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Issue 39 - Edinburgh – culture in the capital

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Scotland Magazine Issue 39
June 2008


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Edinburgh – culture in the capital

Edinburgh is world famous for its festivals and its history. But it has a comtemporary artistic side too. Dominic Roskrow reports.

Followers of the British version of The Apprentice will be well aware that in the latest series Sir Alan Sugar’s two assistants have come in to their own.

Margaret and Nick have come out of their shells and are capable of stopping the contestants dead in their tracks with a withering look or sharply barbed criticism.

Watching Margaret in particular, all school ma’am prissiness and haughty aloofness, is as close as television gets to sadistic voyeurism and you’d feel guilty about enjoying the programme if the participants weren’t so cringingly appalling.

Recently, though, she stepped way over the mark. During a discussion on the intelligence of one of the contestants Nick observed that he must be intelligent because he’d been to Edinburgh University.

“It would seem that Edinburgh isn’t what it used to be,” Margaret observed, snobbily.

Although primarily aimed at the city’s educational standards, the comment was taken as a slight on Scotland’s capital in general. Nor was the irony of such a pointed criticism lost on those that know Edinburgh well, for it is often said that the citizens of the capital display the same sense of superiority towards the rest of Scotland, and indeed Britain, as Margaret displayed towards them.

But perhaps what made the comment most unacceptable is that it was just plain wrong. Edinburgh is as respected as it ever was and as a city it is thriving as never before.

Oddly, while Edinburgh has long claimed to be the premier city in Scotland through its beauty, and its emphasis on history and culture, it has allowed Glasgow to promote itself as the more contemporary city. You tend to think of Glasgow more than Edinburgh when you think of dynamic and inventive music and art.

Edinburgh, it seems, has been content to maintain its reputation through its past and through its world famous Festival and Fringe Festival. And perhaps it doesn’t need to tire itself battling the whipper-snapper to the west, because the ‘full’ signs are pretty much up in Edinburgh anyway, without attracting the artists, fashion students and musicians.

But that doesn’t mean that Edinburgh doesn’t compete well in the arts. Indeed, the city can boast some of the best contemporary art not just in Scotland but across the world.

The National Galleries of Scotland, for instance, have no less than five galleries spread across the capital. The National Gallery Complex is three interconnected buildings and is Edinburgh’s second most visited place after the castle, and is one of Scotland’s top free destinations.

Close to the Royal Mile, the complex boasts the National Gallery of Scotland, home to a major part of Scotland’s national collection of fine art. It has work from the early Renaissance period through to the end of the 19th century and includes work by among others Van Gogh, Monet, Cezanne, Raphael and Degas.

The Royal Scottish Academy Building is regarded as one of Europe’s premier venues for international exhibitions, and the Weston Link, which lies beneath the two buildings, connects them and contains areas for shopping and eating.

The National Portrait Gallery is situated in Queen street, which runs parallel to Princes Street and explores the lives of great Scots, past and present, who have influenced history both for the good and the bad.

Regular special exhibitions are held there and the building contains a large shop and café.

The two remaining galleries are the Dean Gallery and the Gallery of Modern Art, and both of them take a more contemporary view of art. Highlights at the Gallery of Modern Art include works by Picasso and Matisse and there is an extensive collection of post war British and particularly Scottish art.

Regular exhibitions are held here, too.

The Dean Gallery is renowned as a leading exponent of Dada and surrealism and also includes work by Picasso and Magritte.

Beyond the big galleries there are a number of small and privately owned galleries, several of them in Dundas Street.

For something a little different walk up to Cockburn Street where the Collective Gallery is located.

This was established in 1984 as an ‘artists’ space’ and its primary job is to support and promote up and coming artists. Many of those it has championed have gone on to bigger and better things. It’s not against being cutting edge, either. It recently had an exhibition about immigrants, for instance, called How To Be Hospitable.

The Colours Gallery in the heart of the New Town is a great place to see some contemporary Scottish work, and in addition to painting there is sculpture, ceramics, jewellery, glasswork, woodwork and metal work. The Torrance Gallery in Dundas Street, which was established nearly 40 years ago, is another place to see fine contemporary Scottish work.

The Fruitmarket Gallery, which lies close to Waverley Station in what was the old fruitmarket, is home to a regularly changing programme of international art.

And finally if photography’s your passion, take a close look at the Stills Gallery, a contemporary gallery that not only displays an eclectic mix of photo work, but offers year long residencies to some photographers, offers training and advice, and hires out specialist equipment. It’s also situated close to Waverley station.

So a vibrant, dynamic, sophisticated and engaging mix of art. Edinburgh isn’t quite what it once was Margaret? You’re right.

Less elitist and snobby maybe.

But far better.