Bringing a V&A museum to Dundee is not just about eye- catching architecture. Just ask Philip Long. "It's not just about a fancy building," insists the director of the project, when the subject is brought up. "Not at all."
Not that the building, which has been designed by Japanese architects Kengo Kuma & Associates, isn't great – its angular silhouette of layered stone beams is quite beautiful. It is just that Long does not see the project as simply one of walls and rooms. To him the V&A at Dundee, which will be situated in the city's newly regenerated waterfront area, is about more than that. It is about vision and creativity. "Something pretty exceptional," says Long, when we meet in his Dundee office.
It is clear from the glossy billboards at the entrance to Dundee train station, complete with computer-generated images of the planned V&A museum, that Long has a point. Construction work on the site isn't due to start until early in the new year, with the museum predicted to open in 2015, but already there seems to be a buzz about the place. While on the surface the stylised billboard visions of the city's new architectural landscape appear to be all about handsome aesthetics, there's definitely something else represented in these images: optimism.
For 46 year-old Edinburgh-born Long, bringing the V&A to Dundee represents, first and foremost, a way to highlight and preserve our national design heritage and talent. "When I heard about the possibility of a V&A in Scotland that seemed to me to be an extraordinary thing," says Long, who was appointed director of the project last year. "The V&A is in London and is internationally understood as an outstanding player in art and design but as soon as you go outside London there has never been any real investment in a public understanding of historical and contemporary design in the way there has been for our visual arts sector."
That's all about to change. The V&A's new museum in Dundee will focus on championing contemporary and historical design, including fashion, products and architecture. Conceived in 2007, according to Long, between "like-minded folk" in Dundee and at the V&A in London, the project is about bringing a wide range of design exhibitions to Scotland.
The project is being organised by Design Dundee Ltd (DDL), which includes the V&A, the University of Dundee, the University of Abertay, Dundee City Council and Scottish Enterprise with the Scottish Government. Representatives of each of the institutions, as well as Long, sit on the V&A at Dundee board.
The building, which will be situated opposite the RRS Discovery on Dundee's waterfront, is planned to have more than 1500 square metres of "flexible gallery space". At the moment the board, with the support of the architects, are re-submitting plans to move the building inland (originally the plans had the museum floating over the Firth of Tay) to keep construction costs down and stay within the £45 million budget. It is, says Long, "the right thing to do" and will mean the design "will create a new public space we wouldn't have had before".
Once built, the museum will play host to some of the V&A's blockbuster London exhibitions as well as locally curated exhibits. The V&A at Dundee will also become the place to view Scotland's historical and contemporary design heritage – something Long feels particularly passionate about.
Enough about the museum for now. Let's instead talk about Long, the man who has been hired to run it. What is it that makes him passionate about this project?
Clearly happier discussing the work of creatives such as 19th-century designer Christopher Dresser than he is talking about himself, he leans back in his seat and gives a little smile. Long is still getting used to the notoriety his new role brings. "It's an adjustment I'm having to make already – people are aware of who you are – but there we are," muses Long, who last year moved his family, including wife Annie and sons 11-year-old Hector and nine-year-old Alexander, to Fife to be closer to the project. "If you were to ask me the question, how do you feel about that, I'd say I tend not to think about that stuff. What I do think is that it does give you an opportunity to get out there and sell the story of it."
Although playing the part of public arts figure might not have come naturally, Long's love of design has been ingrained for years. After studying to be an artist at Lancaster University, he went to the University of Essex to do a postgraduate arts degree before taking a job at the Fine Art Society in Glasgow for five years. It is there, he says, he gained "a broad understanding of that British ability in art and design".
From the Fine Art Society, Long moved to the Scottish National Gallery of Modern Art, where he worked for almost 20 years, and ran influential programmes such as the Artist Rooms. From 1998 he held the position of senior curator at the gallery. Long has also curated exhibitions on influential design figures, written publications on creatives such as Charles Rennie Mackintosh and Basil Spence and in 2007 curated Scotland's representation at the Venice Biennale.
In April last year it was announced Long would become the first director of the V&A at Dundee. It is a prize role, no doubt, but it is also one that comes with the weighty pressure of high expectations, something Long is acutely aware of. "It's very exciting to do something like this, it's a real privilege," he says, before adding, "but what comes with it all is a great deal of responsibility."
It is a responsibility Long appears more than happy to shoulder. It seems his passion for the project is enough to allay any fears he might have. Besides, he has far too much work to do – organising the construction of the building and increasing the museum's profile in Dundee and throughout Scotland – to dwell on such things.
Right now one of Long's main tasks is the organising and staging of V&A branded events and exhibitions in Dundee's arts venues. Several, including photography exhibitions, have already been staged with many more planned for 2013.
One of his most recent projects, with Dundee-born fashion designer Hayley Scanlan, included staging a "living catwalk" exhibition of her latest work at the McManus Gallery in the city. The event, which was set against a backdrop of the V&A's Selling Dreams: One Hundred Years of Fashion Photography exhibition at the same venue, was by all accounts a great success. Long says: "We wanted to help [Scanlan] in a sense because one of the aspirations for the V&A project is that it will support and provide opportunities for creative talent in this country."
This hands-on approach with the country's design talent is all part of Long's plan for the V&A. He says: "I used to spend a lot of time going to art exhibitions and now I go to [textile] factories." Long hopes to create a V&A community in Scotland long before the museum opens its doors – through talks, events and exhibitions sponsored by the V&A and held in Dundee's current arts venues.
Long explains: "One of the things we're concerned with in developing this project is that the V&A at Dundee doesn't just land out of space, that it is something which is already not only accepted but is bringing benefit. So there is the series of exhibitions at the McManus and there will be other things like that too."
One of Long's ambitions for the project is to raise the profile of design in Scotland – and indeed the rest of the UK – so people appreciate it in the same way they would visual art. He adds: "Design is not separate from art, it's integral to everything we do."
Long has plenty of work ahead of him but is more than ready for the challenge. "I've got a very sweet picture up the stairs in my office which is a drawing of the [V&A] building by my youngest son Alexander which says something like, 'When I grow up I want to be like my dad'. That's the sort of picture I look at when things get a bit tough."
director of the V&A at Dundee