Sally Reaper: Aberdeen has a SMART approach to the arts

Sally Reaper, of independent art agency SMART
Sally Reaper, of independent art agency SMART
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In the last decade Scotland’s towns and cities have taken great strides in art and culture. We are no different in the Granite City. Despite being better known as the oil capital of Europe, Aberdeen is stepping up to the plate in a bid to transform its cultural offering.

You don’t have to look very far back to find a time when Aberdeen’s creative community was not really a community at all. There were very talented people working on their own, but with little cohesive vision, message or direction.

Artwork by Pester and Rossi at Look Again Visual Art and Design Festival

Artwork by Pester and Rossi at Look Again Visual Art and Design Festival

It is incredible to see how far we’ve come. Creating a vibrant culture in the region is now a priority and the arts and other creative groups are enjoying support from economic, tourism and creative organisations like never before.

A sustainable creative output in the north-east will bring benefits to the economy – improving quality of life, attracting visitors and making it a more appealing place to work and establish businesses. We are at the start of that journey but, with continued support and clear vision, we have the potential to make culture count in Aberdeen.

We know what challenges we face as a city and understand the steps we should take to address them. Reports, including one by Robert Gordon University entitled Creating a New North, reveal issues which have become ­central to future ­success: attracting and retaining talent, changing perceptions and creating vibrant, attractive and meaningful spaces.

The new City Masterplan is working with cultural providers to address these issues, as well as seeking ways to improve leadership and vision, create effective partnerships and improve opportunities for creatives.

The launch of Aberdeen Festivals has played a pivotal role while Aberdeen City Council’s ­creative fund and opening of The Anatomy Rooms encourage emerging artists to remain here.

It was identified in 2014 through local cultural providers that the region lacked a large-scale festival for visual art and design. Look Again was born out of discussions and a partnership between Robert Gordon University and SMART art agency was formed to deliver a festival over three years. SMART has been putting on contemporary visual art and design projects for ten years but this unique partnership allowed us to deliver a large scale event that has seen our reputation grow significantly.

The inaugural Look Again took place in 2015 – encouraging people to take a look at our surroundings with fresh eyes. It also allowed us to celebrate our rich cultural heritage and strengthened the wider narrative to showcase us as much more than Europe’s oil capital.

It’s fantastic to see this seed has now developed into a fully-formed narrative for the north-east of Scotland with regards to cultural tourism, spearheaded by VisitAberdeenshire.

The Look Again festival is the visible response to a movement that is working hard behind the scenes to create a lasting legacy. While we’re proud to attract internationally acclaimed artists, including Turner Prize winners Assemble, we are most proud of the wider impact Look Again has had.

This year we piloted a new project seed fund which allowed four creative practitioners, with strong links to the north-east, to produce a series of engaging, reflective and resonate public artworks.

Working in partnership with the council’s Creative Learning Team, we host artist-led workshops with children and community groups – with people who may never have stepped inside an art gallery before.When we first started talking about establishing the region as a centre of excellence for visual art and design, we heard from many who thought it would be impossible. But now, ­economic and social key organisations have woken up to the benefits a thriving cultural scene can deliver.

Despite the immediate economic challenges, I feel positive about what the future holds for the north-east. Each of us needs to get behind this movement and talk up our region.

Look Again Visual Art and Design Festival 2017 will take place across the city between 27 April and 1 May. A campus programme is also running at Robert Gordon University’s Garthdee Campus 20-24 April 2017. Visit

Sally Reaper, of independent art agency SMART.