Gallery revamp finally ready to roll – three years late and a third over budget

Artist impressions of plans for the revamp of the Scottish National Gallery (SNG) and part of Princes Street Gardens
Artist impressions of plans for the revamp of the Scottish National Gallery (SNG) and part of Princes Street Gardens
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It will finally provide a fitting home for Scotland’s greatest art treasures and end decades of “institutional embarrassment” over how they are shown.

Work on the first new exhibition spaces the nation’s most important paintings to be created in more than 30 years is set to get under way as part of a long-awaited overhaul of the Scottish National Gallery in Edinburgh.

However the cost of the project – which also involves a new look for part of East Princes Street Gardens – has soared by nearly a third, is running three years late, and has had to be scaled back significantly since plans were first unveiled four years ago.

The Scottish Government has also had to more than double its contribution to help allow work to start next month to create new galleries showcasing work previously only seen by one in six visitors.

The National Galleries of Scotland (NGS), which attracts £1.6 million to the site each year, has admitted that the project, which previously had a £16.8m price tag, will cost £22m and is not due for completion until at least early 2021.

NGS director-general, Sir John Leighton, said he was confident of raising more than £10m to ensure the project is completed on time, but refused to say how much had already been secured.

New galleries flooded with natural daylight and offering spectacular views of Edinburgh city centre will be created, while the footprint of gallery spaces devoted to Scottish art will roughly double.

Part of the gardens will be re-landscaped to help create a new main entrance, while former offices, a print room and a library will be among the spaces transformed into galleries overlooking the city centre. A new shop, cafe and restaurant are also planned.

Although the Playfair Steps which connect the Old and New Towns will be closed until 2021, work around the gallery, which dates back to 1859, will be phased to ensure that the Mound precinct is available for Edinburgh’s Christmas festival and the Fringe to use.

When the project was launched in 2016, Sir John declared that it was aimed at ending decades of “institutional embarrassment” over the display of work by artists 
like Allan Ramsay, Sir Henry Raeburn, Alexander Nasmyth, Anne Redpath and Phoebe Anna Traquair in “dark and dingy” gallery spaces.

However plans to extend the gallery into the gardens by up to five metres were dropped after it emerged the cost of doing so was much greater than originally anticipated.

Sir John said: “The £16.8m figure was an estimate for the project, before anything went out to tender.

“What we have now is a fully-tendered, tested, contracted and agreed price. It’s important to stress that if we’d pressed ahead with the original scheme it would have cost considerably more than £22m.

“I think we have a stronger concept now. I’m more confident it’s going to be a fantastic success.”