Cock-up or conspiracy? It was the question on the lips of some of the more cynical observers of Edinburgh’s cultural landscape at the news that one of its principal venues being sent back to the drawing board with its refurbishment plans.
When the case was being made to overhaul the Queen’s Hall a decade ago, the arguments were powerful and persuasive. Here was a cherished favourite of promoters, performers and audiences in growing need of careful restoration to bring it up to modern-day standards.
Fast forward ten years and the project is still on the starting blocks – while Edinburgh is left casting envious glances around the country.
The facilities at the Old Fruitmarket in Glasgow and Perth Concert Hall – both long since bedded in – seem positively light-years ahead of what the city council readily admits is the only medium-sized venue in the capital.
The rejection of the Queen’s Hall’s refurbishment plans by Creative Scotland has triggered another wave of criticism to add to its troubles over recent months.
If the project didn’t quite tick the same number of boxes as projects like the huge Star of Gretna at the Scotland-England border, was it not exactly the sort of project Creative Scotland’s chief executive Andrew Dixon was talking about in August when he bemoaned the quality of the year-round cultural infrastructure in the city?
At that time, with the festivals in full cry, it felt like a wake-up call for the city. On reflection, it now sounds like the sounding of an alarm against a culture of complacency in Edinburgh.
On the one hand, that seems laughable within a year of the National Museum of Scotland and the Scottish National Portrait Gallery unveiling huge refurbishments. A couple of years ago, the paint was hardly dry on the new-look Usher Hall before the city council started work on a much-needed revamp of the Assembly Rooms, which only reopened in July.
Yet there remains a suspicion among some – and Dixon appears to be one – that Edinburgh is suffering a lack of grand ambitions to radically improve the artistic infrastructure across the city. They fear a shortage of “big ideas” and that without a vocal cultural champion to drive such plans forward, the capital risks being left behind.
In the short term, the city looks likely to have to settle for its next wave of refurbishments and restorations, including the Fruitmarket Gallery, the Traverse Theatre and – with a change in fortune – the Queen’s Hall. Turning the Central Library into a new cultural hub and base for the Unesco City of Literature Trust will almost certainly be the council’s next project.
But it is certainly difficult to imagine when, and where, Edinburgh is going to conjure up anything to rival the stunning plans for the V&A gallery in Dundee or the eye-popping Hydro indoor arena taking shape next to the SECC in Glasgow. The new Mareel arts centre in Shetland also looks like the kind of iconic development long touted for Leith.
There have been no shortage of strategies, consultants’ reports and masterplans to emerge over the last decade – at least a dozen, in fact – to raise hopes of new world-class concert halls, vast gallery spaces and arenas capable of housing the biggest events. Hundreds of individuals were consulted and re-consulted. Yet paralysis by analysis has prevailed.
Incredibly, it is nine years next month since Leith played host to the MTV Europe Music Awards, a classic coup over Glasgow. The last major event on the city’s waterfront – the spectacular Argentinian Fringe show Fuerzabruta – was five years ago. Its historic theatre has been boarded up for much longer.
Somewhat ironically, the offices of VisitScotland and EventScotland in Leith now tower over a desolate and neglected landscape. With the entire waterfront seemingly abandoned as a cultural quarter for the foreseeable future, all hopes of large-scale projects getting off the ground appear to lie way out west.
Ingliston, which saw thousands of visitors flock to Edinburgh International Festival shows this summer, is now the council’s favoured choice for a major cultural venue. Yet it seems optimistic to imagine anything coming out of the ground in the next five years.
There are rumblings of another cultural summit by the end of the year in a bid to kick-start fresh ideas – particularly in the heart of the city. We can only hope the session involves a quick history lesson of previous stalled efforts – and the kind of startling progress being made elsewhere.
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Weather for Edinburgh
Sunday 19 May 2013
Temperature: 9 C to 16 C
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