On June 24 the art world will turn its eyes to Dundee, as the city on the Tay hosts Art Night, a one-night festival of contemporary art.
Visitors are expected from all over Scotland and beyond to see new commissions by Turner Prize-shortlisted artists Tai Shani and Heather Phillipson, Max Mara prize-winners Emma Hart and Margaret Salmon and Scottish artists Lucy McKenzie and Saoirse Amira Anis.
A festival vibe will light up the city as bars and restaurants stay open late and the streets come alive with entertainers and food stalls. Made possible by funding from a range of supporters led by Creative Scotland, all the events are free.
The decision to bring the biennial festival to Dundee feels like confirmation of the city’s growing reputation for visual art. When Dundee Contemporary Arts opened its doors back in 1999, the arts was seen as a key element of the city’s regeneration. The opening of V&A Dundee in 2018, the Victoria and Albert Museum’s first satellite outside London, was further confirmation of the city’s growing status. Dundee is one of very few places – and the only one in Scotland – with two galleries (DCA and Cooper Gallery) in the prestigious Plus Tate network, which supports development of the visual arts across the UK.
Says Beth Bate, director of Dundee Contemporary Arts: “Art Night is a brilliant example of how Dundee comes together to make something really ambitious and incredible happen. It’s exactly the kind of project Dundee is good at, working in partnership, collaborating to show off our city.”
“It’s a way of demonstrating to people that there is life beyond the Central Belt. There’s a real sense of pride in this. The work happening for the weekend of Art Night couldn’t happen anywhere else. It couldn’t be lifted up and put into another city. It could only happen in Dundee.”
Organisers are keen to emphasise the long-term engagement process which precedes the festival and how it contributes to the local economy. Art Night’s team of producers and curators are all local and more locals will be recruited to run the night itself.
Events will take place in venues around the city with ten special commissions by local and international artists across civic and public spaces in Dundee. Artist Richy Carey will present a performance and installation emerging from his work with choirs at Baxter Park Pavilion, while musician Nabihah Iqbal will stage a “musical takeover” at RSS Discovery, the ship which took the explorer Scott to the Antarctic. Arthurstone Library, HMS Unicorn, Dundee Rep and The Little Theatre will also host events, as will artist-run spaces, voluntary organisations and community gardens.
Art Night is a very different way of experiencing art from the traditional model in which visitors attend an exhibition in a gallery which runs for a period. The work which is being programmed for the festival is the kind which best suits the model: performances, film premieres and participatory happenings rather than static exhibitions.
Helen Nisbet, artistic director of Art Night, says: “If it’s on for three months you might miss it. If it’s on for a week, you might miss it. But if it’s on for one night, you have one chance. There’s something about catching the moment. I don’t think every art institution should start showing work for one night only, but the festival buzz works beautifully for Art Night.”
Art Night was founded in 2015 in London by Ksenia Zemtsova and Philippine Nguyen, who were inspired by seeing a similar event in Paris. After three years in central London, drawing an audience of mainly young people, the fourth Art Night took place in Walthamstow in 2019. Emphasising community and civic spaces, it reached a much wider age range. In 2021 Art Night piloted a nationwide festival, partly online and partly socially distanced.
Helen Nisbet says: “We always intended to go back to the model of one location, one night because the energy of a festival is so crucial to Art Night. We plan now to make it a national biennial in a new city each time. Dundee is a walkable city with gorgeous venues, beautiful buildings, the cultural leadership in the city is phenomenal, the artist-led spaces are ingenious. It felt like a no-brainer.”
The success of Art Night in London suggests the one-night model is effective in drawing in new audiences. Research found that 80 per cent of recently surveyed audiences for Art Night were not familiar with the artists, contemporary art or disciplines they experienced.
Nisbet says: “It’s really important that there is a local audience, and they might be people who have never seen contemporary art before. With art happening in spaces they know and love, we hope they might think, ‘I’ll go and see what that looks like’, and then maybe feel emboldened to go and look at other things. With the lateness and the festival buzz, we hope people will be willing to give something a go.”
Sophia Hao, director and principal curator at Cooper Gallery at Duncan of Jordanstone College of Art & Design, has for the last decade pioneered the event-based model of presenting contemporary art as a means of taking it beyond the four walls of the gallery into the public realm.
She says, “Events provide a way of reaching out to individuals and communities, different types of audiences who might not have any experience of or interest in contemporary art. This type of exhibition-making enables us to integrate what we do into the social fabric of the city, not just doing it within a white cube. The events-based approach puts the audience at the centre, not the object. The space is reconfigured to encourage a social experience, not a private or solitary one.”
“I believe this is the most cogent thing a contemporary art space can do, especially in times of crisis such as we are now experiencing. Contemporary art has the potential to reconfigure how we see and experience the world.”
Art Night will take place on Saturday 24 June, 7pm till late. artnight.org.uk