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Inspiration of an empty building allows a fresh vision for art show

James Keillor

There must have been some secret cultural elixir injected into the waters of the Tay around the turn of this century, because the city of Dundee is currently fizzing with creative energy.

Much of this buzz is focused around a cultural axis that is to be found west of the city centre, near the city leg of the Tay Bridge.

As well as being the site of a proposed satellite of the V&A Museum, the area is home to various existing artistic endeavours, including the city\'s Rep theatre and Dundee Contemporary Arts (DCA), currently celebrating its 10th birthday with an exhibition featuring the work of a host of successful contemporary artists, most of whom were schooled just up the road at Duncan of Jordanstone College of Art.

All these artists - Luke Fowler (recent winner of the first Jarman award for artist film-makers), The Lonely Piper, Lucy McKenzie and Scott Myles - to name a few, have experienced the exhilaration and fear which strikes most final year art students at this time of year as they prepare for their degree show.

It\'s the norm for final year degree shows to be staged within art colleges, and for members of the public it often provides an opportunity to have a mosey around some fascinating buildings.

One of the downsides for students though, in what is for many their first public exhibition, is the fact that some get better spaces than others to show off their work. Nooks and crannies can marginalise and, as any marketeer knows, displaying your wares well is half the battle, especially when a recession is looming over all our heads.

With this in mind, the powers that be at Duncan of Jordanstone have looked outside the confines of their own walls for an exhibition space which would show off the students\' work and found the answer lying on their doorstep in the shape of The Vision@Seabraes, an ultra modern building (complete with prerequisite central atrium and acres of space and glass) completed in late 2005, but which ended up lying empty as the developers promptly went into receivership.

For the last week, the building has thrummed with activity for the first time in its short history as 260 frantic art students specialising in fine art, design, textiles, jewellery, animation and digital imaging, plus assorted friends drafted in for the occasion, busy themselves preparing for their final assessment.

Next week, the building will play host to not one, but two, preview nights, the first being an invitation-only VIP night on Wednesday, when supermodel Erin O\'Connor will open the show before sashaying down a purpose-built pink catwalk wearing jewellery and designs by Duncan of Jordanstone students.

O\'Connor, who is vice chairman of the British Fashion Council and a trustee of the V&A, is said to be a staunch supporter of Dundee\'s bid to create a statement building on the waterfront to house contemporary collections from the V&A and attract major applied arts exhibitions to Dundee.

The V&A initiative has been spearheaded by Duncan of Jordanstone\'s Dean, Professor Georgina Follett, a jewellery designer with 40 years experience under her belt.

The idea to approach Horizon Capital, the owners of the building, came from Professor Elaine Shemilt and typifies the can-do attitude which has led to the college being rated last year by independent higher education assessment body RAE as the top institution in Scotland for research in art and design and in the top 10% of art colleges in the UK.

"We have felt for a long time that the college building is difficult to navigate," explains Shemilt, who is external dean of Duncan of Jordanstone as well as being the current president of the Society of Scottish Artists.

"We can have up to 5000 people trying to get into the degree show and that\'s before you even consider decent disabled access. I had been looking all over Scotland for a venue to hold the Society of Scottish Artists\' (SSA) annual open exhibition, as we had lost our slot this year in Edinburgh, and quite literally, I found this huge, extraordinary building on the doorstep. It had been built as a paper mill, but had been refurbished to a very high spec with an eye on attracting the games industry.

"We started talking about using it as an exhibition space for the degree show as well as the SSA\'s annual show.

"James Keillor Services who manage the building told us that as long as we leave it the way we found it, we could have it. It\'s a bit nerve-wracking almost like leaving your house in the hands of teenage children, but the students are really taking ownership of it and we are all so excited at the way it looks."

Talking to Shemilt and her senior colleagues in Follett\'s elevated office within the college complex, it\'s easy to see why Duncan of Jordanstone, which was founded in 1892, and became part of the University of Dundee in 1996, has become one of the major players in art education in the UK.

Follett, a highly regarded jewellery designer in her own right, is warm, welcoming and almost maternal in her bearing. Round her table, she has a professorial trio of Mike Press, associate dean of design and former head honcho of Grays School of Art in Aberdeen, Tracey Mackenna, associate dean of art and Shemilt to talk about why Dundee is rocking the contemporary art world.

All, like Follett, are successful practising artists in their own right and all appear to be singing from the same hymn sheet - a rare occurrence in the ego-driven world of art, not to mention, academia. According to Mike Press, the collective will to see their students succeed is behind everything the college does.

"One of the reasons we are doing the degree show in this way is that we have a recession. The prospects for graduates throughout the world are not good, but in creating this, we are presenting a vision of what you can do."

Follett agrees. "We are very keen to build on the success of DCA," she says.

"We want Dundee to become the home of contemporary art and mirror what is happening across the world."

Citing success stories such as 2007 Turner nominee Nathan Coley, who was a Henry Moore Fellow in Sculpture at Dundee from 2002 to 2004, Mackenna sums up the Dundee recipe for creative success this way: "Our recent graduates are out and about and they talk about a borderless approach to art.

"They are allowed to be experimental. It\'s not just about getting them through their degree for us, it\'s about giving them the context."

Like every good leader, it is Follett who draws a line under the discussion by paraphrasing the mantra by which this college seems to function so successfully. "It\'s all about having a sense of place," she explains, citing the philosophy of Ballater-born Sir Patrick Geddes, regarded by many as being the founding father of modern town and regional planning. "If you are doing locally, then you\'re impacting internationally."

Dundee Degree Show 2009, Duncan of Jordanstone College of Art & Design, University of Dundee, May 23-June 6. 

18th June 2009