Landmark Moments: Grassroots Art in Dundee

While the V&A Dundee heralds change for the city, we talk to some of those at the grassroots of Dundee's art scene, keeping a close eye on the direction of the museum's momentum

Article by Adam Benmakhlouf | 01 Oct 2018

For Dundee residents, the opening of the V&A comes after years of expectation and watching the dramatic new building slowly emerge from the waterfront. Within the international coverage of the opening, less attention was given to the protests that accompanied the celebrations; mostly, it was the local Dundee Courier that covered the anti-austerity actions by Unite. In the midst of the complicated economy of cultural funding and the social aspirations of the V&A Dundee, The Skinny is checking in with the art community of Dundee to see what kind of impact the new museum has had so far, and what hopes there are for this new landmark.

“We’ve been waiting with baited breath,” says Charis Edwards Wells, a recent graduate from the Master of Fine Art at Duncan of Jordanstone College of Art and Design and member of the GENERATORProjects Committee. “We’ve been waiting to see what impact this will have not just for design but the other arts and culture sectors for Dundee. We do see that there’s a large cultural institution that’s representing the whole of the cultural landscape for Dundee. In organisations like GENERATOR, that have been going for 22 years, we’re excited to see footfall increase for us, for people to come our way and explore the West End of Dundee and see what else it has to offer alongside a large scale cultural institution. And that’ll have a big impact for arts graduates and emerging artists.”

As well as raising the footfall for the surrounding cultural organisations, the V&A has already formed a part of the experience for participants in the Art Angel project. The Dundee-based organisation is itself a “unique and inspired arts project run by and for people with experience of mental health difficulties in Dundee.” Arts and Mental Health Manager Rosalie Summerton describes Art Angel photography groups extensively documenting the construction process of the V&A over the previous years. “It’s been a huge fascination for them, especially as it’s right next to the Discovery. It’s such a good contrast between the old and the new.”

Summerton also observes the importance of the V&A as a large, publicly accessible building in counteracting the kinds of social isolation within the groups with whom she routinely works. “We’ve created a community of people who are getting more and more excited about art from when they first arrive here, when they might feel like, 'Why am I here?' or 'Help'.” At that point, Summerton describes that it’s a major step for some of the participants just to be able to get out of bed and make it to the Art Angel activities. “Over time, once people feel more confident, they begin to recognise that places like the V&A are for them and they aren’t excluded. I know that the V&A will be doing everything they can so they can attract a wide range of people, so it’s not just the usual suspects.”

V&A Dundee. Image: Hufton Crow

For Summerton, she describes that it’s not that the V&A has come to Dundee. For her, Dundee is coming to the V&A. “Dundee has so much character of its own that’s really different from all the other cities in Scotland and such a brilliant sense of humour, it’ll really rub off on the V&A. We are going to have a big influence on what happens in that building.” Summerton’s idea of Dundee shaping the building is already recognisable in some of the engagement of new visitors, and the operation of the architecture in leaving an open sense of expectation of what to find or do in a museum space.

“A lot of the time, people are thinking, 'What do I look at?'" says Dundee-based artist Emma McCarthy, describing the open education spaces and artist-in-residence areas that audiences encounter on entering. “It doesn’t look like a standard museum and that causes people to ask, “What is it?” McCarthy has noticed a certain kind of reflective conversation happening in relation to the building and its architecture, and adds that this kind of awareness and questioning of the built environment is in itself unusual.

Also living and working in Dundee throughout her professional life, Sekai Machache recognises the kinds of opportunities that the V&A will bring to Dundee, while being careful to track the kinds of challenging social and economic trends of the city to which the V&A will also contribute. Machache describes the V&A Dundee’s freelance programme and the excitement of people she knows to apply and gain experience in working in outreach and community programmes. “I remember the day they had their first meeting for the freelance intake, the room was packed to the hilt with creatives hoping to get the spot.”

At the same time, Machache contextualises the opening of the museum as huge numbers of people in Dundee are having their unemployment and disability allowances removed as the Job Centre operates a quota system on benefits sanctions, and at a time when the city population is heavily reliant on food banks. Machache goes on to say, “I have faith in the staff of the V&A that will try to engage with the general population of Dundee.” However, she emphasises that it's important to consider closely the likelihood and the concrete ways “that the V&A will bring wealth to the people that are struggling.”

Acknowledging this might be a pessimistic note to sound, but Machache nevertheless cautions against the easy attitude that “the V&A is going to make everyone in the city better off. It’s going to make a lot of creatives better off. But if you’re not creative or academic, if you’re not in that class, then you’re going to be left out.” Machache draws parallels between these bifurcated experiences of prosperity and deprivation and the often-separate populations of the university students of the city and its settled residents. Going forward, it’s important to keep in mind that, says Machache: “The city is primed for a huge socio-economic shift that could be detrimental to those people who have been really ignored for a long time.”

Machache is herself one of the important population of Dundee graduates who have chosen to settle and live in the city after studying there. Similarly, Joanna Helfer has spent the last 14 years living and working as an artist in Dundee. In a bid to alleviate the years-long waits for studio space in the city, she founded the Tin Roof Studios, which was featured prominently in parts of the V&A bid. Nevertheless, it was shut down after being "deemed unsafe", then renovated with a grant from the council to become a craft brewery.

Thinking about her recent work in high schools where Heads of Departments shared their dramatically-cut budgets, she worries: "The kids that are in school at the moment, the resources they have to learn any kind of art skills are being cut drastically. They're the people that should be getting more resources, the amazing artists from Dundee that we want to be celebrating in 10 years' time. Instead, it feels like in order to be an amazing artist from Dundee you have to get out Dundee, then they can claim you as one of their own later, once you've done well somewhere else."

In the very next thought, Helfer sums up some of the opportunity that comes with the international attention that has come with the V&A Dundee. Taking a step back from the interview conversation, Helfer reflects: "It's good to have these critiques, and [the opening of the V&A] is giving us a platform to have these conversations. When the limelight's on the city, we can shout about it a bit louder and be heard by people."