Scottish National Gallery extension abandoned after cost soars

Work on the proposed expansion for the Scottish National Gallery was supposed to start in the spring of this year.
Work on the proposed expansion for the Scottish National Gallery was supposed to start in the spring of this year.
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A multi-million pound overhaul of Scotland’s flagship art gallery has had to be scaled back due to soaring cost over-runs and delays.

An extension of the Scottish National Gallery into Princes Street Gardens in Edinburgh has been scrapped while an extensive revamp of the attraction has been put back for at least a year.

The cost of creating the extra space was looking at rising several millions of pounds more than had been budgeted for.

Bosses have admitted they do not yet know the final cost of creating a new home for Scotland’s art treasures, with designs going back to the drawing board.

The National Galleries of Scotland may have to seek fresh planning permission for the revamp, which has an official £16.8 million price tag.

The news is a major blow to ambitions for the project, “Celebrating Scotland’s Art,” which was unveiled amid much fanfare at the gallery last autumn.

At the time, Sir John Leighton, director-general of the National Galleries, said it was aimed at tackling the “institutional embarrassment” of how its Scottish collection is displayed.

Less than 20 per cent of the gallery's visitors ventured into the “dead end” of the complex, which dates back to 1859, to see masterpieces by leading Scottish artists like Allan Ramsay, Sir Henry Raeburn, Alexander Nasmyth and Phoebe Anna Traquair.

The decision by the trustees of the National Galleries means there will no longer be a tripling of space devoted to Scotland’s most important historic art treasures.

Although a proposed five metre extension for the front of the gallery has been abandoned, new landscaping in the gardens will still go ahead to help encourage more visitors to use the entrance beneath the Mound precinct.

A third delay in the space of 12 months for the project, originally due to be unveiled in the summer of 2018, was confirmed by the National Galleries, which was due to start work on site earlier this year..

But it is expected to be at least another 12 months before the project finally gets underway, with completion pushed back until 2020 at the earliest.

Sir John said the decision to abandon the gallery extension had been taken after 18 months of work to explore options for protecting three railway tunnels running underneath the gallery.

He said: “The only significant change we’re introducing is to drop the extension of the gallery into the gardens. The advice we had from the engineers and architects we had working on the project was that it could be done.

“The more we developed the plans and worked with Network Rail we realised the engineering involved was going to be increasingly complex.

“Network Rail were quite rightly concerned about the railway tunnels, which cannot cope with any significant change in load.

“We devised a number of schemes to cope with that, which ended up with a scenario where we were effectively creating a new steel bridge underneath the extension to protect these tunnels.

“The extension was an element of the project which was introduced as a nice-to-have. Taking it out not only reduces the cost but also significantly reduces the level of risk in the project.

“We’re losing the five-metre strip, but we will still be doubling the amount of exhibition space in the gallery. People will still be able to circulate much better around the building - there will no longer be a dead end scenario.

“The relandscaping of Princes Street Gardens to create better access to the gallery also remains very much in the plans.”

Sir John said he did not expect the cost of the project to top £20 million, but admitted the final bill would not be known until a new tendering process was complete.

He added: “We are working to the £16.8 million figure as a baseline. I think it may end up being a bit more as we will have a longer programme and some re-design costs, but we have cut out quite a lot.”

It is thought that the Scottish Government and Heritage Lottery Fund, which has already pledged £2 million to the project, may be asked to help pay for any increase in the overall budget.

Scottish culture secretary Fiona Hyslop said: “I welcome the steps the National Galleries of Scotland has taken to ensure this ambitious project can be delivered in line with the development’s original aims.

“Celebrating Scotland’s Art will significantly enhance the visitor experience at this already top-rated attraction, encourage even more people to access and enjoy its iconic collections, and raise the international profile of Scottish art.”