Scottish National Gallery overhaul runs into trouble

The new-look Scottish National Gallery was due open to the public in 2019.
The new-look Scottish National Gallery was due open to the public in 2019.
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The £16.8 million project to overhaul the Scottish National Gallery has been hit by a delay and budget problems before work is even underway.

The National Galleries of Scotland has been forced to halt the start of the scheme until later this year due to complications with the planned construction programme.

Investigations over the last six months have revealed the project to extend the gallery into Princes Street Gardens and triple the amount of space devoted to Scottish art treasures will be “potentially more expensive” than planned.

The problems - which will effectively mean designs going back to the drawing board - have emerged days before the project, which is bankrolled by the Scottish Government and the Heritage Lottery Fund, was due to get underway.

It is aimed at replacing “cramped, dingy and unpleasant” exhibition spaces which less than 20 per cent of visitors venture into to see work by leading Scottish artists like Allan Ramsay, Sir Henry Raeburn, Alexander Nasmyth and Phoebe Anna Traquair.

The completion date had already been put back from 2018 to 2019 ahead of a statement announcing the postponement of building work, which said the National Galleries was “hopeful” of the project getting underway before the end of this year.

It said: “Work on construction of the new galleries was due to start in March. However there will now be a delay of several months to the full start on site. For the past six months we’ve been working with our main contractor Interserve on the detailed designs and various tender packages for the building work. It has become clear that some elements are more complex and potentially more expensive to implement than originally anticipated. We therefore have to streamline some parts of the construction and bring the plans into line with our budget.

“We‘ll be re-examining some of the specifications and construction methods for aspects of the design to ensure the project stays within cost. Until this work is complete we will not have a confirmed date for the start of construction, but we’re hopeful we can begin work on site later this year.”

An overhaul of the displays for the Scottish collection in the historic gallery, which dates back to 1859, has been a priority for Sir John Leighton, director-general of the National Galleries, ever since he was appointed in 2006.

He said: “The project is brilliant, it is going to happen and it is going to be transformative. If we have to pause for a short while to do a bit more design work to make sure we get the budget right I’m sure everybody would think that would be the right thing to do.

“We are going to have around 50 sub-contractors working on the project. Some of those packages have come back more complex and more expensive than we anticipated. We’re going to do a bit more design work to get back within the budget that we set ourselves. That happens all the time with major projects.

“The only reason we‘ve made this announcement is that we said we said we would start on-site in March, which was perhaps not wise. We’re going to spend the next few weeks with the design team looking at some of the specifications and materials, and will reset the programme.

“The £16.8 million figure is what we want to spend on the project. It’s what we think it should be done for and what we are working towards. It’s why we are pausing for a short while to look again at some elements of the design. It’s more important to get it right and on budget. In the overall scheme of things, if that costs a few more months that would seem to be responsible project management.”

A spokesman for the Scottish Government said: “The project will increase and enhance public access to Scottish art and in the circumstances the National Galleries is rightly spending some further time in getting it right.

"The Scottish Government believes this is an important project and will continue to discuss funding support with the National Galleries.”