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Issue 68 - The altruistic spirit

Scotland Magazine Issue 68
April 2013

 

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The altruistic spirit

Roddy looks at how the arts prospered by patronage

Although canny by instinct, the Scots, once they acquire wealth, possess a generous spirit. This is exemplified by the altruism of the Victorian steel magnate Andrew Carnegie; the bequest of James Duncan of Jordanstone which created the college of art and design carrying his name in Dundee, and the legacy of the shipping tycoon Sir William Burrell, catalyst for the Burrell Collection in Glasgow. The arts in Scotland could not have grown and prospered otherwise.

Recent years have seen Sir Tom Hunter's sponsorship of the Campbell Hunter Education Wing at Kelvingrove Galleries; the cultural patronage of such men as the industrialist Lord Macfarlane of Bearsden and merchant banker Sir Angus Grossart, and the rescue and regeneration of the Dovecot Tapestries in Edinburgh by seafoods refrigeration supremo Alastair Salvesen.

The arts, from the age of the Medicis in Florence, have necessarily endured not through public funding but through the munificence of rich men and women.

It is individuals, not the bourgeoisie en masse, who make things happen, which brings me to Summerhall, Scotland's latest and most challenging cradle of creativity.

For 95 years, the Royal (Dick) Vet School of Veterinary Studies was a grand and imposing early twentieth century edifice looming over the eastern approach to the Meadows, an area of parkland on the south side of Edinburgh.

A great warren of a building, with corridors, staircases and lecture theatres at every turn, its 640 rooms have nurtured the animal welfare of the Capital since 1916.

But when technology demanded the school relocate to a purpose built site seven miles away, the question was what was to be done with this great white elephant of a place?

Timing is everything, and cometh the moment came philanthropist Robert McDowall, a long time friend and supporter of Edinburgh's home-grown impresario Professor Richard Demarco.

The octogenarian Demarco has been a firestorm of restless creative energy since the 1960s. A founder of the Traverse Theatre, the first avant-garde club of its kind in the UK, his variously located non-profit making galleries have over the years attracted such iconic international figures as the German Joseph Beuys, the Polish performance artist Tadeusz Kantor, the English painter David Hockney, sculptor Damien Hirst, and the Scottish sculptor Ian Hamilton Finlay.

A contemporary and school friend of the sculptor Eduardo Paolozzie, nobody has worked more tirelessly to consolidate Scotland's identity as an artistic hub of creativity.

And therefore, under the patronage of Robert McDowall, Summerhall is currently displaying a large chunk of the Demarco Archive (a section is already housed at the University of Dundee), and ten other exhibitions which include “lost” photographs of Andy Warhol, works by Saatchi prize winner Stephen Thorpe, and a display of stage sets and costumes on loan from the V&A in London.

During the 2012 Edinburgh International Festival, Summerhall hosted 300 events ranging through theatre and into the visual arts.

“Summerhall is proving what an altruistic private sector can achieve,” says Richard Demarco who can be found most days in-situ.

“I like to think of it as a 'howf', which in the Scottish tradition is a place where people from all walks of life and of all ages can come together to share their talents and ideas.”

To this end, there is a cafe, a bar, and an ambitious programme of events running well into 2014.

Largely because of its location outwith the city centre, Summerhall has to some extent been Edinburgh's best kept secret.

“We are feeling our way gently,” says Robert McDowall. “Once the word gets out, people will find us.”