Much of the coverage of the opening of the new V&A Museum in Dundee this week has been devoted to the difficulties faced in getting the building off the ground, literally and metaphorically. Problems with the design, the site, the funding, since the project was first conceived at the beginning of the financial crisis in 2008, have spurred the media to examine the impact of all this uncertainty on the V&A’s reputation or its financial standing. The museum’s board has been alternatively vilified or praised for sticking to its guns in seeing the idea through a decade of twists and turns.
Rather less attention has been devoted to the impact all this has had on the city of Dundee, and most particularly, the local council, which has been such an important part of the consortium which has brought the V&A to the banks of the River Tay.
Director Tristram Hunt, a former politician himself, made sure to praise his fellow politicos on the city council in his address at the press launch of the new museum. As did Philip Long, the director of the Dundee museum. The city council leader, John Alexander, was the opening speaker at that event, and congratulated his colleagues on their commitment.
What’s the point of all this backslapping, you may wonder. Ritual praise for marvellous and dedicated colleagues is a feature of these occasions, and often serves to disguise the rows, conflicts and even mutual loathing that can accompany the long and difficult gestation period of a major project.
But behind all the softsoap, there is a genuine recognition here that the commitment of Dundee City Council to seeing this thing through has been remarkable. The city has some of the most deprived areas in Scotland and unemployment is high, largely due to the decline of the traditional jute industry and the closure of postwar manufacturers like Timex and NCR. More than a quarter of the city’s children (28%) grow up in poverty and employment rates remain lower than most of the rest of the UK. Desperate attempts to ‘modernise’ merely served to ruin some of the city’s loveliest Georgian and medieval streets, making the place, according to Dundee-born writer A.L. Kennedy, “a city historically beset by ugliness and brutalism.” In the 70s and 80s, she adds, ”Dundee was somewhere you shut up about, with no space for the imagination.”
So it was a brave move in the 1990s for the city council to embark on a culture led regeneration programme, one that attracted less attention than similar moves in Glasgow or Manchester, but has nevertheless proved successful. Not just in supporting a theatre like Dundee Rep, or a gallery like Dundee Contemporary Arts, or turning an old factory into an arts centre like Verdant Works. More importantly, it has backed the ambitions of local education institutions to turn Dundee into a hub of the creative industries. Dundee is now one of the mainstays of the UK gaming industry and home to phenomena like Grand Auto Theft and Minecraft. The business employs more than 3,000 Dundonians and has a turnover of £200m. The council is at heart of a network of creative partnerships covering every aspect of culture, from ceramics to comics. This creative engagement has levered in funding from a host of other agencies, including Creative Scotland, Scottish Enterprise and the EU. In 2016 Dundee was awarded the title of UNESCO city of design and narrowly missed out to Hull in winning the 2017 City of Culture competition.
What’s remarkable is that Dundee has maintained its commitment to culture in the last decade of austerity, despite myriad pressures to switch funding into priority areas like social care. The ballooning costs of the V&A project, which has zoomed from £45m to £80m has tried the patience of even the most passionate of Dundonians and opened the council to charges of profligacy. But in spite of those pressures, in spite of the criticism, in spite of the difficulties, there has been extraordinary unanimity across the political spectrum in Dundee. Council control has changed hands since the plan began, the current leader is the third to hold the post since Dundee University and former V&A director Mark Jones first trod the waterfront wasteland that was to be the new home of the V&A back in 2007. And yet, they have maintained that unwavering commitment. Despite intense political competition between parties, no political group in Dundee thought it worth adopting the slogan ‘Dump the V and Tay’, no local or national politician thought it profitable to use understandable concerns about spending or priorities to abandon their support for this cultural regeneration project or court easy opposition votes.
In response to press questions, Tristram Hunt acknowledged the importance of that long term political support in bringing the project to fruition. He intimated that other attempts to create a V&A of the North, in places as diverse as Blackpool, Bradford and Sheffield, may have foundered partly because that support was not guaranteed.
So here’s something for the UK’s political parties to ponder. Learn the lessons of Dundee. Look at the long term benefits of a regeneration policy which links culture to training and employment. Look at the ‘intangible’ feelings of confidence and pride that arts led programmes can bring to communities. Abandon the facile slogans that equate museums, theatre, galleries with ‘profligacy’ ‘frivolity’ or worse still, ‘vanity projects’. Culture won’t cure all ills, its no magic potion, as Dundee knows, but it can give you a fighting chance of survival in a difficult world.