Secret report on Botanics gallery reveals bid to save 'world class' attraction was dropped

Bosses at the Royal Botanic Garden in Edinburgh overturned a recommendation from independent consultants that a world-renowned art gallery in its grounds be kept open.

The Inverleith House gallery at the Royal Botanic Garden was closed suddenly last month.

The board of the visitor attraction rejected advice in a publicly-funded study that it should retain the “unique asset” of Inverleith House.

The contemporary art gallery closed down suddenly at the end of last month despite consultants Kelly and Company, who were paid out of a special grant to mark Inverleith Houses’s 30th anniversary, that it should continue to present “a world-class original programme of visual arts.”

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It was over-ruled in favour of a drive to generate greater income from Inverleith House - despite the consultants warning that hosting events and conferences there would reduce the reputation of the Botanics as a world-class visitor attraction, reduce access to Inverleith House, and see it become a “dead space” when it is not being hired out.

However the gallery could yet win a reprieve after senior Botanics officials agreed to the creation of a taskforce with its main funders, the Scottish Government and Creative Scotland, to look at the future of Inverleith House.

In a marked change of tone from previous comments, Simon Milne, regius keeper of the garden, said: "The intention is not for Inverleith House to lie empty and there was never any intention to ‘close’ the building. The decision taken by the board was that Inverleith House would no longer be dedicated to exhibiting contemporary art.

“We are looking at the options for a number of exhibitions and events across the board – for next year and beyond. There will be potential for hiring the space – but only around our exhibitions and events programme at Inverleith House. We remain committed to being an arts venue.”

The report, which was commissioned in March and discussed by the boarded of trustees at the Botanics, was made public days after more than 230 leading cultural figures demanded a rethink on the closure of the building, which was first used for exhibitions when it became the home of the Scottish National Gallery of Modern Art in 1960.

Turner Prize winners Tracey Emin, Antony Gormley, Douglas Gordon, Martin Boyce, Jeremy Deller and Anish Kapoor all put their names to an open letter, while almost 9000 people have backed an online petition protesting against the demise of the gallery.

Inverleith House is described in the independent report as “one of the foremost galleries in the country” and “highly unique” because of is setting in a world-class botanic garden.

The consultants recommended building on the world-class reputation of both Inverleith House and the Botanics by “developing a meaningful relationship between art, science and the natural world.”

A proposed strategy which was aimed at roughly doubling the number of visitors to Inverleith House to 40,0000 was based on present a programme that “responds to, interprets and reflects” the history of the Botanics, which dates back to 1820 at its home in the Inverleith area.

The report even recommended expanding the cultural programme at the Botanics by instigating a new residency programme, staging a major joint exhibition with the Edinburgh Art Festival and hosting a regular sculpture show in the garden itself.

However, despite the recommendation in the 55-page report, the closure of the gallery was approved by the board of trustees, with alternative uses to be explored “as part of the drive to increase income and make financial savings.”

A new statement from the Botanics, issued to coincide with the publication of the report, said: “It was the view of the trustees that the financial model proposed in the report was high risk, required further financial investment and included untested assumptions. They further agreed that the need to increase income meant that it was no longer appropriate to subsidise a dedicated contemporary art gallery.

“Although the board did not accept the central recommendation of the report, a number of options for making Inverleith House more relevant to and integrated with the work of the garden were suggested and will be considered as the future events and exhibitions programme is developed."

“Following discussions with the Scottish Government and Creative Scotland it has been agreed to establish a working group to advise the RBGE board on the strategic direction of its programme for arts and cultural engagement that would include, but not be restricted to, exhibition-making at Inverleith House.

“It will be convened by an independent chair and will be tasked with establishing a clear vision for the development of an arts programme that would align with and amplify the core mission of the garden that would be achievable and sustainable within the current financial climate.”

The Scotsman critic and commentator Joyce McMillan, who instigated the online petition, said: "It's pretty transparent that they (RBGE) want to make a commitment to continue with contemporary art in the garden but want to privatise Inverleith House and use it as a cash cow for generating income.

"If they're allowed to do that it is a failure of stewardship for which they, the Scottish Government and Creative Scotland are jointly responsible. That place has been funded to be a public building in Edinburgh public life."

A spokesman for the Scottish Government said: "We encourage RBGE and Creative Scotland to do all they can to promote art and culture to as many potential visitors as possible as part of the overall visitor experience.”

Creative Scotland declined to comment today.