Brian Wilson: Dundee’s V&A – how a vision became a triumphant reality

Japanese architect Kengo Kuma looks out over the River Tay from in front of the new, internationally acclaimed V&A Dundee building that he designed (Picture: Andrew Milligan/PA)
Japanese architect Kengo Kuma looks out over the River Tay from in front of the new, internationally acclaimed V&A Dundee building that he designed (Picture: Andrew Milligan/PA)
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Dundee has long been a city of rich character, great wealth and extreme poverty. If the new V&A can give it a transformational boost, it will be worth every penny.

I declare an interest. I went to the embryonic Dundee University in the last year it was a college of St Andrews and, like many whose lives were touched by the city, I have retained a strong affection for place and people.

Not everyone grew to love it. In these days, “clearing” sent hordes of last-minute placements to what they fondly anticipated as the cloistered life of Queen’s College, St Andrews. Instead, they found themselves in the Hawkhill where red gowns and student japes were not universally appreciated.

Dundee University is one of Scotland’s great success stories of recent decades. It quickly asserted its own identity and has gone on to achieve international recognition in fields like life sciences, forensic medicine and advanced engineering.

In 1994, Duncan of Jordanstone Art College was incorporated into the university. It should come as no surprise that this was the creative hub in which the V&A idea had its genesis.

For once, Dundee got lucky. It had people of vision and, just as important, with contacts. The university secretary, David Duncan, had worked with Sir Mark Jones when he was director of the National Museums of Scotland.

By 2001, Sir Mark was director of the V&A. Both the university and the city were acutely aware of Dundee’s need for a transformational project. The Guggenheim’s catalytic impact on Bilbao and the Tate’s in Liverpool had attracted attention and envy.

READ MORE: First look inside new V&A Dundee ahead of public opening

Synergies between South Kensington and Dundee may not have been immediately obvious but the question gradually turned around. If the V&A was contemplating its own contribution to urban regeneration as well as an overspill home for its vast collection, then: “Why not Dundee?”

Duncan of Jordanstone – whose Dean, Professor Georgina Follett, had her own connections with the V&A in London – had a strong research base for the applied arts and there was no museum in Scotland dedicated to our distinguished history of architecture and design. So indeed, why not Dundee?

By then, the city had embarked on its waterfront redevelopment with huge public investment. The prospect of a centrepiece for everything else that was happening to give it a revamped identity was irresistible.

The then Scottish Executive came on board and the first public intimation was in 2007 when Jack McConnell announced a feasibility study. For his trouble, he was attacked for offering a stunt without substance – which was exactly the charge a feasibility study was required to address!

READ MORE: Philip Long: The V&A is a place to inspire people

Fortunately, that political tribalism did not persist and pretty much everyone, including UK and Scottish governments, got behind the V&Tay. Why wouldn’t they? Dundee’s advantage lay in the fact it had landed such an inspiring project that no politician or funding body could resist. And so it proved.

This weekend’s grand opening is an occasion to salute the visionaries who came up with the idea and endured early scepticism in order to head it towards reality. If it succeeds in bringing 500,000 visitors a year to Dundee, the economic benefits will be enormous.

How far will they trickle down? That is a more difficult question. The challenge will be to marry the aspirations of those who need industries and jobs, in a city which has lost so many of both, to the potential benefits of a museum, however distinguished. That cannot be taken for granted.

Other Scottish communities, rural and urban, have their own visions for transformational projects, on a far more modest scale than in Dundee. Do mechanisms now exist to smooth the way for even the best of them? That is a question which MSPs would do well to enquire into.

Without creative thinking from within communities, spirals of decline continue. It has taken more than 15 years for the V&A’s presence in Dundee to go from being an interesting academic idea to reality. Staying power is required – and so too is a positive environment which allows dreams to flourish.