Destination Design: Dundee’s route to prosperity

Destination Design: Dundee’s route to prosperity

Philip Long is the director of V&A Dundee. He talks about how Scotland’s design heritage will be given pride of place among international exhibitions in the much-anticipated V&A Scotland, due to open in 2018. BQ Editor Kenny Kemp hears more about the design ethos.

There has been tremendous interest – and media column inches – about V&A Dundee’s arrival. And rightly so. This is a project that will help Scotland’s fourth largest city place itself firmly on the global international stage with an unprecedented opportunity to emulate the likes of Bilbao, where the Guggenheim has undoubtedly breathed fresh life into a fading Spanish industrial city.

V&A Dundee will become Scotland’s design museum to showcase both creative and industrial design, and how Scots and Scotland have made an indelible mark in the design of buildings, computer, technology, printing, textiles and visual art.

On the back of this, Dundee has been awarded UNESCO City of Design status, along with Helsinki, Bilbao and Turin. There is a great deal riding on this flagship project for Dundee and for Scotland. Philip Long is the director of Design Dundee Ltd, the business that is responsible for delivering the creative direction of the museum – one that will create the WOW! factor and pull in the crowds – while Dundee City Council has the responsibility of delivering the iconic building.

“V&A is a symbol of Dundee’s new ambition. Once it is built it will be at the forefront of the city, a stunning building on the waterfront,” says Long.

The delivery of this prestigious project has recently made headlines over a doubling in the costs to more than £80m, from an original estimate of £45m. As a result the Scottish Government will increase its stake of £15m to £22m, with a commitment of £25m.

Following the tendering process with main contractor BAM Construction, Dundee City Council’s policy and resources committee is being asked to approve a funding strategy to enable construction to get going. This involves discussions with the Scottish Government about funding totalling £12.6 million through the creation of a Growth Accelerator Model fund for the Dundee Waterfront Project. A further £6.5m is expected from the council’s capital programme for 2015-18 without impacting on council services.

There have been delays in building work, due to start in March, while the elaborately, designed structure has been modified to fit its allotted space on the waterfront.

“There will be huge expectation when it is open. We will benefit from having a strong team looking at design and innovation. It is absolutely about business and developing a great sense of design thinking – not just in the creative industries but in all types of business.”

The creation of V&A taps into an incredible design ethos in the city that was once famed for its jute, jam and journalism. Long singles out Abertay University for its computer games design, [he cites Genes in Space, a Cancer Research project involving a computer game devised in the city by GuerillaTea which harnesses scientific data on DNA] the Duncan of Jordanstone College of Art and Design for its teaching and expertise and the Dundee Contemporary Arts Centre as examples of the city’s existing innovation.

“It was important to set out a compelling case of what the project would be. Projects like this around the world can often pay great dividends in terms of return on investment on tourism benefit, contributing to the broader economic agenda through attracting new business investment.”

Long says this is fine up to a point. But if you don’t get across the message about the importance and relevance of setting up such a new cultural institution, then it can be an uphill battle after this.

“V&A Dundee will be an international centre for design in Scotland. We want it to be an institution that changes people’s perceptions of what design is and its potential. We want it to look at the opportunities that design can provide for people, communities and businesses, across all disciplines. We don’t think of design as a division of art – it is  about problem-solving. Everything is design: it transforms lives.”

For Long, the history of design is about human ingenuity in solving problems. “We want to show people this and provide opportunities as far and wide as we can that helps the understanding of this. We want to get people involved in being creative in all parts of life. Our job will be to explain and interpret that.”

Long, originally from Edinburgh, is an ideal person to set the context for the gallery. He studied art and design at Lancaster University and then Essex, where he continued with museums and gallery studies. “I’ve always had an interest in the relationship between art and design. I began my career making art in sculpture and design but I quickly moved into working in museums and galleries. “

He worked for five years with the Fine Art Society Gallery, then in Glasgow, and then joined the National Gallery of Modern Art in Edinburgh as a curator. “I worked my way up through the National Galleries of Scotland doing all sorts of things, but my specialisation was in Scottish art and design. I undertook many projects including curating Scotland’s presence at the Venice Biennale in 2007. Latterly, I worked with the Tate on behalf of the National Galleries of Scotland, leading the Artists Room project, which has been very important in exposing young people to art and how it can transform people’s lives.”

Artist Rooms, an outstanding collection of international contemporary art, was donated by collector and dealer Anthony d’Offay in 2008 and became a national touring programme with museums and galleries across the UK, including the Pier Arts Centre in Orkney. Long also did work on Charles Rennie Mackintosh and the architect Sir Basil Spence, famed for his post-war Coventry Cathedral and Glasgow high-rised flats in the Gorbals.

“When I heard that there was the prospect of V&A Scotland, I thought this was an extraordinary opportunity. V&A is one of the world’s most outstanding museums and the leading museum of art and design. It was of enormous interest to me. I thought bringing it to Dundee was an absolutely fantastic idea.”

Long already knew many people in Dundee’s contemporary art and design community and among the art school academics and he felt it was a Scottish city that had ambition and expertise to support something as imposing as the V&A.

“This is a world-class cultural institution at the heart of a major civic regeneration project that is contributing to future development and well-being of the city. While the institution needs to have a root into the local community and take that very seriously, it needs to be international.”

He speaks about the proven success of the Guggenheim in Bilbao, and mentions the Tate Liverpool, at Albert Dock, and also the proliferation of contemporary galleries making Helsinki a place for art-lovers to visit and explore. 

“Dundee understands this and is well-placed to do this because of the strength of its academic population in Abertay University and Dundee and Angus College, and its civic leadership in the city council, and the Scottish Government and Scottish Enterprise. Dundee knows that investment in culture works.”

In the completed museum, which now looks likely to open in 2018, Scotland’s prowess will be strongly celebrated and featured.

“At the heart, we will have gallery space given over to Scotland’s extraordinary history of design innovation. That is an international history and it is really staggering for centuries. If you think about the Adam family, as architectural innovators across the UK, to Thomas Telford, who built the Caledonian Canal which opened up the Highlands, or the manufacture of the Paisley pattern, or shipbuilding and engineering in Glasgow.

Or with Ian Callum, head of design at Jaguar cars, born in Dumfries, who is transforming one of the UK’s global brands. There is an intrinsic right that people should be more aware of this heritage and have access to this part of our economic history.”

He argues that with the creative economy such an important part of our modern Scottish economy, we can take great comfort in appreciating this national legacy. There is a lot to learn. The most collected antique cabinetmaker in the United States from the 18th century is Thomas Affleck, known as Philadelphia Chippendale, who came from Aberdeen, while one half of Harley Davidson motor bike company, Sandy Davidson, came from Aberlemno in Angus, while Tel Aviv’s town plan was devised by Patrick Geddes.

VA Dundee

“It’s an extraordinary story. We will reflect this. There will be difference between V&A London and V&A Dundee.”

Long explains that the Victoria & Albert in London was set up after the Great Exhibition of 1851 because it was felt that Britain was falling behind in design technology and education – which only became apparent when other nations outshone British industry and goods in the international pavilions at the Crystal Palace.

“There was a concern when the Great Exhibition opened in London. V&A was a permanent solution and was set up partly with a mission to improve the quality of Britain’s manufacturing goods. It set about doing this by developing an institution that was free to the public, bringing great examples of art and design from around the world. It was to inspire creativity.” Dundee’s difference will be to concentrate on design, not art and design.

“However, we share V&A’s founding mission to improve our creativity and the quality of our manufactures,” he says.

With the project development well underway, Long became the director of V&A Dundee in 2011. The international architectural competition was established and won by Kengo Kuma & Associates, who have designed an iconic building to rival the Frank Gehry designed Bilbao building. The building was chosen by the people of Dundee.

“I acknowledge that there were a lot of people working on the project. I was the first dedicated employee. When I walked into the office in Dundee in the summer of 2011, there were 20 empty desks. I’ve been responsible for the development of the project ever since.”
V&A Dundee is all about partnership. It would not be happening without all the bits of the jigsaw clicking into place.

“The partnership continues to be responsible for driving the project forward. The diversity of the partnership, which includes the local authority, the academic bodies in the city, Creative Scotland and Scottish Enterprise and the V&A itself means there is the wonderful ability to get things done. The civic leadership of the city is at the top table.”

It will be several years before we see the full fruits of Long’s work, but in the meantime V&A Dundee is setting up some touring exhibitions to whet the appetite for the arrival of the gallery. A lot of water will flow under the Tay Bridge before the iconic building is complete, alongside a regenerated waterfront with bars and restaurants, but it is certain to become a jewel in the Dundee crown.