Brian Ferguson: Why Dundee should be named culture capital

I ended up in memory lane again last week, after being asked to speak to a group of Scottish student journalists.

The RRS Discovery in Dundee.. Picture: Robert Perry
The RRS Discovery in Dundee.. Picture: Robert Perry

I was mulling over how I got into arts journalism en route to the event from Castlebrae High, in Craigmillar, where the staff and students staged their own launch of the Edinburgh International Festival’s programme.

The EIF is in the final phase of a three-year partnership with the school, but it will be some time before its legacy become clear.

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But, well before their gym hall becomes an official EIF venue in August, some of the senior pupils I spoke to are already considering a career in the arts - after getting the chance to shadow staff working behind the scenes at the festival.

The seeds of my own interest in the arts were undoubtedly sown in Glasgow in 1990 when it basked in the limelight as European Capital of Culture.

I had my first job in Glasgow at a time when arts news was never out of the papers and the city buzzed all year with major events, the visits of superstars like Frank Sinatra and Luciano Pavarotti, and the opening of the Royal Concert Hall. On The Big Day, virtually in the middle of the triumphant programme, the entire city centre was brought to a halt by more than a quarter of a million fans desperate to see the city’s chart-topping bands that had by then put Glasgow on the global musical map.

Glasgow never really looked back after 1990, which seemed to turbo-charge city’s arts scene throughout the 1990s and beyond.

Coincidentally, the day after recalling the impact Glasgow in 1990 had on me I found myself speaking to some of the leading figures shaping Scotland’s next attempt on the title.

Dundee has been gradually sharpening its ambitions since 2007, when news first emerged that it was hoping to join forces with the V&A to create an international design museum on the city’s waterfront. It was left pretty dismayed at losing out to Hull on a bid to be crowned UK City of Culture this year.

There remain lingering niggles that its efforts were hamstrung by the prospect of Scottish independence taking Scotland out of the UK by now and also that the eventual winner simply needed the title more.

But Dundee has also been bouyed by the belief that much of what was promised for 2017 was going to be delivered anyway and that strategy is the heart of its emerging bid for 2023.

Signature projects like the new V&A and the transformation of the old Guthrie Street printing works into one of the UK’s biggest creative hubs will be up and running next year. The creation of a Dundee Maritime Museum, a new cruise liner terminal, the UK’s first comic museum and an international gaming design studio are all very much part of the city’s waterfront vision.

A new museum celebrating the polar explortion vessel Discovery, which the V&A is being built alongside, and an overhaul and expansion of the Dundee Contemporary Arts Centre are also key elements.

A key part of Dundee’s message is that the title will “accelerate” plans which are already on the table. The city already seems certain to be utterly transformed by 2023, but Dundee has even loftier ambitions to attract some of the world’s leading performers, and events, to the city. With 1600 new jobs and an extra 450,000 visitors to the city predicted from a successful bid it is no wonder those behind it insist Dundee is “deadly serious.”