Underbelly to become year-round arts site

Bongo club manager Ally Hill is open to discussions. Picture: Phil Wilkinson
Bongo club manager Ally Hill is open to discussions. Picture: Phil Wilkinson
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ONE of Edinburgh’s leading Fringe venues is set to be turned into a year-round arts venue following talks between the city council and a charity.

Out of the Blue, the trust that runs the Bongo Club nightclub and an arts centre in Leith, is on the verge of a deal to take over the Underbelly’s long-running base beneath the Central Library.

Permanent performance and event spaces would be created beneath the library on George IV Bridge, where Fringe shows have been staged since 2000, under the plans.

It is hoped the deal between Out of the Blue and the council will be finalised in time to allow the new Bongo Club – which had been facing an uncertain future – to open in the spring.

The Bongo Club would programme events for 11 months of the year, while Underbelly directors Ed Bartlam and Charlie Wood – who have given their seal of approval to the plans – would take over the space for the Fringe in August.

A source said: “The council and the university have been trawling the city centre trying to find an alternative home for the Bongo Club and this site is by far the best option on the table.

“Its use for Fringe events is long-established and a year-round venue fits in well with the wider aspirations for the site.”

The move will be the first phase of a wider overhaul of the library, which will also see a major hotel development created in nearby India Buildings.

It would be the latest in a series of new year-round ventures, coming on the back of Assembly founder William Burdett-Coutts’s purchase of two sites, on Bristo Place and Roxburgh Place. Summerhall, housed in the old Royal (Dick) Vet School near the Meadows, will also become a permanent arts venue after this year’s Fringe.

Richard Lewis, the council’s culture and leisure convener, said: “Over the years the Bongo Club has played an important role in promoting both arts and culture within Edinburgh. We are currently looking at proposals for an alternative venue, however, these discussions are still at a very early stage.”

The Bongo Club’s future had become uncertain because the lease on its current base on Holyrood Road is being terminated.

The club is being forced to relocate from its Edinburgh University-owned home under plans to redevelop the space into office and teaching facilities.

Ally Hill, manager of the Bongo Club, confirmed talks were ongoing with the council about the George IV Bridge site, but insisted other options were still being looked at.

He said: “We are well aware of the discussions between the council and Out of the Blue about the future of the Bongo Club.

“We think it’s a tremendous idea and are very supportive of it, although we do have an existing agreement in place with the council to continue to run shows there during the Fringe.”

The council, which has been helping the Bongo Club find a new home since it was thrown into crisis in February, published its own plans for the George IV Bridge site last December.

They involve transforming disused vaults, derelict gap sites and the empty offices in India Buildings into a new “cultural quarter” aimed at raising the profile of Edinburgh’s world city of literature status. The wider plans are being masterminded by Edinburgh-based architect Allan Murray, who worked on the nearby Missoni Hotel.

Edinburgh’s Central Library, which dates from 1890, was bankrolled by the philanthropist Andrew Carnegie.