Design museum is Dundee’s gain and Glasgow’s loss
THERE have been few cultural press conferences in the Scotland of recent memory quite like Wednesday morning’s before the press view of the opening exhibitions at the V&A Dundee. In front of the forest of TV and video cameras, unoccupied seats were few and far between for those of us who reached the designated room just as director Philip Long got to his feet. The realisation of Kengo Kuma’s remarkable building as Scotland’s first dedicated museum of design attracted international attention as well as comprehensive coverage from the media at home.
There was, as is mandatory these days, much talk of partnership as well as great emphasis on the local initiative behind the narrative of the creation of the gallery, so it was slightly odd that no one from the University of Dundee, credited by all with initiating the conversation, was among the speakers.
It was also peculiar to hear so much emphasis placed on what the V&A Dundee is not. Long was adamant that he was not running “an outstation of London”, while the man now in charge of the brand’s South Kensington HQ, Tristram Hunt, declared it was “not a branch office”. Quite what its status is with regard to access to the vast collection of the V&A, from which the 12,000 objects identified as having “a Scottish connection” are represented by 200 on display, remained unclear, although a degree of curatorial as well as administrative autonomy was certainly implied.
What the V&A Dundee also is not, of course, is anything to do with the National Galleries of Scotland (NGS), although that term “outstation” may well have originated in Long’s mind there, where it was once part of the corporate vocabulary. It was in the last decade of the last century that the National Galleries, then under the leadership of Sir Timothy Clifford, began to talk about establishing a new National Gallery of Art and Design, for which the city of Glasgow made an audacious bid, pointing out that there was no reason why all the NGS activity should be concentrated in the capital. A protracted bidding process pitted Edinburgh and Glasgow against one another, and the smart money – although perhaps not the stuff in the deepest pockets – was on Glasgow, which offered sites including the Old Sheriff Court on Ingram Street, the Post Office on George Square and a leafy location in Kelvingrove Park, as well as the compelling case that Scotland’s major industrial centre had nurtured the lion’s share of the nation’s reputation in architecture and design as well as currently being home to the most acclaimed contemporary artists.
After many reports and lengthy consultation, the idea of a Scottish National Gallery of Art and Design came to nothing and the NGS instead developed the Dean Gallery, now styled SNGMA2, in Belford Road, opposite the existing Gallery of Modern Art. It opened under the supervision of a man who had been intimately involved in the whole story of the unfolding possibility of a new NGS gallery, one Philip Long. Two decades or so down the line, he has ended up in charge of the national gallery of design that many thought Scotland should have, on the other side of the country from where many thought it should have been.
There is no denying that Dundee is at the cutting edge of design in certain areas in this digital age, and that its dramatic new gallery is the latest manifestation of culturally-led regeneration there that perhaps puts Glasgow’s stalled journey down the same road to shame, but it also remains to be seen whether the V&A Dundee attracts the numbers that such a gallery in the much bigger city might have done. One thing is for sure, though: Glasgow’s loss is Dundee’s gain.