A Vision of the Future comes to Dundee: A Tayside Renaissance?

Gerry Hassan

New Statesman, October 12th 2018

Dundee is being talked about. This marks a big change for a city that traditionally has been ignored or presented in clichés – of jute, jam and journalism, the Tay Rail Bridge disaster, and William McGonagall.

Now Dundee is on the map, and not just the Scottish and UK one, but internationally as a tourist and cultural hot spot, and a must-see destination.

The major reason for this sudden interest is the opening of the V&A this month. It has been a long time coming, with expectation rising in the city and beyond.

The V&A is a statement of intent, and style-wise makes a dramatic impact. Its striking angular, shape and structure; its visceral materials and dark colours, can be seen from across the River Tay – and in the city centre, glimpses of the V&A peek out from side streets.

This vision of Japanese architect Kenco Kuma, at the cost of £80 million, has brought to Dundee the first V&A outside London. Whether it has the desired Bilbao effect on the city will be evident in a couple of years – measured by rises in tourist spend and numbers, and whether local people, as well as visitors, talk positively of the Dundee effect.

The building’s first exhibitions offer a bag of goodies. There is a V&A London exhibition on the luxury age of cruise liners. There is the recreation of Charles Rennie Mackintosh’s Oak Room, unseen for fifty years and now even more stunning to behold in the aftermath of the Glasgow School of Art fire. There is the splendor of the Scottish Design Galleries showcasing ‘Beano’ comics and Hunter wellies. There are also learning centres, public spaces and rest spots, a café and restaurant, and windows out into the world.

The exhibitions are, as one would expect, done to the highest standard. But there are two undoubted stars – the building and its ambience. In particular, the manner in which the V&A inside and outside relates to the River Tay is something special. Sited between the long spans of the Tay Road Bridge and Tay Rail Bridges, from either side of the building there are magnificent contours into the near-distance. Aiding this are numerous terraces; a stunning vista from the restaurant facing Captain Scott’s RRS Discovery ship; windows, large and small, letting in the light of the water – and a waterfront walkway, as well as water gently lapping round the building.

Then there are the many thousands of people already visiting, paying homage to this recently settled wonder by the river. It is early days of course, but this has done two things. It has made Dundee a destination whereas for years the oft-said comment was that it was a place to pass through. And it has given Dundonians more permission to feel proud of their city.

Dundee has historically been misunderstood. Dundee negativity is often cited, and indeed was by a couple of senior V&A staff I spoke to on my visit, but this misses much. When a Dundonian working class voice says ‘Ye cannae dae that’, a droll and playful undercurrent of humour is often present. Although there is scepticism, there is usually a wee twinkle in their eye, but too many non-Dundonians take this literally, and portray a pessimistic, passive city.

The city does of course have its challenges. It has the lowest wages of Scotland’s main four cities, the lowest employment rate (64.1%) of any UK city, and 9,800 local citizens would need to find employment to bring the city’s employment up to the UK average. The authorities in the city know these figures inside out, and recognise that the cultural boosterist model has to be linked to the citizens and the wider ecology of the city. There are huge challenges here as council officials concede of the challenges for a small to medium sized city of 150,000 people trying to find a place in the tailwind of global economic uncertainty.

Dundee does have advantages in this. Its size has allowed ambitious council leadership to think big. Its current young leader, John Alexander, 29, has drive, enthusiasm and the popular touch.

A host of stunning cultural enterprises and initiatives exist for the locals and tourist: the refurbished McManus Galleries in the heart of the city centre; Dundee Contemporary Arts (DCA) in the West End; and Verdant Works, an old jute mill which has been converted into telling the history of the once vibrant jute industry and the working class experience in the city.

Creative Dundee, led by Gillian Easton, provides an independent space for artists and creatives to meet and share ideas, while shortly the UK and Scottish Governments will announce the long-awaited details of the Tay Cities Deal with major funding implications for the city. What is illuminating about the city’s successes says Joe Lafferty, chair of DCA, is that it ‘is not down to one key person or leader but rather people from all contexts being willing to collaborate with a spirit of generosity.’

Dundee is a place with buzz, places and plans. The ‘City of Discovery’ is there to be rediscovered and wants to welcome people to its many attractions. It is no longer what my Auntie Betty called ‘a Cinderella city’, but one which has emerged from the shadows and seized the headlines. So come to Dundee and enjoy it as an example of what can be done with advantageous geography and vision – but we still have to ask, is re-invention and representing our past and commodifying culture really enough for our cities and society?

As a Dundonian writing about my home town I know these big questions matter, but I also feel a sense of pride and respect at the efforts of my fellow citizens to face the challenges and do something positive, creative, big and bold. Maybe in one respect Dundee is the future: for after the global leviathan shows its limits, maybe the real power is in the local and unique?