Edinburgh festive events under threat due to gallery’s revamp

Revellers pack into Princes Street to welcome in 2016. Picture: TSPL

Revellers pack into Princes Street to welcome in 2016. Picture: TSPL

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EDINBURGH’S Christmas and Hogmanay celebrations are under threat from the £16.8 million project to expand Scotland’s flagship art gallery, it has emerged.

Culture chiefs at the council and event producers fear the “financial viability” of the events – worth around £240m to the economy – is at risk due to uncertainty over the impact of work at the Scottish National Gallery.

We request an embargo be incorporated within the works to ensure The Mound precinct is available

DAVID WADDELL

They have warned “unimpeded” access is needed to both The Mound precinct and East Princes Street Gardens to ensure vital commercial income which “underpins” the festivities is protected.

The National Galleries of Scotland has been asked to agree a two-month embargo on work to create a new entrance and exhibition spaces to ensure “core and commercially critical” areas are available over two winters.

But the situation is still unresolved despite behind-the-scenes talks and insiders say the impasse has held up the issuing of a new tender to run the Christmas and Hogmanay events from 2017-i8 on.

Two firms, Underbelly and Unique Events, have a joint contract worth £1.3m to run the Christmas and Hogmanay events respectively.

Several galleries, a print room and a library have been closed down in the last few days as preparations get under way for the project, which will see building work begin next spring. But it emerged this week that the new spaces will not be open until 2019.

David Waddell, senior events officer at the council, said the proposed works were likely to “greatly impact” on the economic benefit from the events.

He added: “The council is about to re-tender for Christmas and Hogmanay – if this area is unavailable in 2017 and 2018 then it adversely impacts their financial viability. We request an embargo be incorporated within the works to ensure The Mound precinct is available.”

Underbelly said 70 per cent of commercial income which helps bankroll the Christmas festival – for which 466,000 people bought tickets last year – is generated at The Mound and East Princes Street Gardens.

A dossier for the council by Underbelly warning about the impact of the building work said there were aspects to the plans that will “jeopardise” the operation of the city’s events.

It states: “Ideally, work would be phased so it can be continued on other parts of the project which do not impinge on the areas required for Christmas and Hogmanay.”

Designed by William Henry Playfair, one of Edinburgh’s most celebrated 19th-century architects, the national gallery dates back to 1859. A £32m project to link to it to the neighbouring Royal Scottish Academy building was completed in 2004.

The £16.8 million overhaul of the gallery is expected to address long-standing complaints about the displays devoted to some of Scotland’s most important art treasures.

Critics have long been dismayed that work by the likes of Allan Ramsay, Sir Henry Raeburn and Sir David Wilkie have been hidden away in a “dingy” and little-known basement area. Designed by William Henry Playfair, one of Edinburgh’s most celebrated 19th-century architects, the national gallery dates back to 1859. A £32m project to link to it to the neighbouring Royal Scottish Academy building was completed in 2004.

An NGS spokeswoman said: “We will work closely with the council and other parties in the lead-up and during the construction period of the project. With good planning and communication all events should be able to go ahead as scheduled.

“Minor disruption will be inevitable in the short term. However, this project will bring a major improvement to this public realm space, which will significantly benefit everyone who visits or uses it, including traders. We estimate that, as a direct result of this project, the economy will gain an additional £30 million every year.”

The city council has just given planning permission for the gallery project, but the issue of festive embargoes was not considered as part of the application as it was considered “non-material.”

However Richard Lewis, culture leader at the city council, said: “The gallery is a jewel in the country’s crown and the planned redevelopment is good news for the city as the gallery seeks to triple the exhibition space available to the Scottish collection.

“The council is supportive of the plans and the designs have been approved by planning, but as the Mound Precinct is a key area for events, we are seeking assurances that disruption to winter festival arrangements will be minimised where possible.”

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