The revamp of Aberdeen Art Gallery has given the city what is being billed as “the jewel” in the city’s cultural crown and what feels like a brand new attraction, writes Brian Ferguson.
It is just past opening time on a grey weekday morning at Aberdeen Art Gallery and the 19th century building is already abuzz with hundreds of visitors.
Aberdonians have descended in their droves to see if a four-year refurbishment, unveiled at the weekend, has been worth the wait and a £34.6 million price tag.
Many were no doubt lured in by the word-of-mouth hype about what has been billed as “the jewel in Aberdeen’s cultural crown”. Perhaps some were intrigued by the sabre-rattling from their civil leaders on how the gallery will rival Dundee’s V&A.
A year on from the unveiling of the waterfront project in Dundee, Aberdeen is right to shout from the rooftops about its reborn gallery, despite the inevitable delays and budget woes which seem to accompany such projects. New vantage points overlooking the city are a highlight of the refurbishment, which also features impressive new exhibition spaces on the top floor, currently home to photographer Martin Parr’s remarkable portraits from on his travels around Scotland.
But it is the strength of Aberdeen’s permanent collection of art and how it is displayed in the new exhibition spaces that will be the attraction’s selling point.
It has never been well enough known that Aberdeen boasts the work of Henry Raeburn, Joan Eardley, Samuel Peploe, Eduardo Paolozzi, David Mach, Barbara Hepworth, Francis Bacon, Tracey Emin and Claude Monet.
But that is expected to change with the gallery’s sleek new look and an increase in the number of galleries for the permanent collection, from 11 to 19, means more than 1000 works are now on display compared to just 370 before the revamp began in 2015.
The overwhelming impression from the completed project is of a brand new attraction, rather than a new look for a Victorian museum, and a destination which, like V&A Dundee, can be a new standard-bearer for Scotland.
But, crucially, the gallery reopening is only one part in a bigger jigsaw that is finally falling into place after many years of planning, agonising and criticising of the city’s cultural infrastructure.
It is just three months since Aberdeen unveiled another new project, the P&J Live arena, which is just six miles from the city centre, a mile-and-a-half from Dyce railway station and a metre 15-minute walk from its airport.
If the £333 million cost of the city’s new events arena, which has replaced its old exhibition centre, is eye-popping, it begins to add up when you discover its 15,000-capacity indoor arena is the biggest in Scotland, it boasts seven conferences spaces, 350 hotel bedrooms and has a 5,000-strong capacity for conferences.
With Rod Stewart, Elton John, Michael Buble, Liam Gallagher and Lewis Capaldi among those booked into the venue over the next few months it is already shaping up to be more than a match for Glasgow’s SSE Hydro arena. Its other facilities have probably been a key factor in Glasgow ordering a £200m expansion of its own Clydeside event campus.
It is also less than a year since Aberdeen’s 200-year-old Music Hall, which will host next month’s Scots Trad Music Awards, opened its doors after a long-awaited £9m revamp.
And work is finally underway recently on a £25m transformation of Union Terrace Gardens, signalling an end a saga over how it should be redeveloped, which goes back well over a decade.
With the city boasting facilities should be the envy of much of Scotland, it does not seem premature to suggest a new cultural era for the city has finally arrived.