After the oil boom and bust, could art save Aberdeen?

Will the arts save Aberdeen?

The Listener / Jason Nelson

Price of oil has plummeted but new festivals, collectives and venues are flourishing across the granite city

In 2013 Aberdeen failed in its bid to become UK City of Culture 2017. The judges told the council their plans lacked 'a coherent vision' or a 'wow factor'. It was, according to council leaders, a 'wake up call'. Then the oil crisis hit. Prices plummeted from $100 a barrel in 2014 to $27 in 2016, leading to thousands of job losses, falling house prices and empty shop fronts.

'Aberdeen knows now that it can't put all it's eggs in one basket, economically speaking' explains Hilary Nicol, Associate Director of Look Again, a visual arts and design festival that launched in the city in 2015. The festival was founded and continues to be part-funded by the council's £700,000 annual culture programme.

'Look Again is very much about connecting with other aspects of Aberdeen; history, heritage, culture, people [and] beyond the energy sector,' she explains. '[The failed bid and the slumping oil price] became an opportunity for many in the city to reflect and think differently about the arts and culture and what they mean, and proactively develop new approaches to creativity.'

As well as running a hugely successful festival, Look Again has become a key ally for the Council, working closely with them on the establishment of various creative projects. These range from supporting new art and design collectives through programmes of mentoring to facilitating conversations between the upper 'echelons' of the council and recent graduates – the lifeblood of the emerging scene so vital to the creative development of any city. 'We know that two new creative collectives will be staying in the city as a result of Look Again's work, which we are really delighted about,' says Nicol.

Will the arts save Aberdeen?


One of these collectives is STACK, a multi disciplinary collective of designers, artists and photographers, the other is Tendency Towards, a nomadic artist-led space co-founded by Gray's School of Art graduate Donald Butler: 'I was still a student at the time [of the mentoring], and to be taken so seriously by people I thought of as being really high up in the structure of the scene here for me was a huge confidence boost,' says Butler. 'I can't think of many other places where new voices, such as mine, are allowed to play almost on a level playing field with very established figures.' Tendency Towards has since seen significant financial backing through the city's Creative Fund and temporary access to vacant properties earmarked for redevelopment by the council.

Another major triumph for Aberdeen's art scene is The Anatomy Rooms, a complex of artists' studios and workshops in the former anatomy department of the University of Aberdeen. The space was set up by another Gray's School of Art graduate, Jim Ewen, in 2015, with support from the council's Creative Space funding stream. Over 50 people access the Anatomy Rooms every week; artists, writers, fashion and textiles designers and members of an on site film production social enterprise all congregate here to make work, suggesting an exciting, grassroots scene has very much arrived. 'The variety of arts and artists that have sought us out for support or as a venue has been extremely wide, frequent and ongoing so we must be doing something right beyond simply being a cool big space,' says Ewen.

All this activity has fostered a new creative climate for Aberdeen; local people are engaging with the arts as it becomes ever present in their city. Festivals like NuArt are bringing art quite literally to the streets with an annual street art festival, while SPECTRA – a festival of light – illuminates the granite city every year and draws huge crowds. It's not just locals that are enjoying this new lease of artistic energy – the city is becoming a hip destination for others to visit. 'We know people are travelling to take part in [Look Again] and that we've had many visitors from the central belt and other parts of the UK,' explains Nicol. 'When we are showing work by the likes of Turner Prize winners Assemble, and opening with a Wayne Hemingway keynote and DJ set, people are willing to travel.' Look Again's first festival in 2015 reached over 21,000 people. The opening of the newly refurbished Aberdeen Art Gallery in September 2017 looks set to send the number of art lovers visiting the city soaring even further.

Will the arts save Aberdeen?

SPECTRA. credit: Aberdeen City Council

The commercial scene is also starting to see a boost in response to the city's new creative identity: 'Festivals like Look Again, SPECTRA and Nuart are having an effect. They're giving the city a new confidence and encouraging people to engage with both public artworks and the commercial sector,' says Maura Tighe, Director of Gallery Heizel. 'I have noticed some new visitors to the gallery who tentatively begin speaking about Nuart or SPECTRA. The festivals are creating gateways to art for some who may otherwise be intimidated by their fear of a lack of knowledge. It's great and really welcome!'

There are no signs of things slowing down either; 'it is clear that it makes sense to continue to build on the feel-good factor our cultural calendar brings,' explains Councillor John Wheeler, Convener of Education and Children's Services. 'Even in these challenging times of constrained financial resources, we will look for creative solutions and enhanced partnership working.'

The council have recently established a '365 Events Strategy' for the city and are developing an ambitious new Cultural Strategy led by the Culture Network. If things continue, the city is on course to compete with the cultural offering of its neighbours Dundee, Edinburgh and Glasgow. Aberdeen's future as the oil capital of Europe may be at stake, but don't underestimate the power of the arts.

SPECTRA: Aberdeen's Festival of Light

Public light artworks animate spaces in Aberdeen's city centre at this four-day festival. This year’s festival celebrates Aberdeen's rich coast and waters in recognition of the national 'Year of Coast and Waters'.

The Anatomy Rooms

Queen Street, Aberdeen, AB10 1AP

A creative hub offering studios, project rooms and events space designed to support individual practitioners, groups and arts organisations. Situated at the rear of Marischal College, in the former anatomy department of the University of Aberdeen, the…