Published  05/03/2009

V&A at Dundee: Making it Happen

V&A at Dundee: Making it Happen

University of Dundee
24-25 February 2009


The mood was upbeat for the conference to explore the feasibility of building a V&A in the Scottish city of Dundee, in spite of global economic turmoil and gloomy forecasts. Indeed proposals for a £40 million branch of the Victoria and Albert Museum on the Dundee waterfront gathered serious momentum as the conference heard from a range pf speakers including the Director of the V&A Mark Jones, University of Dundee academics and administrators responsible for the establishment of the project, Sir Alan Langlands and Professor Georgina Follett, Dundee city planners and guests from the Baltic Centre, Gateshead and the Guggenheim Museum in Bilbao.

The MSP, Shona Robison argued that the proposed building project would provide Dundee with 900 new jobs and an annual income to the city of £2m. She acknowledged that there were challenges to overcome but that the project had the transformational ability to change Dundee for the future, and for more than just one sector. It would engender hope, ambition and a community spirit. The Director of Bilbao’s urban regeneration company, Juan Alayo, of the Bilbao Ria 2000 organisation spoke in enthusiastic terms, pointing out the value of an iconic structure such as Frank Gehry’s iconic Guggenheim Museum. He called on Dundee to stage an international competition to find an architect worthy of the project. “I think a building like that makes a statement of people’s ambition and confidence. The Guggenheim has given people from Bilbao self-esteem and pride back because the city was in a very poor state in the 1980s, a desolate place to be in, grey, dirty. For something that is going to be a showcase for Dundee to look at, an international-level competition is not a bad way to go. It has to be functional, but to get a building that really sits there - is a statement of Dundee – that should be a priority. It has to be the piece that animates that waterfront and can become an image of Dundee.”1

Early feasibility studies for V&A Dundee, which is backed by Dundee University and Dundee City Council, have been drawn up by Conran and Partners and the business planning consultant, Whetstone. The green light has not yet been given at government level yet, but it is understood that proposals such as this are well received by first minister, Alex Salmond. The touchstone at the core of the project has always been Bilbao”.2 The Guardian published ‘Top draws: museums and galleries offer light amid the economic gloom’, without reference to the Dundee proposal, a day after the conference, stating that the next year could be a good time for cultural institutions. “Though the recession is global, the weaker pound against the dollar and euro may help bring more people through the doors. A higher proportion of international visitors was forecast by 28% of attractions, more than twice the 13% who expected a drop”. In Glasgow where the Kelvingrove Art Gallery and Museum received a £35m refurbishment, there was a massive increase in visitor numbers. Glasgow has invested heavily in culture: £74 is being spent on the new Riverside museum, a Zaha Hadid designed building which will celebrate the area’s industrial heritage when it opens in 2011. James Doherty, media manager of Culture and Sport Glasgow, told the Guardian, “Glasgow is the prime example of how investment in cultural infrastructure has pulled [a city] through recession. It has turned round what was a deprived, post-industrial city in the 70s.”3

The conference in Dundee was addressed by Mark Jones, Director of the Victoria and Albert Museum. He gave a history of the V&A in which he emphasised the fact that the V&A grew out of anxiety during the 1830s that British Manufacturers had to compete on an international stage but lacked design expertise. It was an educational initiative by the Westminster government, which began with the establishment of a Drawing School, headed by William Dyce. Their view was that education could not exist without examples of excellence, hence the establishment of a museum collection that ranged from works by Raphael to a fine selection of contemporary design. One of the first graduates was Christopher Dresser, a pioneer of design in the nineteenth century, and a major figure in British design history. The V&A mounted an exhibition in 2004: Christopher Dresser, 1834-1904: A Design Revolution (reviewed for Studio International by Dr Clive Ashwin). It is exhibitions of this calibre that a satellite V&A, in Dundee could accommodate, vital to education in Scotland which has a strong tradition in design, technology and craft.

In his lecture, Mark Jones continued to illustrate the history of the Victoria and Albert museum, citing the impact of the Great Exhibition in 1851, housed in the Crystal Palace, an industrially designed construct by Joseph Paxton, resembling a giant glasshouse. It attracted 6 million people; the surplus of £186,000 was used to found the V&A, the Science Museum and the Natural History Museum. Henry Cole, Director of the School of Design was a key figure in the organisation, identifying that the public interest and attendance was pivotal in the appreciation of the work of artists and designers. The V&A was not a Royal Collection such as the Louvre or antiquarian like the Ashmolean; it was purpose-built. The building was made before the collection was acquired. The new building in South Kensington had a William Morris Tea Room and a Lecture Room on the next level. It was primarily a teaching Museum, as a Punch cartoon captured, presenting a choice between the morally superior House for the Public, and the Public House. The V&A exemplified Victorian principles that art should be morally elevating. 

Mark Jones is no new comer to Scotland, having moved from his first position of 18 years at the British Museum to Edinburgh in 1991 to run the National Museums of Scotland. There oversaw the £55m project to build the new Museum of Scotland, for which he had to raise £18m. At the V&A he has been Director since 2001 where his arrival there was just six months before the opening of the refurbished British Galleries at the cost of £31. Funded by lottery money and private donations, the V&A offers a visual guide to the economic, social and artistic history of 400 years. Studio International celebrated its 100th birthday there with the exhibition, curated by Lionel Lambourne, High Art and Low Life: The Studio and the Arts of the 1890s.4 Any student or scholar who has had the good fortune to use the collection at the V&A will realise that, like many major museums around the world, only a fraction of the works held can ever be shown. It makes perfect sense to enable exhibitions of their exquisite and remarkable holdings to travel. The opportunity for Dundee and all of Scotland to be able to attend blockbuster exhibitions at home is a great one in educational and economic terms.  The role of Director of a major museum is as much about housekeeping as connoisseurship: there are ongoing repairs, rewiring, refurbishment, at all levels, and the planning of new projects such as the Dundee satellite. There is also the administrative reality of government approval, keeping curatorial staff and trustees satisfied and the public flowing into exhibitions and the permanent collection. At the Museum of Scotland Mark Jones endeared himself to staff by rolling up his sleeves and sweeping the floor to meet the deadline of opening day. Such loyalty from staff is a good omen, for Dundee requires a sensitivity to win the city of Dundee over. One of the main issues emphasised by MSPs and university staff members was that a museum in Dundee with a signature building, would have to involve the whole population, not be an elitist institution. Jones’s lecture consolidated the basic principles of the V&A from a historical perspective, an inclusive, purpose-built institution with a community responsibility and an educational remit to the wider community. V&A Dundee would not be a branch of the V&A. It would have a wonderful building, an icon of contemporary design, which would bring an element of magic to the waterfront of Dundee. V&A London would not be involved in the running of the museum, but would offer expertise and a useful partnership. Mark Jones pointed out the fact that Dundee already had two fine universities, which led the world in biomedicine and the digital/video industry. Recession is the time to invest in bold decisions. The project can be well advanced before the building appears.

Joan Concarron, Director of External Relations at the University of Dundee addressed the problems in image and reality of Dundee. She described the transformation of Dundee over the past ten years including the city centre refurbishment and the establishment of the Dundee Contemporary Arts Centre.

At the time this was considered by many to be a potential white elephant but in fact what it actually demonstrated was that a small city like Dundee could and did use cultural policy to successfully kick-start economic development. The changes in the city over the last ten years have signified a new confidence in our ability to attract inward investment and develop our profile beyond the traditional image of jute jam and journalism. And in terms of raising awareness of Dundee, the DCA had a major impact and helped develop international creative collaborations.

She continued:

Numerous studies have demonstrated that despite considerable infrastructural investment little has changed in the way of mass public perception of Dundee as a grey, unexciting post-industrial city with significant social problems and the initial impact of cultural policy combined with economic development has dissipated a little as other post industrial cities have embarked on bigger projects.
Our proposal was essentially very simple – to use the opportunity of the development of the Dundee waterfront to create an iconic statement building at the very heart of the waterfront that would house contemporary collections from the V&A and attract the best international exhibitions from around the world. Further we wanted to go back to our successes with the DCA on a bigger scale to revitalise economic development, develop greater opportunities for inward investment and job creation and most crucially develop a project that by its sheer audacity would help change the perception of Dundee.

Professor Georgina Follett addressed the conference after years of diligent work on the project. Her personal dedication has been vital to the project reaching this stage. Professor Follett is a Deputy Principal of the University of Dundee and Dean of Duncan of Jordanstone College of Art and Design. She is Principal Investigator of the Past, Present & Future Craft Practice, AHRC funded project, and a key figure in the Dundee V&A proposal. Born in London, she is a graduate of the Royal College of Art.

Design On, an exhibition accompanies the conference V&A at Dundee, Making it Happen, and includes work from the PPFCP which is exploring new directions, practices and perspectives in contemporary craft – helping to define a new relevance for craft in the 21st century. PPFCP spans a five-year period and will conduct comparative research on visual and cultural aesthetics of craft-based practice; addressing the plurality of perspectives inherent in creative thinking. It will develop visual methods of interrogating the process of craft-based practice for the study of craft knowledge, involving participative and non-participative observation. Further, it will develop an integrative framework of history, theory, and practice for analysing the material obtained through the application of visual methods. Design On, will be reviewed by Studio International in March 2009. ( Georgina Follett explained:

The V&A at Dundee’s will focus on contemporary culture in design, digital and the applied arts, including showcasing the work of Scotland's practitioners. This partnership with the V&A will invigorate the cultural /creative industries as an elite world-class institution, synonymous with quality, innovation and vision. The V&A brings to Dundee and Scotland the opportunity to showcase the work of our practitioners in an international context.
This context is vital. We have to be able to demonstrate that the products and the intellectual arguments expounded through research are comparable with the best in the world. This development will enable acknowledgement by the international community of Scotland’s capability for creative excellence, giving voice to disciplines currently silent within the Scottish economic engine.
Although there are 12 public galleries and museums in Scotland, only the Lighthouse has the mission to showcase Architecture and some design, there is a gap in provision for contemporary thinking, products and publications, the V&A partnership fills this gap in Scotland’s infra-structure for exhibitions to view its best practitioners in a venue that showcases these disciplines as its core mission.

It is through educational investment Follett argues, that V&A Dundee would be most beneficial, and in economic terms justifiable:

Scotland invests £56.1 million in its educational provision for the arts in higher education through the art colleges at undergraduate and postgraduate level. In addition it provides £4.2 million for Quality Research, a total investment of £60.3 million. Over 50% of students are studying design and 17 Scottish Universities have programmes that operate within the creative sector providing the basis for continual regeneration of talent into the market place.
Education is a significant investment, providing for the future, currently, to see exhibitions within their field, practitioners and students alike travel outside of Scotland to ensure that they are aware of the international movements within their disciplines, to be successful visually it is essential to have access to the objects of visual practice, the internet and books do not convey the visual subtleties inherent in actual objects.

Professor Follett also made a strong case for creative art practice in Scotland, pointing out that,  “there are 195,000 creative practitioners, accounting for 5% of Scotland’s employment. The creative industries are growing at 2% per annum faster than the rest of the economy and have potential for further growth”.

The conference heard further presentations from Jim McFarlane, Scottish Enterprise, and Mike Galloway, Director of Planning, Dundee City Council. Two speakers from Bilbao:  Juan Alayo from Bilbao Rio 2000 and Professor Beatriz Plaza, Professor of Economics, University of the Basque Country spoke of the Regeneration of Bilbao and the Guggenheim effect. In 1997 the city of Bilbao was a cultural backwater that had fallen on hard economic times when officials commissioned architect Frank Gehry to design one of the landmark Museums for the Guggenheim Foundation, based in New York: the Guggenheim Museum, Bilbao. “The phrase “Bilbao Effect” was coined to describe how dramatic architecture can transform an entire city – and in the process, make that metropolis a cultural destination. The Guggenheim Museum Bilbao’s debut set in motion a city-wide revitalisation program in Bilbao that continues to this day as architects like Norman Foster, Santiago Calatrava, César Pelli, Zaha Hadid, Federico Soriano, Dolores Palacios, Arata Isozaki…  construct stunning performing arts centres, congress halls, hotels, bridges, metro stations, airport terminals, and shopping and entertainment complexes”.5

Juan Alayo was keen to point out that Dundee was further along the path of regeneration than Bilbao had been, when it embarked on the Guggenheim project, facing major infrastructure programmes and serious pollution in the river after a long history of chemical and steel manufacture. The stench of the river was one of the costliest issues to resolve – €700m was spent on cleaning the river alone. Beatriz Plaza experienced a ‘beautiful sunset over the River Tay’ on her arrival in Dundee, emphasising that Dundee had natural beauty that Bilbao lacked. Her economic figures were also convincing illustrating that the combination of an iconic building and a ‘brand’ such as Guggenheim or V&A could kick-start economic and cultural growth. Georgina Follett summed up the case for support:

The partnership portfolios match the inherent strengths in Scottish Art institutions and creative sectors, which have been at the forefront of many innovations within design including games, inter-active media, textiles, photography, printmaking, video, animation to name but a few. The gallery provision proposed capitalises on Dundee’s and Scotland’s visual economies, but it is the co-location of the works that is of vital importance, being able to contextualise Scotland’s creative capital against the best in the world, will bring attention to the products of our creative practitioners.
A centre such as is proposed will provide a focus for debate and enable engagement in contemporary design dialogues. The V&A at Dundee would give focus, gravity and balance competitive opportunity for creative practice and its universities through access to contemporary international collections and Scotland’s leading edge culture and creativity.
This is the chance to make Dundee the place to see contemporary visual practice, in design and the applied arts together with contemporary fine art at Dundee Contemporary Arts (DCA) and to enable our future practitioners to take inspiration from exposure to the world’s leading contemporary applied art and design, and see a future for themselves within a new and emergent economic sector.
 The vision is to have a curatorial strategy to partner existing Scottish excellence in the creative and applied arts with international partners – building on the partnership with the V&A to attract other important international touring exhibitions to Dundee.

1. Tim Cornwell, “It may be time for Scots version of Guggenheim”, The Scotsman, Edinburgh, 26 February 2009.
2. Ibid.
3. James Meikle, “Top draws: museums and galleries offer light amid the economic gloom”, The Guardian, 26 February 2009.
4. 23 June–31 October 1993. The catalogue: High Art and Low Life: The Studio and the Fin de Siècle, Studio International Special Centenary Number, Volume 201, 1022/1023, incorporating The Studio founded in 1893. The Arthur M. Sackler for the Foundation for the Arts, Sciences and Humanities, 1993.
5. ForImmediateRelease.Net, August 2, 2007.


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