MOST visitors to Aberdeen will be familiar with the strip of ornate granite buildings on Rosemount Viaduct, overlooking Union Terrace Gardens. Here stand three great civic projects of the Edwardian era: the Central Library, St Marks Church and His Majesty’s Theatre. Or, as they were once known in the city, education, salvation and damnation.
Once, they were part of a larger group, including the city’s Infirmary behind and a railway station underneath. They summed up a slice of life in the granite city, from the cradle to the grave. In the 100 years since they were built, Aberdeen has changed beyond all recognition, the station has gone, the hospital has relocated, but the three icons still stand.
Aberdeen is known for many things - granite, oil, fish, the ability to make a pound go a long way - but rarely for its cultural contribution to the life of the nation. This is perhaps unfair. It is, after all, the city of opera singer Mary Garden, dancer Michael Clark, rock vocalist Annie Lennox, world-class percussionist Evelyn Glennie. It’s the city where Lord Byron spent his formative years.
However, the one thing all these figures have in common is that they left the city. The progress of their various careers depended upon it. Aberdeen is perhaps better at exporting culture than growing it at home. But things are changing. Although the city has not experienced a cultural renaissance on the scale of Dundee, key developments in recent years are laying the foundations of an improved cultural life.
A magical mystery tour of the cultural sights of the granite city must begin on Rosemount Viaduct on the steps of His Majesty’s Theatre. A fine 1,400-seat traditional theatre, it plays host on an annual basis to companies as diverse as the Royal Shakespeare Company, Rambert Dance Company and the Singing Kettle.
In 2001, HMT was awarded cash - including a 2 million lottery grant - for a 7 million refurbishment which will build on a bar and restaurant, a corporate hospitality suite, a new green room and rehearsal space and facilities for education and outreach. Work is set to begin this summer, and the theatre will close in February until the development is complete in summer 2005, just in time for its centenary.
Down the road from HMT sits Aberdeen Art Gallery, another piece of turn-of-the-century civic finery. It is a gem among regional museums in Scotland, with a collection particularly strong in 19th and 20th-century paintings. Highlights include Sir John Lavery’s The Tennis Party, Dante Gabriel Rossetti’s Mariana and works by Renoir and Monet. It is also strong on local 19th-century painters, such as William Dyce and Joseph Farquharson.
Across the road from the art gallery is City Moves, the city’s community dance space, housed in a former church. Since its opening, it has encouraged hundreds of Aberdonians to cast off their inhibitions and put their best foot forward. It is also used as a rehearsal space for professional dancers such as Aberdeen-based Elbow Room Dance Company, currently touring Scotland with a new show.
Along the street from City Moves is the Belmont Cinema, a gift to film buffs in the city since it opened in September 2000, supplementing Aberdeen’s two multiplexes. The three-screen cinema specialises in arthouse, foreign and classic films as well as a selection of the best from the mainstream.
The tour must now head east to the building which may represent the most exciting development of the last 20 years in the cultural life of Aberdeen. In 1992, the former St Katherine’s Community Centre on West North Street was reborn as the Lemon Tree, a multi-purpose music venue, restaurant and studio theatre.
The brainchild of a determined city councillor, David Clyne, it built on the impact of the Aberdeen Alternative Festival. Even though the festival lost its funding in 2001, the Lemon Tree has gone from strength to strength; a lottery-funded refurbishment in 2000 made it one of the best-equipped music venues in Scotland. It has played host to a hit parade of bands - Radiohead, Travis, the Cranberries, Texas, Divine Comedy - as well as comics such as Harry Hill and Jo Brand.
The venue is currently emerging from a period of change following the departure of founding director Shona Powell. Her successor, Kathy McArdle, is known for her strong views on the integration of the arts into the life of a community, and is set to build on the venue’s strong community programme. A spokesman said: "A lot of people see us as being a music venue, but we are increasingly seeing the importance of doing much more than that."
Near the Lemon Tree, up a close off the Castlegate, nestles Peacock Visual Arts, the city’s premiere contemporary arts space. Established in 1974 as a print-making workshop, it now contains two galleries, a selection of video and digital-imaging equipment for use by artists and has a strong commitment to education and community work.
Over the years, many of Scotland’s top artists have made and shown work there: Joyce Cairns, Will Maclean, Alan Davie, David Bellany. Recently Beck’s Futures winner Toby Paterson made a series of screenprints there which were shown at Aberdeen Art Gallery. Currently, as if to make a point about its diversity, one gallery is showing work by world-class photographic artist Calum Colvin, commissioned for the Scottish National Gallery of Modern Art, and the other is showing work by local teenagers.
Lindsay Gordon, the director, says: "It is a unique combination of the three things: production, exhibition and education. A big part of our remit is about engaging artists and the public. Aberdeen is a smaller city than Edinburgh and Glasgow, where there are specific galleries for prints, photography, contemporary art. In a funny way the task is harder for us because we have got to cater for everyone. The uniqueness of the situation makes us unique."
Peacock, in partnership with Grampian Housing Association, has mounted plans to take over the former Salvation Army Citadel, one of the city’s landmark buildings, on the Castlegate. They propose to make a "creative hub" for the city, taking Peacock’s brand of education, exhibition and production into a much larger arena, and adding a cafe, restaurant and conference facilities.
This project offers a hint of the kind of development which could, with the will and the funding, become possible in Aberdeen. The city has a number of unused spaces - the Citadel, the former Tivoli Theatre, several former churches, and underused spaces such as the Arts Centre, which could boost a vibrant cultural scene. The council has pledged 10 million to invest in the cultural infrastructure by 2005.
Indications that the city has the talent base to make these investments live and breathe are there in the strength of community arts work and the vibrancy of amateur groups. Although they face challenges - recently the outstanding amateur opera company based at Haddo House announced that it was to fold due to lack of funds - there is no doubt that the talent and energy are there at grassroots level.
Further signs of growth come in the form of successful festivals which are not attached to any one venue, such as the Go North music festival which took place in May, welcoming Eddi Reader, Shed Seven and the Delgados to the city. Also in May, Word 2003, the University of Aberdeen writers’ festival, staged a packed programme of events featuring 40 of the country’s finest writers, and announced its intention to become an annual event.
The Aberdeen International Youth Festival is a major event in the arts calendar in Scotland, welcoming 1,000 young people to the city in August, following a rigorous selection procedure. Staging events in arts venues across the city, this year’s AIYF promises performances from Canada, Belarus and Norway, the debut of the National Youth Jazz Orchestra of Scotland and a stilt-walking, fire-breathing group from Senegal.
The AIYF has not survived the last two years without funding battles, but seems to have a bright future under new director Stephen Stenning - previously in community theatre in Dundee - who has brought a popularising agenda and a promise to boost the festival’s image.
AIYF is another place for spotting new talent, running prestigious summer schools in ballet, traditional music and, for the first time this year, musical theatre. This is where the Michael Clarks and Annie Lennoxes of the future can find their wings. Perhaps, before they are ready to fly, the city will have an arts infrastructure strong enough to give them the necessary launch pad.