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With Collective Gallery Reopening at Edinburgh’s City Observatory, Can Contemporary Art and Heritage Be Combined?

After a five-year redevelopment of the landmark heritage site on Calton Hill, who will this ‘new kind of observatory’ be for?

Combining heritage and contemporary art can be a tricky business. Collective’s new GBP£4.5million development of the 19th century City Observatory site has nevertheless brought the two together in a ruggedly beautiful setting atop Edinburgh’s Calton Hill. And, with its sensitively restored historic buildings and discretely integrated additions, the results are impressive. It has transformed what had been a vandalized, unused site since 2009 into a neatly-realized walled complex of landscaped lawns, gravel pathways and multipurpose spaces.

Spread across five separate buildings of varying sizes, the new Collective combines many of the usual arts building elements – two galleries, a restaurant, shop, library, education room – alongside its own unique touches, such as the freshly repainted Transit Telescope dating from 1831. Situated in the eastern portico of the restored classical Greek-style City Observatory, designed by Edinburgh architect William Henry Playfair in 1818, it’s a vivid reminder of why this building exists – the telescope was principally used for accurate time setting through its tracking of the night sky. The stated aim now is to bring art into a new context, or as the gallery puts it: ‘Collective will position itself as a new kind of observatory, inviting the public to view the world around them through the lens of contemporary art.’

Collective, Edinburgh. Photograph: Tom Nolan

Collective, Edinburgh, view of the Hillside, the City Dome and the City Observatory. Photograph: Tom Nolan

It’s an ambitious, and perhaps slightly laboured statement, but one that feels in keeping with the way Collective has evolved since relocating to Calton Hill in 2013. In its current guise – it was founded in 1984 – it’s no longer simply a gallery that supports artists to create and exhibit new work; it’s also a custodian of one of the city’s prized cultural assets and part of the much-visited Scottish capital’s tourist offer. It’s a huge leap in visibility and responsibility from its previous incarnation on Cockburn Street, where, in a small, glass-fronted gallery which has since become an independent coffee shop, Collective presented work by a vast range of artists including early shows from Ruth Ewan, Nathaniel Mellors, Grace Swindt and Jeremy Deller. The new site has been developed in partnership with Edinburgh City Council which has granted Collective a 25-year lease on the buildings. It’s taken five years of fund raising, planning applications and construction work to reach this point and there’s been the odd drama along the way. In 2015, for instance, the project’s original architect, Malcolm Fraser Architects, went into liquidation, resulting in Glasgow’s Collective Architecture (no relation) being brought in.

Transit House and City Observatory, Collective, Edinburgh. Photograph: Tom Nolan

Transit House and City Observatory, Collective, Edinburgh. Photograph: Tom Nolan

The results of that process are beautifully restrained and subtly incorporated into the site – literally so in the case of The Hillside, which houses office space and a gallery, and is tucked into the mound behind the central City Observatory. Its roof doubles as a viewing platform to look out across Edinburgh towards Leith and the Firth of Forth, and it’s not the only example of the architects making the most of the views. The standalone restaurant, The Lookout, sits on the north-west corner of the site, its floor-to-ceiling windows allowing diners to peer down on the city below. It’s run by the team behind the well-regarded Gardener’s Cottage, which sits at the foot of Calton Hill on Edinburgh's Royal Terrace Gardens, and is very much a ‘destination’ restaurant; there’s nothing about it that says you’re in an art centre, least of all the prices (there’s a £50 fixed menu, for example, and mains are £19–£26). Cash-strapped artists are unlikely to be regulars.

Dineo Seshee Bopape, ‘When Spirituality was a Baby’ (detail), 2018, City Dome, Collective, Edinburgh. Photograph: Tom Nolan

Dineo Seshee Bopape, ‘When Spirituality was a Baby’ (detail), 2018, City Dome, Collective, Edinburgh. Photograph: Tom Nolan

The Lookout seems to epitomize the balancing act Collective is engaged in – how does it fulfil the site’s essentially tourist-focused, heritage role while also keeping contemporary art and artists at the heart of what it does? Most obviously its two very different gallery spaces are there to do just that. The City Dome in the north-east corner, which dates from 1895 and was originally built to house a larger, additional telescope, is the first building you come to on entering the site through the main east entrance (after a well-placed coffee kiosk). Already previously used as a gallery space from 2014–15 before the redevelopment work started in earnest, its launch exhibition – part of a site-wide show titled ‘Affinity and Allusion’ – is an exuberantly engaging installation by Dineo Seshee Bopape that features breezeblock-sized mud bricks, soil, stones, slide projections and jars filled with hard to determine liquids. Referencing the passing of time, astronomy and astrology, objects are arranged in constellations and the concrete gallery floor is gouged into to create dips and striations. It spills across the floor and onto the exposed-brick walls, making full use of the circular space.

In the smaller, purpose-built Hillside gallery – which Collective intends to primarily use for its ongoing Satellites programme for ‘emerging artists and producers in Scotland’ – is Klaus Weber’s ‘The Nonument’, featuring a refrigerated maquette of a snowman with a nearly-finished cigarette for a nose and the top of a beer bottle for its head. Called Fagman, it’s a proposed but unrealized work designed to sit on the Playfair Monument at the south-east corner of the Collective site. A humorous riposte to the kind of monuments to ‘great men’ that a city like Edinburgh is full of, Playfair would certainly not have approved.

Collective, Edinburgh, library of the City Observatory. Photograph: Tom Nolan

James N Hutschinson, ‘Rumours of a New Planet’, 2018, library of the City Observatory, Collective, Edinburgh. Photograph: Tom Nolan

Art is woven into the site in a number of other ways, too. Outside, the Glasgow artist Tessa Lynch has created Turns, three permanent ‘play sculptures’/seating areas which take their form from the changing shapes of a focusing camera lens, and there are newly commissioned audio pieces – part of the ongoing ‘Observers’ Walks’ series – by artists Catherine Payton and James N Hutchinson. There’s also a small exhibition by Hutchinson, ‘Rumours of a New Planet’, in the City Observatory’s library space, a highlight of which is a series of 12 botanical drawings that have stories to tell. Unusually, and significantly in terms of Collective’s contemporary art mission, the shop in the Observatory’s west portico is mainly stocked with specially-commissioned works by Scottish artists, including a waterpoof poncho by Katie Schwab and tote bags, sweat tops, mugs and other items by Mick Peter. While its new home provides a rather genteel, National Trust-style setting, such acts are evidence of Collective’s continued commitment to the work of contemporary artists – it’s the kind of small thing that elevates this new home to something more than a successfully delivered heritage project.

Collective, Edinburgh opens to the public at 10 am on Saturday 24 November 2018; ‘Affinity and Allusion’ runs until 10 February 2019. 

Chris Sharratt is a freelance writer and editor based in Glasgow. 

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