Insight: How the new V&A helped Dundee get its mojo back

The V&A  of Dundee. Picture; John Devlin
The V&A of Dundee. Picture; John Devlin
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It’s well into evening, but builders are still moving in and out of the old arcade at the back of the Caird Hall at speed. A restaurant needs to be built, a bar must open, the clock is ticking as the city’s countdown to the opening of the V&A Dundee on 15 September intensifies.

The arcade, which closed in the early 1980s, was where Dundonians once picked up their half-loafs, potted houghs, ribbons, buttons or maybe a roll of linoleum. Children would return again and again for a shot on Champion the Wonder Horse and a free lolly, if they sang along to the theme tune.

The City Quay in Dundee. Picture John Devlin

The City Quay in Dundee. Picture John Devlin

While the arcade recalls the city’s past for many, today the building looks directly to the future.

Its new customers will have a clear view across Slessor Gardens to Kengo Kuma’s £80 million V&A Dundee, the bold symbol of the city’s renewal that looks out onto the Tay like a vast ship waiting for its next journey.

St Andrews Brewing Company has reportedly invested a seven-figure sum in its space in the old arcade, with upmarket restaurant Brassica – think not potted hough but crab bonbons and Bellinis – also moving in.

There is chat that a comic-themed enterprise, in a nod to one of the city’s oldest creative industries, will open too to help meet the demand of 500,000 visitors arriving in Dundee during the first year of the museum.

Dundee schoolchildren will receive a special 'Dundee' edition of Mary Shelley's Frankenstein. Picture: John Devlin

Dundee schoolchildren will receive a special 'Dundee' edition of Mary Shelley's Frankenstein. Picture: John Devlin

Businesses are springing up , money pours in and world interest peaks in Dundee, a city punished by decades of industrial decline including the loss of its jute industry to competition from India and much of its manufacturing base going to the Far East. Shipbuilding also vanished from the city shores.

Today, John Alexander, leader of Dundee City Council, is feeling excited. “Excitement is being felt across the city in a way it never has before. People ask me what the impact the V&A will have on Dundee in the future but I can point to what the impact has been before it has even opened.

“We’re not just talking hard figures. It’s the mood of the city, the feeling, the buzz.

“It’s a city regaining its confidence. I think for a long time, Dundee was a punchline at the end of a joke. Not now.

The North Carr lightship. Picture: John Devlin

The North Carr lightship. Picture: John Devlin

“We were always seen as the poorer relation to Glasgow, Edinburgh and Aberdeen. Sometimes that feeling was in the city itself.

“The V&A has really reignited that feeling of pride. People are really proud to say they are from Dundee in a way they weren’t even ten years ago.”

Dundee’s renewal is, of course, not sudden or new and at times has been hard fought. Art has long helped to rebuild. At first, artists took to planting urban gardens in neighbourhoods emptied by the exit of the textile industry.

Then, more than 100 public art projects were completed over 20 years. Dundee Contemporary Arts opened and the universities drove innovation. The city became the nerve centre of the computer games industry and leaders in life sciences research.

Japanese architect Kengo Kuma, who won the competition to design the V&A Dundee.

Japanese architect Kengo Kuma, who won the competition to design the V&A Dundee.

The masterplan to develop the Waterfront, an ugly mess of walkways, derelict land, concrete and car parks that kept the city centre apart from the river, has been ongoing for 20 years.

Dundee V&A was later added to the jigsaw, with the idea of the museum first floated in 2007 and planning permission granted in 2012.

Planners are now balancing commercially viable hotel and office space with Kuma’s internationally recognisable creation, which ran £31m over initial budget given the technical demands of the building.

A key site in the waterfront development – site six – has recently started to fill up at pace, with the new AC Marriott Hotel and adjoining offices partly blocking the view of the V&A. It sits just a road width from the museum, creating a narrow channel between them.

The loss in aspect of the museum has been a concern for some in the Unesco City of Design Dundee.

Alexander is quick in his response to the criticism. In short, the hotel delivers jobs, investment and opportunity for people in a city that has the lowest employment rate in the UK (64.1 per cent) and where 28 per cent of children grow up in poverty.

A man listens out in the Sensory Garden at 'Slessor Gardens. Picture: John Devlin

A man listens out in the Sensory Garden at 'Slessor Gardens. Picture: John Devlin

He says: “Some people have said leave it open, leave the view open. But that defeats the point of creating employment to help lift the city and its people who are experiencing poverty.

“We are 20 years into a 30-year plan. The V&A never featured in the original waterfront plan and I think people have now bought into the V&A. I think opinion against it has changed wholesale. I think if people are saying ‘we don’t want you to block the view’ that suggests people really love the V&A. And what we don’t want to have is other buildings competing with Kuma’s design.”

Dundee City Council has retained ownership of the vast majority of the waterfront sites, giving the local authority an “interesting position” when it comes to getting what it wants for the city from potential investors.

“It doesn’t matter who you are. We will be asking questions like ‘do you pay the Scottish Living Wage?’ If the answer is no, we will asking them to look at that again,” the council leader says.

Hotel company Sleeperz, which now arches over the railway station, has agreed to pay staff the living wage of £8.75 an hour at Dundee and all of its sites, Alexander says. Commitments on apprenticeships and work placements for young people have also been sought from the new companies arriving.

Alexander adds: “We don’t shy away from the major challenges that exist in Dundee. I represent and grew up in one of the most deprived areas of Dundee. In every individual project on the waterfront we are looking at whether there is a social gain. It not just about the financial side of things, it has never just been about that.”

The way Dundee has used culture to power regeneration has created obvious comparisons with cities like Bilbao, where Frank Gehry’s Guggenheim attracts 800,000 visitors from outside the Basque region every year.

The architectural spectacular, which cost €195m to start up, was brought to the city in 1997 amid high unemployment, separatist violence, pollution and a dying shipbuilding and steel industry.

It is estimated the Guggenheim, both directly and indirectly, generates about €400 million every year and has created 4,500 jobs, principally in transport, hotels, restaurants, bars and retail.

V&A Dundee director Philip Long is cautious to accept comparisons between Dundee and Bilbao, but says: “The Bilbao effect has become well known and a much sought-after phenomenon. Anyone who is interested in the effect of development and regeneration through cultural investment has to be careful when talking about Bilbao. The effect of the Guggenheim has been remarkable and hard to emulate.

“However, if you are talking about a city that has had the guts to go out and attract an extraordinary cultural institution, if you are talking about a city that has a real ambition to build its economy after decline in industry and if you are talking about a city that is perhaps some distance from a capital, then you are certainly talking about Bilbao and you are also talking about Dundee.”

Lorenzo Vicario, from the department of sociology at the University of the Basque Country, recently questioned the perceived success of the Bilbao effect given the rise of inequality in the city. Writing in Apollo art magazine, he said severe poverty had increased in Bilbao since 2000 by 33 per cent and now affects 11.5 per cent of Bilbao households, a figure twice the average for the Basque Country as a whole.

Long says: “A new cultural institution isn’t the cure to all difficulties. It is not something that remedies all but what it can do is help to regenerate the economy, excitement and confidence in a city – and perhaps even hope.”

In Scotland, about 33 per cent of the public visited a museum in 2016, with those aged between 25 and 35 most likely to walk through the door. The majority (55 per cent) have a degree or professional qualification and about 90 per cent of museum visitors come from the 20 per cent least deprived communities in Scotland.

To reach out, V&A Dundee staff have gone into community centres and care homes and worked with mental health groups and military veterans with the message that good design improves people’s live. It’s a message that hits home, Long says.

The museum has connected with about 100,000 Scots so far and its hoped that every person reached – and indeed every person who visits the museum – will treat Dundee V&A as a “new living room for the city”.

Its core audience – the “bread and butter” – will be drawn from those who live within a 60-minute drive from the city. Those who live within a 90 minute drive – taking in Aberdeen, Edinburgh and Glasgow – are expected to be its next biggest audience. Both groups take in 2.35 million people and are expected to grow.

Further afield, France, Germany, Spain, Italy and the Nordic countries are of greatest interest to those building visitor numbers at the V&A. On an international level, India, Japan and China are regarded as good drivers of tourists, along with the US.

International journalists are streaming into Dundee on a regular basis, printing publicity of the kind money can’t buy. Lonely Planet recently listed it as one of the must see destinations of 2018, along with Provence, Kosovo and Cantabria.

Professor Paul Harris, dean of Duncan of Jordanstone School of Art, says: “I was looking back at Lonely Planets from the 1990s to see what they were saying then. They basically recommended not to come to Dundee.

“The key risk is now is that people come down for the day and don’t come back. What we want is for people to stay for two to three days – and then come back again. For us, it’s about turning Dundee into a destination but that is already happening.”

Ian Ashton, of Pirate Boats in Broughty Ferry, is already feeling the V&A effect. He set up in April 2017 to take people out on the Tay to look at the museum from the water and had 3,500 customers in the first year. He has now had to buy a new rib boat to keep up with demand, with the small company fielding inquiries from across the world.

While the museum is not actively working to build an audience in London, the English capital will deliver the museum’s opening exhibition, Ocean Liners, which has been on show in Kensington since February to critical acclaim.

Its move to Dundee will fulfil the aim of sharing the V&A’s vast collection with a wider audience, with curatorial staff in Scotland working closely with colleagues in London to build the exhibition, which will feature extensive Scottish content from the Clydeside shipyards.

There is no word yet whether the V&A London’s blockbuster summer show on Mexican artist Frida Kahlo will come to Scotland. In time, it is hoped exhibitions from around the world will be exclusively brought to the UK by V&A Dundee.

Along with 300 items to go on permanent display in the museum’s Scottish Design Studios will be an entire Charles Rennie Mackintosh tea room which has spent the past 50 years packed away, piece by piece, in Glasgow.

Sitting out in the sunshine in the new green space of Slessor Gardens, where concerts are now staged with an urban beach to become its new neighbour, is David Doogan, 52.

Doogan comes regularly to the spot to take in the view and has already tried to get into the V&A for a look, without luck. People are eager for the museum to be unwrapped. Little gaps in the fence surrounding the museum have started to appear, with the barrier prised open just enough to slip a phone through for a photo.

Doogan says: “I’m a Dundonian and I know this city. The city was a terrible place. Where we are now, this used to be a ring road and an entry and exit to the bridge. There was a terrible casino, a terrible swimming pool and Tayside House – terrible. The railway station was terrible.

“It’s kind of mind-boggling what is happening now. In fact it is mind-blowing. It is sometimes hard to believe this is Dundee now.”

If good design betters lives, it seems like V&A Dundee – and the city itself – might just be able do the same.