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Contemporary Art in Edinburgh: Disjointed and Unsupported

ByRory Biggs O’May

Oct 11, 2019

In the lead-up to this edition, the art section has been conducting various interviews across Edinburgh, investigating the nuances of Edinburgh’s standing as a place for contemporary art. We have come into contact with a wide spectrum of views and positions on the topic — academic, managerial, curatorial, and artistic — in an attempt to grasp, from an outsider’s position, the relationship between Edinburgh and its contemporary art scene.

It is incontrovertibly true that there are artistic galleries and institutions in this city that are nothing short of outstanding, garnering international acclaim and a weighty identity in the global art scene. The Fruitmarket Gallery, a historical powerhouse of artistic innovation and creative significance since the 1970s — from its ground-breaking displays of post-war German art in the early years to its more recent explorations of monumentally important feminist and conceptualist art — nestles itself inconspicuously against our central railway station. Presently under major refurbishment, the space will reopen in 2020 and undoubtedly ascend to its established standing.

And of course we have the artist-run gallery Rhubaba, explicitly devoted to providing a space for recent graduates and up-and-coming contemporary artists, as well as Collective Gallery, which runs an established supportive program for young artists creating in the city. The University of Edinburgh’s own Talbot Rice Gallery  has a residency program for artists in Edinburgh, providing them with access to the university and Edinburgh College of Art’s artistic resources.

But aside from these valuable gems, indeed in spite of them, there is a notable consensus among those in Edinburgh’s artistic community that there is something lacking here. There is at the very least a sense of disjointedness; indeed, Stuart Fallon, co-curator of the Talbot Rice Gallery, nodded his head to this fact in our interview, describing the art scene in Edinburgh as numerous different galleries serving different purposes and doing different things. There seems to be a lack of cooperativeness, of that essential unity and togetherness that engenders a comprehensive ‘art scene’ like the ones we see in Paris, Glasgow, or Berlin. Instead, Edinburgh is home to a number of contemporary galleries, but not much of a contemporary artistic milieu.

The problem no doubt stems from the incredibly high cost of living in our city. It is simply far too expensive to live in Edinburgh for an artist to be able to reside and create here for any significant period of time, especially in their early years. And it is the works made in these early years, these indispensable times of naive creation and no-holds-barred innovation in an artist’s life, that come to be the fundament of a contemporary art scene. Most of Edinburgh’s contemporary galleries, like Urbane, Talbot Rice and even Fruitmarket, do not display the young, unknown, emerging artists of Edinburgh but instead host more established or acclaimed artists from around the world.

It is in this respect that Edinburgh pales in comparison to Glasgow. Filled with low-cost industrial areas begging to be used as galleries and artistic spaces, the underground arts cene in Glasgow is vibrant and innovative, providing spaces and infrastructure for new and unknown artists to display their works and get a foot on the ladder. Ariadna Battich, co-owner of Urbane Art Gallery and ECA graduate, discussed at length the incomparably supportive milieu of Glasgow’s art scene and the huge presence there of emerging contemporary artists in comparison with Edinburgh. Glasgow’s size and industrial history cannot be left out of this analysis, however, as the presence of swathes of areas of low-cost land reappropriated for artistic endeavor is undoubtedly a result of these two significant factors, ones that are not shared by Edinburgh.

It is unsurprising that Battich noted that almost all of her ECA peers moved away from Edinburgh, and that Fallon mentioned that many artists in the Talbot Rice Gallery’s residency programme live in Glasgow and commute. Leith, the last bulwark of pre-gentrification, pre-Anglicisation, non-student, ‘authentic’ Edinburgh, and home to Rhubaba Gallery, seems to be the last pocket of artistic possibility in Edinburgh, and I need not mention in detail its prevailing vulnerability to the gentrification missions that the council and private interests relentlessly promote. Tom Day, Art History academic at the ECA, discussed in interview the importance of not attributing this problem to Edinburgh alone: it is the nature of today’s art scene, commercialised as it is, that artistically promising spaces close up and become inaccessible to the very people that construct those bohemian artistic identities that attract bourgeois cafe-dwellers.

Regardless, Edinburgh as a whole is certainly not a supportive community for contemporary arts. Owen Normand, contemporary figurative painter and winner of the BP Portrait Young Artist award in 2013, noted his difficulty in advertising his work in the city, and Edinburgh’s need for more spaces for up-and-coming artists; having recently returned from Berlin, Normand provided a perspective on the Edinburgh art scene that showed its institutional problems from the outside. Battich provided invaluable insight from the perspective of a practicing ECA graduate, criticising the internationally-acclaimed college for not providing support for its artists after graduation and not educating them on how to navigate the pragmatics of the contemporary art world. Beyond galleries and collectors and institutions, the past decade of austerity measures has undoubtedly taken a large toll on Edinburgh’s art scene: ‘the arts are the first thing to go,’ noted Day.

So today we are left at somewhat of a crossroads. Our city, with its strong artistic identity, historically home to some of the greatest creators in the UK and beyond and with a recent history of gallery-lead artistic innovation, appears to be wilting before us. All we have to rely on, and what we must relentlessly support, are those vestiges of authentic, local creation. Galleries like Rhubaba, Collective, St Margaret’s House, Rafiki, and Patriothall that are run by local artists or explicitly aim to provide a space for emerging ones deserve our backing. So too must we protect those few-and-far between organisations and institutions like Talbot Rice’s residency programme or RSA’s New Contemporaries exhibition that aim to support our undervalued and alienated budding artists.

Interviews by Kitty Becher, Karuna Rahman, and Rory Biggs O’May

Illustration: Hannah Robinson

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