Winds of change at The Botanics

With rich irony the last exhibition at Inverleith House is titled I Still Believe in Miracles. But no miracle will save the art gallery from closure after the doors shut on a show celebrating 30 years at the heart of contemporary art in Edinburgh.

The story goes back much further. When I arrived in the city more than 40 years ago, the 18th century house in the Royal Botanic Garden Edinburgh was the Scottish National Gallery of Modern Art. It had played that part since 1960. The lawn in front of Inverleith House offered not just a spectacular view of the city skyline but also a cluster of works by Henry Moore and Jacob Epstein – a sculpted temptation to children of all ages to climb, or sometimes just stroke. (I remember being politely reprimanded when I couldn’t resist running my hand down the seductive curve of a Hepworth wave inside the gallery).

Temptation moved further west in 1984 when the Gallery of Modern Art was transferred to the old school in Belford Road (now clunkily rebranded as Modern One). A new wave of art began when Inverleith House was returned to the RBGE as an exhibition space in 1986.

Northern exposure

Since then the gallery, curated by Paul Nesbitt, has offered a wonderful, and admittedly at times downright weird, programme. It is a heart-lifting space, and all exhibitions benefit from the quality of light streaming through tall windows. A Northern exposure of the best kind has illuminated the work of many artists and Nesbitt has not shied away from presenting rare and challenging visual art.

The Royal Botanic Garden Edinburgh is the only botanic garden in the world with an active programme of exhibitions spanning contemporary visual art and botanical science. Underlying this is a recognition of the need for art, as well as science, in furthering our appreciation and understanding of the natural world. RBGE website 2014

As the website proudly proclaims Inverleith House has hosted world-class exhibitions for an extraordinary range of artists over the last 30 years. To name just a few:  Andy Warhol, Jim Lambie, Cerith Wyn Evans, Louise Bourgeois, Ian Hamilton Finlay, Ed Ruscha, Lucy McKenzie, Lawrence Weiner, Richard Wright, Melissa Kretschmer, Richard Tuttle, Alan Johnston, herman de vries, John Chamberlain and Andy Goldsworthy.

But that comes at a cost. Challenging, cutting edge art is not always a crowd-pulling show, full of profitable merchandise. In the Herald story announcing the closure of the gallery, Phil Miller quotes the regret of the Regius Keeper, Simon Milne.

Mr Milne, who said it had been a challenge for the gallery to “wash its face” financially, added: “These are hard financial times for everyone, and we couldn’t afford to sustain it, and at the moment we have to focus on our core programmes, which are botany and horticulture.”

It’s no surprise. Even before Brexit, there were threats to the funding of art and science across Scotland and that has intensified greatly since the vote on 23 June. Science and horticulture are the core business of The Botanics but there may be internal stresses on the budget which have influenced the decision to close Inverleith House.

Since Simon Milne arrived in March 2014 there has been a welcome shift of focus to greater community participation in the Garden.  Perhaps Inverleith House is simply one grand building too many within the grounds of RBGE: poised (squeezed?)  between the commercial activities of the John Hope Gateway at the West Gate and the community events of the newly restored Botanics Cottage, the boldy ambitious £1.7m project at the North Gate.

An empty frame overlooking Edinburgh city skyline from the garden in front of Inverleith House
An empty frame: what next for Inverleith House?

Wind and bamboo

Whatever the future holds for Inverleith House (wedding venue, boutique hotel, conference centre?) visual art and performance are likely to continue in some form or other in the Garden. But the gallery is a sad loss and I find myself digging out an interview with the previous Regius Keeper, Stephen Blackmore, who spoke eloquently about the symbiosis of art and science in the Garden.

Somewhere in my files, I have a handstitched programme specially made for the remarkable Dialogues of Wind and Bamboo directed in the Botanics by the talented young musician Kimho Ip. It was a multicultural, multi-media extravaganza put together with the help of funding from the then Scottish Arts Council as part of the programme for China Now in Scotland in 2008.

None of us involved in that production will ever forget the performance on one of the worst midsummer nights on record. But despite (who knows, maybe because of) the weather, it was a spectacular success.

As it happens Steve Blackmore was travelling through warmer climes that particular night but before he left we recorded his conversation with Kimho in a series of podcasts for the Dialogues of Wind and Bamboo website (it no longer exists).

Change and renewal?

Stirred by the news, I have republished the first podcast on a newly created Soundcloud account This Curious World.  The conversation is well worth listening to as Steve Blackmore begins by describing the importance of art (in this case musical performance) in the Garden. He wanted The Botanics to be a life-changing experience.

I am no longer connected with RBGE (I spent more than ten happy years writing and editing publications with and for The Botanics and was a member of the campaign board which raised funds for the John Hope Gateway building). I am sure today’s senior management team still want the Garden to change lives for the better. But public funding is thinly spread. To quote the complimentary report by the Scottish Government Visiting Group in 2015, “RBGE is a relatively small organisation that delivers a great deal in comparison to other similar organisations”.

How do we ensure continuing investment in an environment rich in both art and science?

In the Wind and Bamboo podcast which follows Kimho Ip explains that wind is a symbol of change while bamboo represents both tradition and constant renewal. There are positive changes at RBGE – widening access and increasing the audience can only be a good thing at a time of growing pressure on the natural environment we all depend on.  But the loss of the gallery reduces the cultural ecology of the place; its closure diminishes the biodiversity of both the Garden, and the city of Edinburgh too.  It would be good to think there is hope of renewal at Inverleith House as a space for creative work.

This article first appeared on Fay Young’s blog and is reproduced with permission

 

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