Tapestry or travesty? Council at odds over £5m artwork showcase at Tweedbank
Published: 2 Jun 2014 07:300 comments
The Great Tapestry of Scotland, completed last year, has already been seen by an estimated 100,000 visitors, most of whom viewed it when it went on public display last September at the Scottish Parliament. It has since been exhibited in Aberdeen and Paisley.
But the trustees behind the project are looking for a permanent home for the vast artwork – and senior members and officers at Scottish Borders Council want it to come to Tweedbank, on a vacant site near the new rail terminus.
Tomorrow councillors will meet in Hawick and be asked to spend between £35,000 and £40,000 preparing a detailed business case for the tapestry to be housed in a new purpose-built visitor centre – costing up to £5million – on council-owned land adjacent to the station.
The tapestry already has a Borders connection.
Not only were local embroiderers among the 1,000 volunteers who stitched it, its narrative was written by Kelso-born historian and author Alistair Moffat who lives in Selkirk and is a co-chairman of the tapestry’s charitable trust.
Other trustees include bestselling Scots author Alexander McCall-Smith, who came up with the concept, and artist Andrew Crummy who designed the panels.
Among key contemporary events depicted are Elvis Presley’s fleeting visit to Prestwick in 1960, Andy Murray’s Wimbledon triumph and the cloning of Dolly the sheep at Roslin.
A report to councillors by SBC services director Rob Dickson reveals that the Tweedbank site was identified as the most potentially viable and appropriate in a feasibility study by a firm of consultants. That firm, Jura, has tentatively estimated the new facility will generate revenue of around £450,000 a year in income and expenditure, although Mr Dickson cautions that “borrowing costs require to be assessed and incorporated into the revenue projections”.
“The trustees are very clear about how they want the tapestry treated and it must be a visitor attraction in its own right, in a location very close to a significant public transport link,” says Mr Dickson.
“It is already clear that other councils as well as other public and private sector organisations would be very keen to host the tapestry on a permanent basis.
“Given the history of textiles in the Borders, the very close proximity to Abbotsford and also to Bowhill and the reintroduction of the Borders Railway in 2015, there is a real possibility of this council securing the tapestry on a permanent basis.
“This is an outstanding opportunity for the Borders to further enhance its tourist offer and secure a potentially world class attraction.”
Ahead of tomorrow’s meeting, these views have been echoed by senior councillors.
Leader David Parker, who lives and represents Tweedbank on SBC, said the tapestry would become “a treasured historical masterpiece with the potential to be a very significant visitor attraction”.
He added: “Its location at Tweedbank Station will afford many visitors a fantastic opportunity to take the train to the tapestry and also to view other Borders attractions.
“We are at early stage of the project’s development, but I can see no reason why we can’t deliver something very special for the Scottish Borders.
SBC convener Councillor Graham Garvie, said: “From the moment I first saw this truly amazing world class work of art, I knew that it was something really special. Wherever in Scotland it has been shown tens of thousands have flocked to see it.”
And Mr Moffat said: “As a Border I am delighted SBC has had the vision to back the project to build a permanent home for this remarkable object – by any measure a cultural phenomenon – at Tweedbank.”
But not everyone is so enthusiastic and the Border Telegraph can reveal that the nine-strong Conservative opposition group will call for no action at tomorrow’s meeting.
“This is a vanity project by a trust which should, if it believes the tapestry to be such an enduring attraction, be prepared to commission its own business case,” said Tory group leader Councillor Michelle Ballantyne. “If it is expecting us to fund that case, the trust should certainly not be calling the shots over its location.
“For councillors who were unaware that a feasibility study had even taken place and have not seen the details, to be asked to spend up to £40,000 on a business case is just not on, especially when the council is facing severe budget cuts, with garden waste collections abandoned and a four-a-half day school week about to be introduced.
“The council is in the process of transferring its cultural services to a trust, so it is premature to say the least to spend money on a business case at this time.
“In any case, my own view is that this tapestry, which is basically a community project of arguable artistic merit, is by no means guaranteed to generate anything like the visitors required to make the project viable in the long term.”
The recommendation for the business case to focus purely on the Tweedbank site has also been criticised by former Hawick councillor Andrew Farquhar.
“As far as textile heritage and history is concerned, Tweedbank cannot be considered to be the most appropriate location,” said Mr Farquhar.
“It is hoped the opportunity will not be missed for councillors to change these plans and turn this into a heritage regeneration project at a more appropriate location which would attract external funding from the Heritage Lottery Fund and the European Union.
“There are a number of conveniently located premises close to the Heart of Hawick such as the old Glenmac factory which would lend itself to conversion.
“Hawick is where it belongs and this will cause huge outrage in a community steeped in the history of textiles.”
The Great Scottish Tapestry Charitable Trust is a registered charity with a long list of sponsors. As well as Messrs Moffat and McCall-Smith, trustees include James Naughtie of BBC broadcasting fame.
According to figures lodged with the Scottish Charities Register, the trust had total income of £180,351 in 2013 and expenditure of £121,524.
The tapestry is currently on display in Paisley, but will move back to the Scottish Parliament this summer.