Lesley Riddoch: Will Scotland finally discover Dundee?

Dundee holds high hopes of a surge in visitor numbers following the opening of the V&A museum later this year.
Dundee holds high hopes of a surge in visitor numbers following the opening of the V&A museum later this year.
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Despite the attraction of the V&A, there is a mental block to be worked round when it comes to venturing north of the River Tay says Lesley Riddoch

So Scotland’s Big Day for Architecture and Design has been chosen. But I wonder how many folk outside Dundee have actually circled 15 September?

The public opening of the V&A Design Museum will undoubtedly grab the attention of the London arts community and the international magazines who’ve already selected Dundee as a top place to visit in 2018. But what about Scots? In fact, let’s get straight to the point – what about folk in Edinburgh and Glasgow? Will central belters break the habits of several lifetimes and head to a northern city for culture and entertainment?

Can basic curiosity surrounding Scotland’s newest museum overcome the unconscious pecking order in Scottish city life? 2018 is not just a chance for Dundee to shine. It’s also a chance for Edinburgh and Glasgow to graciously acknowledge that the artistic jewels in Scotland’s crown are being shared around – at long last.

The hope is that Dundee’s offshoot of the famous London V&A will have the same success as Spain’s outpost of the Guggenheim in Bilbao. Of course there’s social media scepticism about the target of attracting half a million visitors in the first year. It’s understandable – as yet, folk aren’t sure what else Dundee has to offer. And that’s partly down to Dundonian modesty. As the late, lamented singer-songwriter Michael Marra once said: “Dundonians are like Glaswegians, who listen.”

Over the last decade, while no-one was listening or watching, the city pulled together an internationally renowned life sciences hub around Ninewells Hospital and Dundee University and a burgeoning games industry at Abertay University’s Whitespace. While all eyes were on the new Queensferry Crossing, Scotland’s second biggest infrastructure project – Dundee’s Waterfront Regeneration – quietly got on with reversing the car priority created in 1966 when the Tay Road Bridge opened. The new street layout reconnects the surviving street grid with the water’s edge, removing ugly bridge ramps and the hated 22-storey council HQ, Tayside House. Homes and businesses on Dock Street have their first direct view of the river in half a century, the beautiful, listed Tay Hotel – which sat derelict for a decade – has been refurbished, and the sale of land for a budget hotel has funded the council’s renovation of Dundee rail station because Network Rail had no plans to do this soon.

It’s easy to snipe though. Dundee still has Scotland’s highest rate of teenage pregnancy. Shops in parts of the city centre are empty but land speculation means rents are higher than recession-hit firms can afford. A bespoke media park lies almost empty and tiny Dundee airport has one winter scheduled flight to London City.

But there’s a real belief that this can all change with the V&A as catalyst. Not just because it will put Dundee back on the map, but because the quiet confidence, effective organisation, common cause between public and private sectors and long term planning which helped bag Scotland’s only design museum, have also produced a formidable and experienced posse who are hungry for more.

The folk at Duncan of Jordanstone - Dundee’s art school – have worked with the V&A for decades and were first to suggest a Dundee offshoot in 2007. The momentum already achieved by the Dundee Contemporary Arts Centre (which opened in 1999) and the council’s ambitious Waterfront plan helped convince the London museum that they’d get pole position in a brand new city landscape with local decision makers, businesses and artists keen to deliver. There was no competition, no tendering procedure, no form-filling and next to no money wasted on process.

It’s true – the building is 66 per cent over budget, 18 months late and not waterborne as first planned.

It’s also jaw-dropping. Fife commuters have been able to monitor construction crossing the Tay Road Bridge for the past year. From a distance, the new museum resembles a small, northern pyramid - from some angles it’s more like the prow of a ship about to enter the water - and close up it’s like a white stone (seagull-free) cliff face. The Japanese architect Kengo Kuma wants the V&A to become the “living room for the city” – a common aspiration many new museums rapidly abandon. But there’s a better than average chance it may actually happen in Dundee.

The Waterfront has long leisure associations for older Dundonians whose misspent youths revolved around dances at the JM Ballroom – one of many popular landmarks demolished in the 60s – and art has played a big part in the city’s renaissance. Witch’s Blood, a promenade performance involving hundreds of locals in 1987, kicked off a long tradition of community arts, supported by the Dundee Rep - Scotland’s only full-time company of actors. So as long as the V&A’s curators embrace this rich, local, working-class tradition, the walk across Slessor Gardens - Dundee’s newly created civic space – should rapidly become a familiar one for locals.

Entrance to the V&A will be free (though special exhibitions will charge) and creature comforts exist amidst the design highlights of Hunter wellies, Dennis the Menace cartoons, computer games and a reproduction Rennie Mackintosh tea-room.

A west-facing restaurant on the upper floor with an outside terrace will offer diners one of the best views in Scotland – there’s a ground floor café too.

But will this be enough to pull visitors in?

There are both cautionary and supportive parallels. When Derry/Londonderry was made city of culture in 2013, there was a presumption Irish neighbours north and south of the border would just pile in without much encouragement. But organisers hugely underestimated the power of lazy stereotyping, the deterrent effect of “flegs” related violence and a general reluctance to believe anything significant could be happening in a smaller, less metropolitan city than Belfast or Dublin. Could that happen to Dundee? Quite possibly. The Kingsway, which bypasses Dundee was one of Britain’s first dual carriageways - one of a clutch of firsts notched up by Dundee’s avant garde city architect James Thomson in the 1920s and 30s. Ironically, though, it means Dundee is a city many have bypassed not visited. So there is a mental block to work around. Colleagues of mine generally assume I can easily “hop” down to Glasgow or Edinburgh but are less keen to make the “arduous” return journey – unless asked.

So this year Dundonians need to ditch their long-held underdog status - and do just that.