A £16.8 million project to transform long-standing displays of Scotland’s most important paintings will tackle an “institutional embarrassment,” it was claimed today.
The National Galleries of Scotland has pledged that “cramped, dingy and unpleasant” exhibition spaces will be consigned to history with a forthcoming overhaul of its flagship attraction in Edinburgh.
It has revealed that less than 20 per cent of its visitors ventured into the “dead end” of its gallery complex on The Mound in Edinburgh to see masterpieces by leading Scottish artists like Allan Ramsay, Sir Henry Raeburn, Alexander Nasmyth and Phoebe Anna Traquair.
They have already been closed down ahead of construction work getting underway in the spring on a major overhaul and expansion of the gallery, which dates back to 1859.
It is hoped an extra 200,000 visitors a year will flock to the gallery - already the busiest in the UK outside London - once the “Celebrating Scotland’s Art” development is completed in the spring of 2019.
The project, which will tripled the amount of exhibition space devoted to the story of Scottish art from the 17th to the mid-20th century, will also create a dramatic new entrance and galleries overlooking East Princes Street Gardens, Waverley Station and the Scott Monument.
It is hoped new landscaping work on The Mound and in the garden will encourage thousands of additional visitors to pass through between the Old and New Towns.
John Leighton, director general of the National Galleries of Scotland, said the project would finally dismiss suggestions that the nation’s art treasures were regarded as “inferior” to the work of international painters because of the way they were displayed.
Sir John said: “Scotland is blessed with an incredibly rich artistic heritage and a very distinct tradition in the visual arts.
“We’re very proud to look after the world’s most important collection of Scottish art and to show that collection in an international context.
“Where else but at the Scottish National Gallery would you expect local, national and international visitors to be able to follow the story and the history of this country’s art and see it in a superb setting?”
Sir John said although the National Galleries boasted some of the finest exhibition spaces in the world, he had long been embarrassed by the presentation of its Scottish collections, which are display in basement areas created in the 1970s.
“It would be fair to say that in recent years these spaces have become something of an institutional embarrassment.
“They’re cramped, they’re dingy, they have an unpleasant subterranean atmosphere and moreover these galleries, which are accessed by a narrow stairwell at the back of the ground floor, were literally at a dead end,
“It is small wonder that our counting system showed us that only 18 per cent of the 1.4 million people who come to the Scottish National Gallery actually made it to the most crucial part of the collection.
“When you add that to the fact that these spaces are physically lower than the other floors this seemed to suggest a hierarchy that lower equalled inferior and was sometimes wrongly assumed to reflect our attitude.
“Perhaps even worse, in our own international orientation system, these spaces were called the B-Wing, which has a particularly ominous institutional ring about it. All this is about to change.
“We will create a suite of world-class galleries for Scotland’s art, spaces filled light, with spectacular views over Edinburgh’s cityscape, with much more space to do justice to these collections, vastly-improved circulation for our visitors, and a new relationship with Princes Street Gardens.”