City Art Centre at 40: Former curator reflects on early years of Edinburgh institution

Ex-curator recalls early years of City Art Centre, from attracting 400k crowds to see terracotta warriors and pharaoh’s gold and meeting Scotty from Star Trek

A curator from Cairo museum and Herbert Coutts in front of the gold LRT bus promoting the Gold of the Pharaohs exhibition at the City Art Centre in Edinburgh, January 1988.
A curator from Cairo museum and Herbert Coutts in front of the gold LRT bus promoting the Gold of the Pharaohs exhibition at the City Art Centre in Edinburgh, January 1988.

As if imbued with the spirit of legendary Egyptologist Howard Carter, the City Art Centre has enabled us all to set eyes on “wonderful things” over the past four decades.

As the Capital institution marks 40 years since the Lord Provost presided over its official opening, we reflect on the art centre’s many successes, including the immense popularity of its blockbuster exhibitions of the ‘80s and ‘90s, and the sheer volume of priceless treasures and Scottish and international art it has brought right to our doorstep.

One man who was there from the very start was Herbert Coutts, Edinburgh City Curator between 1971 and 1999.

An unidentified female member of staff with the coffin of Psussenes , part of the Gold of the Pharaohs exhibition of ancient Egyptian artifacts at the City Art Gallery in Edinburgh, January 1988.

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A trained archaeologist, Herbert was responsible for the art centre’s inception and played a leading role in attracting huge and spectacular exhibitions to Scotland’s capital in the run up to the Millennium.

In 1972, he visited the Tutankhamun exhibition in London and wondered if it might be possible to bring such collections to Edinburgh.

Speaking to the Evening News, Herbert said: “My vision was of a space that could take temporary exhibitions, drawing from permanent fine art collections, but also collections as important as the Tutankhamun exhibition. That was demonstrated when we were able to secure the Gold of the Pharaohs exhibition for Edinburgh. Without the City Art Centre, that wouldn’t have been possible.”

The art centre was a by-product of Scottish Devolution in the late 1970s. In a bid to accommodate a Scottish Assembly, the Labour Government had purchased the Royal High School, where the City Art Centre was then housed.

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Emperor's Warriors/Terracotta exhibition at the City Arts Centre in Edinburgh September 1985. The figures (men and horses) guarded the tomb of the first Chinese emperor Shihuangdi.

While Labour’s devolution plan failed to materialise, Edinburgh District Council used the money obtained from the sale of the building to move the art centre to new premises – a former fruit warehouse on Market Street.

Following its grand opening, the new City Art Centre soon developed a reputation for displaying works of international significance, with themes ranging from Matisse sculpture to Michelangelo drawings and Pisarro in Venezuela to Piranesi drawings and etchings.

But while there was heavy focus on fine art, it was a diet of “blockbuster” exhibitions that helped the fledgling art centre truly take flight and attract hundreds of thousands of people through its doors every year.

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The first of these, The Emperor’s Warriors (1985) featured the world-famous terracotta figures from the burial enclosure of the first Emperor of China.

The queue for the Dinosaurs Alive! exhibition at the City Art Centre Edinburgh snaked up Market Street and across the road in February 1990. A policeman holds up the traffic to let people cross.

The first cultural exhibition in Scotland to be advertised on television and backed by media mogul Robert Maxwell, it attracted a whopping 221,128 visitors. The Scotsman dubbed the scenes on Market Street “The Great Queue of China”.

“I was told I was crazy,” said Herbert, “that it was after the Edinburgh Festival, when the city becomes a desert and it won’t get the visitors – but they came in large numbers that exceeded everyone’s expectations.”

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Encouraged by the tremendous swell of visitors, the City Art Centre embarked on a regular series of similar blockbusters, many echoing the 1980s cultural fascination with tomb-raiding and building on the popularity of Hollywood movies such as the Indiana Jones franchise.

The peak for the blockbusters came in 1988 with the arrival of the Gold of the Pharaohs, a collection of priceless treasures and artefacts from Ancient Tanis in Egypt. It doubled the attendance record set by The Emperor’s Warriors.

Herbert said: “It needed [Egyptian leader] President Mubarak to agree for the Gold of the Pharaohs to come to Edinburgh. The insurance value was about £30 million. It would be a hell of a lot more now.

“The pharaonic gold objects were outstanding in quality and beauty and it made a big impression on everybody who came.

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“I was absolutely delighted to see this colour image of the funerary mask of Psusennes on the front of The Scotsman. It made history as the first time a colour photo was used on The Scotsman’s front page.”

Later exhibitions, including Dinosaurs Alive! (1990), Sweat of the Sun – Gold of Peru (1990), and Star Trek – The Exhibition (1992), all attracted in excess of 100,000 visitors.

Despite occasionally receiving “stick” from art historians, Herbert remains very proud of the blockbusters’ legacy and the impact they had on young minds.

He said: “Attracting 100,000 is a major target to achieve. Very few cultural exhibitions, even today, achieve more visitors than that.

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“The Dinosaurs Alive! exhibition was the first robotic dinosaur exhibition in the UK. There was a great flood of them some years later, but that was the first of them. People just hadn’t seen anything like it. It attracted a thousand school parties – a thousand.

“And for the Star Trek exhibition, we brought Scotty, James Doohan, to Edinburgh and that was fantastic. All the Trekkies turned out for him.

“There was a young woman I met at the Scottish Arts Council years ago. She grew up in the Western Isles, and her dad had decided that seeing the Emperor’s Warriors was a once in a lifetime opportunity and without the need to travel to China. That was the start of her interest in the arts.

“When you put on an exhibition, it’s like throwing pebbles in a pool; you don’t know how far the ripples will travel.”

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To celebrate its 40th anniversary, the City Art Centre is mounting a special ‘highlights’ exhibition from the City’s collection of Scottish art.

Visitors will be able to see works by major historical figures such as Allan Ramsay, the pioneer photographers Hill and Adamson, and the Scottish Colourists, as well as contemporaries such as John Byrne, Alison Watt and Adrian Wiszniewski.

Two forthcoming exhibitions, City Art Centre at 40: Highlights from the City’s art collection and Bright Shadows: Scottish Art in the 1920s will mark the re-opening of the gallery to the public which is hoped will go ahead next month.

Forty years of ‘blockbuster’ exhibitions

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1985: The Emperor’s Warriors

1986: Thunderbirds are Go!

1988: Gold of the Pharaohs

1989: Muppets, Monsters and Magic

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1990: Dinosaurs Alive!

1990: The Art of Lego

1990: Sweat of the Sun – Gold of Peru

1992: Star Trek – The Exhibition

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1993: Land of the Dragon: Dinosaurs from China

1993: Golden Warriors of the Ukrainian Steppes

1997: Music100

2001: The Quest for Camelot

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2002: The Art of Star Wars

2004: Titanic: the World Class Collection

2006: Immortal Pharaoh

2008: Space Age

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