Opens to the public 2nd November
A gilded sign above the entrance to Aberdeen’s Belmont Street tells the visitor ‘Art Gallery at the end of this street’. There are two ways of looking at this, if you’ll forgive the pun: inviting him or her to leave Union Street, a short stroll up this convivial pedestrian thoroughfare will reward with the sight of the city’s renewed major public institution – a municipal cultural space that’s the best a city can offer; but it also hints at something long-standing that the Gallery is very aware of – that its position is at one remove from the bustling central trunk of Union Street, the heart of city life. For the team undertaking the transformation of this flagship establishment, this challenge of engaging with its constituency has been exacerbated by the length of time – four years – that the Gallery has been closed to visitors, while the once-in-a-lifetime renovation project has taken shape.
But the anticipation has been worth it. Representing a return for over £34 million in investment, the new Gallery (really an integrated campus, comprising art spaces, the Cowdray Hall performance space and Remembrance Hall) is powerfully impressive, and unquestionably world-class. Thoughtfully planned and meticulously executed, the project has successfully raised the status of an important and highly-respected institution, already with a collection of true importance, to a truly leading UK cultural destination that functions as a visitor attraction as well it does a local facility, engaging positively with the community that, through the auspices of Aberdeen City Council, has invested in it as a major city asset – part of a master-project of new and improved cultural and transport facilities and area developments.
The highlights of the redevelopment, shown to Artmag in a preview in the run-up to the public opening on 2nd November, include vastly-increased display space (nineteen galleries, up from eleven in 2015, showing 1,080 works displayed compared to 370). The building has been comprehensively and seamlessly expanded by Glasgow-based Hoskins Associates, who have applied experience gained from their myriad major gallery projects to creating much-improved circulation and access, opening new sightlines and adding a whole new floor of display space, opening-out onto views over the city; major elements have been introduced, such as new lighting with adjustable colour-temperature appropriate to sensitive artworks – and an extended vocabulary of materials, such as copper, and wayfinding has been comprehensively redesigned.
Another key step forward, and up, is the new approach that embraces new themes to group together and display the artworks – painting, prints, drawings, sculpture, textiles, glass, jewellery, ceramics and decorative arts. The collection – one of the UK’s finest – is now articulated in terms not only of dates and artistic movement, but other themes such as ‘Shoreline’ (our relationship with the sea – a strong local theme), ‘Art of Empowerment’ (the changing roles of women in art and crafts in 19th-20th centuries), and ‘People and Portraits’.
The project team’s approach to display is striking, thoughtfully balancing the differing expectations of staging headlining large temporary displays, with those of repeated local or casual visits (the writer Alan Bennet commented that museums should never lose sight of the function they serve for people who just want to escape the rain for half an hour). Other visitors amply served by the new arrangement here include youngsters, who are encouraged to participate through dressing-up, to take self-portraits, explore materials and painting styles, draw and interact with questions about artworks. Exhibition-interpretation design experts Studioarc have worked imaginatively on the displays, with interactive screens introduced thoughtfully to stimulate visitors’ creativity, and the paintings’ height has been lowered to better match the viewers’ gaze. Balancing this, though, is the ring-fencing of Mondays as a quiet day, for those who prefer it.
The extraordinarily-accomplished work of prolific self-taught artist James McBey (1883 – 1959) is afforded a new dedicated room, together with a library bearing his name – his accomplished etchings a personal highlight for me, along with his acclaimed portraits. Access to the Remembrance Hall has been vastly enhanced, the distinctive dome and balcony topping a reflective space for a continuous digital roll-call of fallen service personnel, appropriate new art commissions such as Forget Them Not – a moving granite memorial sculpture by eminent Aberdeenshire sculptor Gordon Burnett.
Countless other improvements have been delivered to raise the cachet of the buildings, and the work they express, up into the very top-class of Scottish and UK attractions – for instance the Cowdray Hall, internationally noted for its acoustic properties, has been re-worked to a top standard and a full concert programme will take place. Although arguably a different kind of attraction, not being a municipal collection, the V&A Dundee makes an interesting parallel, and the two are undoubtedly much more than just exhibition display spaces – in a changing economic and cultural landscape, they’re now serving to help propel the cities and regions they are set in to newly-imagined heights, through previously-unattainable ambition.
Turner Prize-winner Tracey Emin’s For You neon work (see below) made a lasting impression: the only artwork to have been placed back exactly where it was prior to removal in 2015, it greets the visitor in the central sculpture court, bearing a text that could be a fitting statement made by the Gallery building itself to its public, who have held faith with it during its closure: ‘I Felt you And I know You Loved me X‘.
With thanks to Margaret Sweetnam, Helen Fothergill, Christina Rew, Nick Van Joncker and Truda Spruyt. See the current issue of Artmag for more about Aberdeen Art Gallery, including a survey of some highlights from the collection, by Head of Collections Helen Fothergill.
Main image: Aberdeen Art Gallery Exterior © Aberdeen City Council (Art Gallery & Museums).