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Ugly Rumours – Why Inverleith House Has Yet to Be 'Saved'

Last week, the man who in October 2016 closed down one of Scotland's most internationally renowned visual art institutions without notice or any apparent public consultation, claimed that initial reports that it was no longer going to have any artistic function had been a rumour.
Simon Milne, Regius Keeper of the publicly owned Royal Botanic Garden Edinburgh where Inverleith House gallery is situated, appeared to be attempting to rewrite history.

Milne's contention that it was "never the case" that Inverleith House would cease to show art appears to contradict RBGE's own statement published last October which, while making clear that artistic activity would continue in the Garden itself, states: '... 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.'

Since the closure, a public outcry provoked a 10,000-plus petition and an open letter from major artistic figures protesting the move. An early day motion tabled at Westminster was signed by 16 MPs; an otherwise quiet Scottish government set up a high-profile Arts Working Group under the stewardship of Professor Chris Breward.

On the day of the gallery's closure on 23 October 2016, I forwarded a list of 23 questions to RBGE regarding its conduct. Over the last ten months RBGE has attempted to evade, obstruct and ignore those questions.

It claimed that my questions could be answered in A Future For Inverleith House, a report commissioned by RBGE with public funding, and drawn up by commercial consultants Kelly and Co prior to the closure. When asked if they could highlight where in the Kelly report my questions were answered, RBGE failed to respond.

While the report made various recommendations, all of them appeared to have been disregarded by RBGE in favour of closure. RBGE initially stated that they would publish the Kelly report on their website. To date, they have not done so, and the report was only released to the press in redacted form following a Freedom of Information request.

The eventual positive result of various protests against the closure of Inverleith House forced RBGE's hand to stage a summer show in Inverleith House, 'Plant Scenery of the World'. The exhibition was curated by Inverleith House's deputy curator Chloe Reith as part of Edinburgh Art Festival under what one suspects were very difficult circumstances. At the opening, a speech was made by Milne alongside head of Creative Scotland, Janet Archer.

Why Milne has become the mouth-piece for Inverleith House while its curator of 30 years, Paul Nesbitt, has been excluded from all discussions regarding the venue's future, isn't clear. Nesbitt is a qualified botanist with an understanding of the relationship between art and the natural world.

In August this year, the Herald newspaper gave Nesbitt an award for his three decades of programming at Inverleith House. Where most organisations might issue a public statement of congratulations to key members of staff given such accolades, RBGE has remained publicly silent regarding Nesbitt's achievement.

Milne's handling of the closure of Inverleith House has been a PR disaster for RBGE, which has received the worst publicity in its history. In a newspaper interview following the closure Milne described Inverleith House as being unable to “wash its face” financially – not the language you'd expect from a publicly accountable official charged with over-seeing one of Scotland's greatest cultural assets.

Milne's claim was subsequently discredited in the Arts Working Group report, which in strong but eminently diplomatic phrasing, states: '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 achievement in the arts to date, its unique qualities as a scholarly and public institution and its distinctive venues and locations.'

The report goes on: '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.'

In other words, let those at Inverleith House get on with what they've been doing so wonderfully for the last 30 years and leave them alone.

Let's be clear. For all the positive noises emanating from the report, Inverleith House has not been 'saved' – it has been co-opted by middle managers. While the forthcoming appointment of an arts advisory committee as recommended by the AWG report is a good sign, the worth of the exercise will depend on who is on the committee and what they do.

First and foremost, Inverleith House's year-round programme of contemporary art must be restored in a way that doesn't appear to be included in RBGE's current plans. The expertise that has shaped that programme over 30 years must be recognised and acknowledged, while curators must be protected from the sort of managerial interference that has caused such damage over the last ten months.

Such vital actions shouldn't be mere rumours. They should be made as crystal clear as the very real fact that Inverleith House was closed as a contemporary art gallery with a view to it becoming one more commercial cash cow.

Simon Milne and RBGE may have been caught with their pants down and their clown shoes on over that one, but vigilance is still needed. If those for whom Inverleith House's contemporary art programme matters so profoundly don't continue to defend it, one of the most important contemporary visual art institutions in Scotland may yet end up being lost forever.

A-N - September 2017

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