Kate Gray, director of Collective: 'I'm excited by what this observatory can be for the city as a contemporary art space'

Kate Gray, director of Collective: 'I'm really excited by the idea of what this observatory can be for the city as a contemporary art space'

credit: Tom Nolan

New complex on top of Calton Hill offers a sense of space and time for reflection

There's a lot to talk about with the new Collective and City Observatory complex on top of Calton Hill, but let's first direct attention to the main, William Henry Playfair-designed building at the heart of the site. Dating back to 1776 – there's also a memorial to Playfair's uncle John here, the president of the Edinburgh Astronomical Institution – the newly-refurbished observatory building looks grand from the outside, but is no bigger than a small cottage when you get inside. It contains a small museum display of telescopes from the former observatory, and the Collective's gallery shop.

Here, the merchandise is reason enough to pay a visit; a range of caps, tote bags, mugs and tea-towels branded with the words 'Edinburgh's Disgrace' in a clear font like squeezed toothpaste. Edinburgh's Disgrace, of course, is the Parthenon-aping 19th century structure a little to the east on the hill, the tribute (also co-designed by Playfair) to Scottish troops who died in the Napoleonic wars, but which was never finished. It's a strange kind of landmark, a derelict ruin from the moment it was created, yet the new life brought by the observatory redevelopment will add new character to a space most often thought of by locals and visitors as being about a breath-sapping walk, a good view and a glimpse of the Disgrace.

Not that any of these things aren't worthwhile in themselves, but the dilapidation of the observatory spaces since the observatory itself moved over to Blackford would have been another disgrace, were it allowed to continue. 'Back in 2009 we were developing an artists' project with Jenny Hogarth and Kim Coleman, and we were looking for a site-specific space outside of our gallery in Edinburgh,' says Kate Gray, director of Collective, the arts organisation at the heart of the new development which used to have a gallery space on Cockburn Street. 'We visited the City Observatory as a possible site, and ended up delivering it here.' The intention had been just that one show, 'but because we came into dialogue with the museum service for Edinburgh Council, we started to understand the history of the site and the predicament it was in.

'At that time the building was in a major state of disrepair, it was on the Buildings at Risk register. The council had ownership of it, but they didn't have a plan, so they were holding stakeholder groups to brainstorm the site. We weren't part of this, but we heard about it through our project, and the then-curator of the site, who worked for Edinburgh City Council, said "we could do with people like you, with new ideas". I was looking behind me thinking, "that doesn't sound right!"'

This was in 2010, and in 2013 Collective began to seriously fundraise. They moved into a temporary gallery space in the old observatory dome to begin, says Gray, 'to really understand what the site was like, how it functioned, who came here, and what they needed and wanted from a visit to Calton Hill'. In 2016 – having gathered the £4.5m needed from Edinburgh Council, the Heritage Lottery Fund and Creative Scotland, as well as Edinburgh World Heritage and various trusts, foundations and individual donors – they closed for the two-year redevelopment. The new site is very much worth the wait; as well as the old observatory building, there are gallery spaces in the City Dome and in the sunken new-build Hillside space behind the observatory.

Kate Gray, director of Collective: 'I'm really excited by the idea of what this observatory can be for the city as a contemporary art space'

Klaus Weber's The Nonument / credit: Klaus Weber

For the opening programme, these respectively contain Dineo Seshee Bopape's [when spirituality was a baby], an array of found materials which appear to have been laid around the space in a primitive, ritualistic manner, and Klaus Weber's amusing The Nonument, a tiny figure admiring a monolithic (to scale) sculpture which appears to be made of white chocolate snowballs, a bottle of Coke and a cigarette. There are also permanent seating sculptures by Tessa Lynch dotted around the site, a small learning space for school groups, and The Lookout by Gardener's Cottage, a compact restaurant with floor-to-ceiling windows facing north-west across the city centre, which is sure to become one of the city's most interesting places to eat.

'It's the first time this site's been fully open to the public in its history,' says Gray. 'It's held in the common good, so we wanted to open it freely with no admission charges. It offers a space for contemplation; a lot of people who visited us before said that the hill really gives a sense of space and time for reflection and thinking, and that's a really conducive way to encounter contemporary art, which is often unpacking complex ideas about our current concerns and what's pressing to us as a society. It's good to encounter art in a space which encourages a sense of distance from our everyday lives, and walking up the hill takes you out of your life slightly, and gives you a different perspective on the city itself.'

She talks of some of the engagement exercises which Collective is doing with local schools, with the Royal National Institute for the Blind, and with the sex workers' charity Scotpep, and sounds enthused by this engagement for its own sake, rather than because it must be done for any sort of public funding obligation. Gray seems thoroughly aware that Calton Hill is a space for the people – local and visiting – and that by making the gallery she runs a new landmark upon it, it must be as available and welcoming as simply taking a stroll up the hill.

'Since we moved up here in 2013, we've had a huge increase in footfall,' she says, 'and we know from our feedback that around seventy percent of those people are first time attenders to contemporary art galleries. That's a huge responsibility, but also a huge opportunity, because people come to it fresh and want to engage. We need to work out how best to meet the needs of those people who are coming across the gallery for the first time, but also be confident that the art we programme is about things that are affecting everyone at the moment. I'm really excited by the idea of what this observatory can be for the city as a contemporary art space.'

Collective and City Observatory, Edinburgh, opens on Sat 24 Nov.

Collective

City Observatory, 38 Calton Hill, Edinburgh, EH7 5AA

Established as an artist-run gallery in 1984, the Collective is committed to supporting new visual art through a programme of exhibitions, projects and commissions. It shows sculpture, painting, film and photography, nearly all of it self-generated, and…

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