Stephen Palmer, passionate arts worker who believed in power of creativity

Born: December 28, 1968;

Died: June 7, 2021

Stephen Palmer, who has died aged 52, was a highly regarded and deeply respected arts development officer who made the business of arts funding human, understandable and non-threatening.

My long-term colleague and friend, Stephen was born in Stockton on Tees to parents Barbara and David and was the middle brother of David and Victoria. Following his foundation year at Cleveland College of Art and Design he graduated from Middlesex Polytechnic with a degree in fine art and English. On graduation he secured his first job in the arts at the Dovecot Arts Centre in Stockton where he held a variety of roles including being artist in residence at a local secondary school, teaching print-making to unemployed young people in communities in East Cleveland and managing the gallery and film programmes at the centre. These early experiences seem to have been formative in shaping Stephen’s interests and roles throughout his career, including his passion for working with young people, his belief in the power of creativity to transform lives and his love of film and all forms of contemporary culture.

In 1997, he moved to Scotland securing work as the film development officer at the Macrobert Arts Centre at Stirling University and then as film programmer at the Filmhouse in Edinburgh. He held various temporary contracts including teaching English to visiting students at Esk Valley College and leading community film and animation projects for the Citizens Theatre in Glasgow as part of their ongoing work in promoting cultural diversity. It was also during this period that Stephen met his wife, Pippa Richardson, and she recalls how "he scooped us up, so fun, beautiful and handsome, so kind and gentle. He made us all feel safe, finding and giving joy in the simplest things as well as the most complicated".

In 2004 Stephen was appointed arts development officer at Falkirk Council with a specific remit for promoting and supporting the visual arts and crafts across the region. In addition to strategy and policy work he was the lead programmer and manager of the Park Gallery. Managing the gallery played to Stephen’s strengths and enabled him to develop his curatorial outlook and ambition. He relished the opportunity to develop and present an exhibition programme that introduced audiences to new experiences and perspectives, maintaining an excellent balance between more traditional and more experimental work. He used the role to build relationships with artists at a local and national level, becoming an advocate and champion for their work. So many artists have remarked on the support and advice they received from Stephen, and his exceptional ability to connect people to opportunities, to build knowledge and to nurture confidence.

In 2007 Stephen took up the position of visual arts officer at the Scottish Arts Council and transferred to its successor body Creative Scotland in 2010. He took exceptional pride in his work, whether that was advising an organisation on a significant, multi-million pound development or helping somebody who was starting out at the early stages of their career. Stephen would take the time to understand the needs of other people and to provide them with all the help and advice he could. He was always on the side of those who needed his support and he put his relationships with people in the sector ahead of the bureaucratic necessities of the position he held.

In his role at Creative Scotland Stephen took a strategic lead on a number of policy initiatives but he took a particular interest in the development of curatorial knowledge and believed strongly in the importance of travel to broaden horizons and to encourage connections, leading delegations throughout the UK and to Australia, China, Germany, Istanbul and Venice.

While a keen internationalist, he also had a strong enthusiasm for working at a local level, most clearly evidenced in his development of the Visual Artist and Craft Makers Awards, a devolved programme of small grants managed with 25 partners across the country. These interests and connections were further strengthened in 2016 when he undertook an interim role as head of place, partnerships and communities working closely with local authorities and cultural trusts to support their strategic plans.

Throughout his time in Creative Scotland Stephen maintained his support for young people and always enjoyed providing advice to those just starting out in their career. He was responsible for developing a youth employment strategy working across art forms and establishing a range of apprenticeships and trainee positions. He provided mentorship to young people through Project Scotland and was lead officer for the gallery educators network, Engage. Many artists and curators have expressed their debt to him for helping them navigate those early years in their career.

Outside of work Stephen volunteered as a member of the Panel for Children's Hearings Scotland from 2011 onwards. Those that worked with him remember a man of great integrity and principle, somebody who took great care in managing complex situations and who did a lot of good things for a lot of vulnerable people.

He regularly attended exhibitions and enjoyed travelling, shopping for the perfect things for the perfect price, his family, his dogs, cooking, baking cakes and walking (at the fastest pace). He was generous, kind, handsome and stylish. So stylish, his ability to match his watch with his socks and trainers was legendary.

In late 2019 Stephen was diagnosed with Motor Neurone Disease but he continued to work throughout his illness providing unstinting support to his colleagues across Creative Scotland and within the wider visual arts community in Scotland. He will be especially remembered for his expansive knowledge and overview of contemporary art and culture, his supportive outlook to others, and his ability to bring humanity and humour into all aspects of the job, no matter how tough or difficult the situation. He was, and will remain, a constant source of encouragement to so many friends and colleagues, helping them to believe in themselves and to take that next step forward.

Stephen is survived by his wife Pip and daughters Phoebe and Billie.