompted calls for a municipal museum to be set up. 9 years later in 1901, the Dick Institute opened with an exhibition of paintings in its lecture theatre. It included works by local artists and members of the 'Glasgow School'.
The display was intended to encourage potential donors to add to a permanent collection and had some success in doing so. However in 1909 a fire took hold of the building. Fortunately the fledgling collection was saved in its entirety by staff who removed paintings from the walls as they evacuated the building.
Over the course of the 20th century the collection has continued to grow in size and range through donations by private individuals and latterly through purchases in accordance with the collecting policy.
Two private donors in particular made substantial contributions to the collection. One of these was Sir Alexander Walker (1869 - 1950), grandson of the founder of John Walker and Sons who donated work over a period of 30 years. Amongst these was work by local artists of local scenes, work by artists who hold an important place in the history of Scottish art and also work by widely known European artists. Walker had little interest in the more radical contemporary art of his day and the works that he donated did not accord with fashionable taste. Today however, they are some of the most admired in the Dick Institute's collection.
The other substantial benefactor was George Dunlop (1876 - 1909), proprietor of the Kilmarnock Standard. He had a particular, although not exclusive, interest in Scottish art and is to a very great extent, responsible for the collections strength in this area. Like Walker, Dunlop was not attracted by the cutting edge of the contemporary art of his day.
The taste of individual donors shapes the collection, contributing to its strengths and explaining gaps which exist within it. Walker and Dunlop's donations left a gap when it came to modern Scottish art. During the 1970s this imbalance was redressed to a degree, by the Robert Colquhoun Memorial Award. This competition was set up by the town to acknowledge local artist Colquhoun's achievements. It attracted entries from young aspiring artists and winning entries were acquired by the Dick Institute, strengthening the collection in the area of contemporary art.
The prevailing collecting policy's emphasis has been on the acquisition of works of local historical interest and works by artists of the present and the past who have local connections.
The Arts & Museums Service of East Ayrshire Council has published a pocket-sized book entitled "Look: Fine Art" which features some of the highlights of the fine art collection held at the Dick Institute. It is available for £2 from all of East Ayrshire Council's museums.