Cost of Scottish National Gallery revamp soars by a third as work finally starts

Work is set to finally get underway on a new home for Scotland's most important paintings - despite the cost of the project soaring by nearly a third in the space of a year.

Tuesday, 25th September 2018, 7:27 pm
Updated Tuesday, 25th September 2018, 7:31 pm
The 22 million overhaul of the Scottish National Gallery will create direct access to exhibition spaces from East Princes Street Gardens.

A long-awaited revamp of the Scottish National Gallery and new look for part of Princes Street Gardens are now running three years late after having to be scaled back due to funding concerns.

The Scottish Government has had to more than double its contribution to help allow work to start next month to create new galleries showcasing work previously only seen by around one in six visitors to the attraction.

The National Galleries of Scotland, which attracts £1.6 million to the site each year, has admitted that the project, which previously had a £16.8 million price tag, will cost £22 million and is not due for completion until at least early 2021.

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It is hoped the project will encourage more visitors to enter the Scottish National Gallery from Princes Street Gardens.

Its director-general, Sir John Leighton, said he was confident of raising more than £10 million from its own supporters to ensure the project is completed on time, but refused to say how much had already been secured.

New galleries flooded with natural daylight and offering spectacular views of Edinburgh city centre will be created as part of the project, which will double the footprint of gallery spaces devoted to Scottish art.

Part of the gardens will be re-landscaped to create a new main entrance for the gallery, while former offices, a print room and a library will be among the spaces transformed into galleries overlooking the city centre. A new shop, cafe and restaurant are also planned.

Although the Playfair Steps which connect Edinburgh’s Old and New Towns will be closed throughout the project, work around the gallery, which dates back to 1859, will be phased to ensure that the Mound precinct is available for Edinburgh’s Christmas festival and the Fringe to use.

When the project was launched in 2016, Sir John declared that it was aimed at ending decades of “institutional embarrassment” over the display of work by artists like Allan Ramsay, Sir Henry Raeburn, Alexander Nasmyth, Anne Redpath and Phoebe Anna Traquair in “dark and dingy” gallery spaces.

However plans to extend the gallery into the gardens by up to five metres were dropped after it emerged the cost of doing so was much greater than originally anticipated.

Sir John said: “The £16.8 million figure was an estimate, before anything went out to tender. What we have now is a fully-tendered, tested and agreed price.

"It’s also important to stress that if we had pressed ahead with the original scheme it would have cost considerably more than £22 million. In some ways, it would have been easier to press on, but we took a difficult decision to re-cast the project. I personally think we have a stronger concept and I'm more confident it's going to be a fantastic success."

Planning on the project first began in 2012 after work was completed on a £17.6 million revamp of the Scottish National Portrait Gallery.

It was officially launched in November 2016, after the Scottish galleries were closed down and just months before work was due to start.

But the project was thrown into disarray after the project was put out to tender and within months the scheme was sent back to the drawing board.

Dropping the extension into the gardens was meant to reduce costs “significantly” and reduce the level of risk involved in the project.

When it emerged that the project was returning to the drawing board last year the National Galleries declared it was aiming to keep the overall cost “as close as possible to the original budget.”

The Heritage Lottery Fund has pegged its contribution at £4.94 million, which was allocated to the project back in 2015, when the overall budget was just £15.3 million. The Scottish Government, which had previously pledged £2 million, will now contribute £5.5 million.

Sir John said it was “hugely exciting” that the project was finally able to get underway.

He added: “We will create the perfect showcase for the nation’s extraordinary collection of Scottish art, giving it room to breathe and showing it off with real pride to the world.

“This ambitious project will completely transform the experience of our visitors, creating a National Gallery that is even more open, engaging and inviting with new presentations of Scotland’s art in a setting that will be truly world-class.”

Culture secretary Fiona Hyslop said: “I’m very pleased that the Scottish Government will contribute £5.5 million towards ensuring that the Scottish National Gallery gives the national collection of Scottish artworks the prominence and public access it deserves.

“This exciting project will further enhance our nation’s profile and raise the international profile of our world-class galleries, ensuring that visitors in Scotland and from all over the world can enjoy our arts and cultural heritage.”