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Scotland’s national galleries have ‘long way to go’ to be inclusive, says outgoing chief

Scotland’s national galleries, which house some of the country’s greatest works of art, need to do far more to make themselves accessible and inclusive, their outgoing director general has said.

Sir John Leighton, who is retiring in February after 17 years as head of the National Galleries in Scotland (NGS), said the organisation “still has a long way to go” to broaden the audience beyond Edinburgh’s middle classes and tourists.

The two neoclassical and colonnaded buildings on the Mound that make up the suite of galleries where works by Titian, Sir Henry Raeburn, Botticelli and Leonardo da Vinci are displayed, look like “Greek temples”, said Leighton.

“There were conceived as treasure chests and the architecture is an expression of cultural ambition, but expressed in a way that feels quite imposing,” he said.

“We know from the work that we do with communities across the city, across the country, that you could talk about people who don’t go to art. But we [also] work with communities who don’t even go into the city. Edinburgh city centre is not a part of their life.”

Leighton added: “So we know there’s a long way to go and, you know all the rhetoric about culture being good for wellbeing and health and so on, which I genuinely believe, but to make a difference with the hard to reach audiences?

“We’ve made a start. So I hope whoever comes after me will push even harder on the idea of equal access and inclusion.”

Sir John Leighton, centre, talking to Severin Carrell, left, hopes whoever comes after him ‘will push even harder on the idea of inclusion’. Photograph: Murdo MacLeod/NY Today News

Leighton was speaking as NGS prepared to open its latest suite of galleries to showcase its Scottish art collection on 30 September, in new spaces built at a cost of £36m in the basement of the National complex.

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The Scottish galleries are the culmination of a construction programme which includes a glass-fronted basement entrance, with a cafe opening on to a plaza on East Princes Street Gardens, which he believes makes the site more welcoming.

He said the new galleries would be free, and would show the Scottish collections “with pride, and that badly needed to be done”. He said there was a direct thread between achieving an “international level of ambition” for showcasing the collections and then making them accessible.

Leighton has also overseen a £17.6m refurbishment of the National Portrait Gallery on Queen Street, as well as updating the two modern art galleries at Belford in the west end of Edinburgh, and the Artist Rooms acquisition project jointly with the Tate, which tours nationwide.

Leighton said: “We talk a lot in museums and galleries about being accessible and inclusive, and art for everyone, while knowing that we largely still deal with a fairly tight demographic: you have a tourist audience, and you have a well-educated, reasonably well-off audience which is your core. To really change that, to really shift that, there’s still a long way to go.”

The Monarch of the Glen by Sir Edwin Landseer, c 1851.
The Monarch of the Glen by Sir Edwin Landseer, c 1851. The new Scottish galleries will open to the public on 30 September. Photograph: Murdo MacLeod/NY Today News

Edinburgh is one of the UK’s wealthiest cities but also has urban neighbourhoods and large peripheral housing estates with a history of entrenched poverty where significant regeneration and home-building projects are being carried out.

Kate Wimpress, the director of North Edinburgh Arts, an acclaimed community arts hub based in Muirhouse, said increasing the appeal and audience for the national galleries involved building capacity in excluded communities, not just outreach projects by the galleries.

She questioned the suggestion that people from peripheral estates avoided the centre, but said exclusion from art galleries was real. The national galleries had to shift from their “glorious hillside” on the Mound by working collaboratively with cultural groups such as hers.

North Edinburgh Arts opened the first doorway into the arts, she said, which then led people into the national galleries. “It’s actually trying to work with us, and that takes time and parity of esteem,” said Wimpress. “Work with us and resource us so that we can work in a very measured and collaborative way.”

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