Is Leith really the Camden of the future?

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Often overshadowed by the neighbour that annexed it, Leith has found a new confidence in the past decade, with new galleries opening to promote a thriving arts scene

HISTORICALLY, Edinburgh’s Dundas Street, in the heart of the New Town, has been the main centre for buying and selling art in the capital, with a number of famous commercial galleries such as the Open Eye, Bourne Fine Art and the Scottish Gallery housed in its elegant Georgian buildings. This is still the place to go if you’re looking to buy a Peploe or a Fergusson, a Blackadder or a Bellany, but in the past few years a very different part of the city has started to make a name for itself as an art mecca: Leith Walk.

Tipping Point by Kelly Bieliauskas, on display at Inc Tank

Tipping Point by Kelly Bieliauskas, on display at Inc Tank

Ten years ago, there were hardly any galleries at all in this area, apart from Edinburgh Printmakers at the top of the Walk and the Leith Gallery at the bottom. Now, though, it feels as if there’s one on every corner. Starting in Edinburgh city centre and working your way downhill towards Leith, you’ll find Superclub and Inc Tank just off Gayfield Square, Such and Such on Brunswick Street, Rhubaba on Arthur Street, and the Ritchie Collins Gallery on Henderson Street. All of these galleries have opened in the past couple of years, and all of them are dedicated to showing work by young, emerging artists.

There’s a palpable sense, too, that 2012 could be the year the art scene in this part of city really takes off, with the newly established galleries planning their most ambitious exhibition programmes to date, and the annual gallery walk, Leith Late, expanding from a midsummer mosey around a cluster of venues towards the top of the Walk to become an urban adventure taking in the entire strip.

The recent explosion of artistic activity on and around Leith Walk is due in part to the arrival of Out of the Blue – an arts venue providing studio space for over 100 artists, which relocated from the city centre to the former army drill hall on Dalmeny Street in 2003.

“When we came into the area there was nothing really happening locally in terms of venues,” says Out of the Blue co-ordinator Rob Hoon. “We’re aware that we have a hub of artists here, and some of them have left to go off and start their own initiatives.”

Artist and gallery owner Ritchie Collins

Artist and gallery owner Ritchie Collins

If it took a few years for these spin-off spaces to appear, it’s probably because property prices were eye-wateringly high in the middle of the last decade. Since the recession started to bite, however, it’s become much cheaper to rent or buy, allowing artists to set up in buildings that would previously have been too expensive. Like many of the art spaces around Leith Walk, Superclub isn’t just a gallery – it also provides studio space for emerging artists. The income from the studios helps pay the rent, so exhibitions don’t have to sell out in order for the venue to survive.

Ross Christie, the gallery’s co-director, is busy installing his first exhibition of the year: Counter-Play by Emma Taylor, a mixture of highly-finished floor-based sculptures and spontaneously-created prints.

“This space started as a studio to house emerging artists in October 2010,” he says, “and we opened the gallery in 2011. Having looked at a few different places around the city centre, the prices were just astronomical, so we found this place. It’s perfectly located between the more up-and-coming area of Leith and the city centre.”

Emma Taylor says she struggled to make ends meet as an artist working in London, but “the support systems and networks just seem to be in place in Edinburgh”.

“I think in three or four years’ time there’s going to be this really powerful community here in Leith,” she adds. “At the moment there’s still a nice level of engagement with graduate and emerging artists and I hope things stay that way because I think that’s what makes these galleries so successful.”

Another big advantage of the Leith Walk area, from the point of view of the artistic community, is that it’s home to a high concentration of industrial buildings – spaces which often make stylish, quirky contemporary galleries. At Rhubaba, on Arthur Street, co-directors Tom Nolan and Catherine Payton have recently refurbished an industrial unit formerly used as a wine merchant’s warehouse to provide 16 artists’ studios and a large, high-ceilinged gallery. This year they are putting together an ambitious programme of exhibitions, starting with a solo show by Sheffield-based artist James Clarkson in February.

“It’ll be some relief works and some sculptural installation,” says Nolan, “and it’s hopefully going to use the full height of the building.”

The art world isn’t entirely immune to the effects of the recession, and there have been some recent closures. The Corn Exchange Gallery on Constitution Street shut down last year, and Such and Such Gallery on Brunswick Street is also about to close. Their final exhibition, Full Stop, runs until this Sunday.

“It’s our last show, unfortunately,” says the gallery’s director, David Lemm. “It’s a mini-retrospective of everything we’ve shown before, taking in textiles, illustration and jewellery and featuring a lot of up and coming young artists and a couple of established artists as well.”

In spite of these setbacks, however, the area as a whole seems to be gaining more galleries than it’s losing, and it’s a sign of the times that Lemm thinks the next people to move into his Such and Such premises may well be young artists looking to establish another gallery.

One person who has done more than anyone else to promote the idea of a Leith Walk art scene is Morvern Cunningham, organiser of the annual gallery walk, Leith Late, which started last year.

“Basically it’s just one big art opening in many venues on and around Leith Walk,” she says. “We had five arts venues and five local businesses all showcasing what they do best, whether it be visual art, film, poetry or live music.”

Last year’s event attracted an estimated 600 people, and the 2012 event is shaping up to be even bigger; and whereas previously Cunningham concentrated on the top of the Walk, this time she feels there are enough galleries to run the event along the entire strip. She’s got a new after-party venue lined up, too, and is seeking funding to put art installations into shop fronts.

Cunningham isn’t under any illusions about how tough it can be for artists to make a living, but she still thinks the art scene in Leith has the potential to grow and evolve dramatically over the next few years.

“I envision Leith to be a Camden of the future,” she says. “I think it could become a really cool place, a place that tourists come – and not just because there’s a ship moored somewhere near a shopping centre.”

• Emma Taylor: Counter-Play at Superclub and Full Stop at Such and Such both run until 29 January; James Clarkson’s exhibition at Rhubaba runs from 18 February until 4 March; the group show Winter Dreams at the Ritchie Collins Gallery runs until 25 February; The Open Show at Inc Tank ends tomorrow. Leith Late 2012 will take place on 28 June at various venues on and around Leith Walk.