Hope springs eternal

Will Robert Wilson use his Botanics connections and visual art background to save Inverlieth House? asks Neil Cooper

February 19, 2018

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Robert Wilson’s appointment as the new chair of Creative Scotland was announced last week as Scotland’s hapless arts quango floundered once more in a crisis of its own making. The much-delayed announcement of the latest round of grants to Regularly Funded Organisations (RFOs) should have been a cause for celebration. After organisations had been warned of potential cuts to Creative Scotland’s overall funding, a Scottish Government uplift of £6.6 million should’ve meant that everything was hunky dory. As it turned out, Creative Scotland snatched defeat from the jaws of victory, cutting funds for several major organisations, including all disabled theatre companies, all children’s theatre companies and Transmission, the pioneering artist-led gallery that helped put Glasgow’s art scene on the map. This latest bout of accident-prone managerialism appeared to deflect from other Scottish arts crises, including the ongoing shambles following the closure of Inverleith House, the internationally renowned contemporary art gallery situated in the Royal Botanic Garden, Edinburgh.

Wilson’s presence on the Arts Working Group set up by the Scottish Government to sort out the mess caused by RBGE, and his appointment as a RBGE trustee in July 2017, gives him a unique perspective on the sorry saga, and offers some hope for the gallery’s many supporters across the world who would love to see it saved.

While no announcement appears to have been made regarding the AWG’s proposed new Arts Advisory Board for RBGE, according to minutes of a meeting of RBGE’s board of trustees last October, a Chair has been appointed: Robert Wilson.

How this sits with the announcement of Wilson’s new tenure at Creative Scotland remains to be seen. Either way, he’s arguably perfectly positioned to push for Inverleith House’s contemporary art programme to be reinstated in a way RBGE’s senior management have been unwilling to do. Given that Inverleith House already has a world class curator in post, why the added bureaucracy of an arts advisory board is needed at all may be something to think about.

Wilson is the co-founder of Jupiter Artland, the 100-acre sculpture park on the outskirts of Edinburgh which houses contemporary art on a grand scale, utilising its striking environment to create a unique landscape. This is very much how Inverleith House had operated, in an indoor context, over the last thirty years under the guidance of maverick curator, director of exhibitions and trained botanist Paul Nesbitt. His programmes featured work by major artists from home and abroad, with Inverleith House having shown more Turner Prize winners than any other gallery outside the Tate. Several artists who showed at Inverleith House have had work displayed at Jupiter Artland.

The abrupt closure of Inverleith House without notice or any apparent public consultation was overseen by publicly accountable officials led by RBGE’s Regius Keeper Simon Milne, in October 2016. The outcry that followed prompted more than 10,000 people to sign a petition against the move. An open letter in protest at the closure and highlighting the global importance of Inverleith House as a contemporary art gallery was published, with signatories ranging from Richard Demarco to Ewan McGregor writing alongside some of the world’s leading contemporary artists.

In response, the Scottish Government set up an Arts Working Group to propose a future for Inverleith House in relation to RBGE’s wider arts programme as well as its other sites in Benmore in Argyll, Logan in Dumfries and Galloway and Dawyck in the Scottish Borders. While such a wide brief arguably missed the point that Inverleith House’s internationally renowned contemporary arts programme had been dismantled without consulting those who had created it, the establishment of the AWG was a welcome and positive move.

Appointed to chair the AWG was Professor Chris Breward, then Principal of Edinburgh College of Art. In November 2017 Breward took up the newly created role of Director of Collection and Research at the National Galleries of Scotland. Members of the Arts Working Group included artist Jacqueline Donachie, Fruitmarket Gallery director Fiona Bradley and the Director-General of the National Galleries of Scotland, Sir John Leighton. Also in the group was chief executive of The List magazine, Simon Dessain, head of Creative Scotland Janet Archer and, in his Jupiter Artland capacity, Robert Wilson.

At no point was Paul Nesbitt, the curator of Inverleith House for thirty years, invited to participate in the Arts Working Group, although curator of exhibitions Chloe Reith sat in on the meetings. The AWG met over three meetings, the first of which took place on Valentine’s Day 2017. According to the minutes, Wilson was only able to attend one of the meetings. The subsequent report, while written in eminently diplomatic terms, clearly discredited the Regius Keeper’s claim that Inverleith House could not “wash its face” financially, as Milne had been quoted in The Herald.

In the politest of rebukes for RBGE’s conduct, the AWG report stated: “There will always be challenges in securing funding for the arts but the Arts Working Group believes that the RBGE is in a position of strength compared to many other organisations given its achievements in the arts to date, its unique qualities as a scholarly and public institution and its distinctive venues and locations.”

The report continued: “The success of future fundraising efforts will be predicated on the strength, rigour, creativity and distinctiveness of the RBGE vision and programme plans…and the corporate pride, interest and value invested in the programme, the assured management of key relationships and the credible, and inspired leadership associated with the programme.”

This was a clear reference to Nesbitt’s role in putting Inverleith House’s contemporary art programme on the international map. It was an achievement acknowledged in August 2017 when Nesbitt was given a Herald Archangel Award for his three decades’ long body of work. Where most organisations would be keen to publicise the fact that a staff member had received such an accolade, RBGE have not publicly acknowledged it.

Following the publication of the AWG report, Wilson was named as one of two new trustees of RBGE in July 2017. Since then, the various recommendations made in the AWG report, which included the implementation of a suggested two exhibitions a year and the creation of an Arts Advisory Group, have yet to be acted upon.

All of which begs the question: now that Wilson combines the roles of RGBE trustee and Chair of Creative Scotland, what bearing will this have on the future of Inverleith House?

In 2015, Inverleith House was unsuccessful in its application to Creative Scotland for RFO status. While in recent times Inverleith House had received approximately £80,000 annually from Flexible and Open Project Creative Scotland funding streams, RFO status would have given its curators the security to enable long-term planning.

Following the closure, a strongly worded statement by Creative Scotland expressed its “disappointment” at what was widely regarded as an act of cultural vandalism by RBGE which left a huge hole in the artistic landscape of Scotland and the wider world.

Royal Botanic Garden Edinburgh is funded directly by the Scottish Government’s Environmental and Forestry Directorate. This is overseen by Roseanna Cunningham MSP in her role as Cabinet Secretary for Environment, Climate Change and Land Reform. But it was the Scottish Government’s Culture Secretary Fiona Hyslop who intervened in November 2016, shortly after the closure, to set up a meeting with the heads of RBGE and Creative Scotland that led to the setting up of the Arts Working Group.

One of the initial casualties of Creative Scotland’s recent RFO cull was Dunedin Consort, Scotland’s leading and justifiably-acclaimed baroque music ensemble. The group was one of five organisations whose RFO status was restored after the backlash against the move prompted a humiliating U-turn by Creative Scotland. This was great news for those companies, although how the initial decisions were passed by Creative Scotland’s board – two members of which, Ruth Wishart and Maggie Kinloch, resigned afterwards in apparent protest – is something we may find out on Thursday (February 22nd) when CS CEO Janet Archer and outgoing interim chair Ben Thomson appear before Holyrood’s Culture Committee.

Chair of Dunedin Consort’s board of trustees, Sir Muir Russell, was quoted in The Herald on February 10, 2018 describing CS’ initial scrapping of Dunedin Consort’s RFO status as an “incomprehensible decision.” Russell is the former Scottish Government civil service head, in post during the controversial overspend on the Enric Miralles-designed Scottish Parliament building at Holyrood. Russell is also chair of the Royal Botanic Garden Edinburgh, as he was when Inverleith House was closed.

Unlike the case of the “incomprehensible decision” regarding Creative Scotland’s cut to Dunedin Consort and the subsequent row, other than a joint letter with Milne in response to the aforementioned open letter from artists protesting the closure, Russell has not made any similar statement regarding the closure of Inverleith House as a contemporary art gallery.

Holyrood has remained similarly quiet on the matter, although sixteen SNP Westminster MPs signed an early day motion in protest at the closure.

On the day the doors of Inverleith House were locked, Product put 23 questions to Royal Botanic Garden Edinburgh’s press office in an open letter to RBGE’s board of trustees. It was made clear in a covering email that written answers to the questions would be published in full. While early responses from RBGE’s press office appeared to indicate that answers would be forthcoming, after sixteen months of repeated requests, we’re still waiting.

At various points during that time, RBGE has made various claims regarding the questions. In an email on February 10th 2017, RBGE stated that “Several of these answers can be found on the Royal Botanic Garden Edinburgh (RBGE) website, in the Minutes of the Board of Trustees meeting of October 5 and from the Kelly & Co Report”. The report referred to is A Future for Inverleith House, paid for with Creative Scotland funding and drafted by commercial consultants, Kelly and Co. The report made various recommendations to continue Inverleith House as an artspace, all of which were disregarded in favour of closure.

Despite RBGE initially indicating that they would publish the report, a redacted version was only released to the press following a Freedom of Information request. To date, despite indicating it would publish the report, RBGE has failed to do so. With this in mind, to suggest that answers to Product’s questions could be found in an unpublished report seemed fanciful. RBGE have been asked numerous times where in the report answers to our questions could be found. The question has yet to be acknowledged.

RBGE were also asked numerous times if they could provide a date that Product’s questions were passed on to the board of trustees. No response has been received.

In an email on April 3rd 2017, RBGE’s press office also invited me to take part in an “interview’ with RBGE’s Regius Keeper Simon Milne and Simon Dessain, The List magazine’s Chief Executive, who also sat on the AWG. I’d written an article for The List in October 2016, which included most of RBGE’s statement on the closure of Inverleith House.

I then contacted Chris Breward, the chair of the Arts Working Group, who was unaware of the RBGE’s offer of a meeting. Shortly after that, RGBE withdrew it. In an email received on April 24th 2017, RBGE stated that in light of my contacting Professor Breward, the Regius Keeper “is now of the opinion that plans for any interview would be more appropriate after the Working Group has reported.”

Since then, Product has not sought any meeting with RBGE, stressing that all communications should be in writing and in the public domain. RBGE has continued to evade repeated requests for written answers to our questions. In an email received on November 7th 2017, RBGE’s press officer stated that during a meeting several months earlier, that I had “nodded” my “recognition of the impossible nature of the questions”. This was despite their earlier clams that some answers to my questions could be found in the still unpublished A Future for Inverleith House report.

Copies of more than 200 email exchanges between RBGE and Product were passed on to the then chair of the Arts Working Group, Chris Breward while the AWG was still ongoing.

In an interview for The Art Newspaper in August 2017 headlined “Scotland’s pioneering Inverleith House gallery saved from closure”, RBGE Regius Keeper Simon Milne was quoted saying: “There was a rumour that we were not going to do art anymore…that was never the case.”

This appeared to contradict RBGE’s original statement in October 2016, and published in The List, that “Inverleith House will no longer be dedicated to the display of contemporary art, and RBGE is looking at options for the alternative use of the building.” What alternatives were discussed isn’t on record, and the building’s ongoing closure suggests a lack of any credible suggestions.

With RBGE’s hand already forced, a new summer exhibition at Inverleith House was announced at the same time as the setting up of the AWG, which convened for the first of those three meetings in February 2017. With Nesbitt on extended sick leave, the exhibition, a group show titled Plant Scenery of the World, received £12,000 funding from Creative Scotland, and was overseen by curator of exhibitions Chloe Reith. Along with Nesbitt, Reith was one of only two permanent members of paid staff running the gallery, with much of the slack being picked up by volunteer invigilators.

Following The Plant Scenery of the World exhibition, which ran at Inverleith House from July 29th to October 29th 2017, Reith resigned her post in January 2018. Her departure, combined with Nesbitt’s ongoing sick leave, means that RBGE now has no permanent staff in place qualified to run a gallery or arts programme of any kind. In the midst of all this, in January, RBGE advertised for a director of enterprise and communication, a new post with an eye-watering starting salary of £71,000, plus pension and benefits. It’s believed that at least one high profile former journalist has applied for the job. For comparison, according to Creative Scotland’s website, the annual salary of their Director of Communications is £70-75,000.

What Wilson’s appointment means for Creative Scotland in the long term remains to be seen. For the moment, he has a huge mess to clear up. Given his previous role in the Inverleith House Arts Working Group and its published report, his thoughts on the lack of implementation of the report’s recommendations may prove crucial to what happens next. This is especially the case if Wilson is to remain chair of the RGBE Arts Advisory Group. At time of writing no announcement on the make-up of the group has been forthcoming.

Since the Plant Scenery of the World exhibition ended last October, the doors of Inverleith House have remained shut. This is confirmed on RBGE’s website. An otherwise blank page states that the venue is ‘Currently closed for Exhibitions.’ Beneath this: “We look forward to welcoming you in Spring 2018.”

Given that it’s already February, and every public gallery in Scotland has announced programmes for the year and sometimes beyond, this sounds cheerily optimistic. While the flowers are already starting to bloom in abundance elsewhere, the artistic life-force that once pulsed at Inverleith House may yet be left to wither and die. That we are anywhere near this being allowed to happen – to borrow Muir Russell’s impassioned words about Dunedin Consort’s funding cut – is incomprehensible.

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