It’s going to be a quiet Hogmanay for Clydebank-born Anne Lyden, that’s for sure. On January 1 she takes over as Director-General of the National Galleries of Scotland (NGS), the body which runs Edinburgh’s major public galleries – National, Portrait and Modern (actually two buildings separated by a busy road and an Anthony Gormley sculpture half buried in the pavement). A big job, and one which requires a clear vision and certainly a clear head.


Lyden, for the record, is the first woman in a role which to all intents and purposes dates back to 1859. In that respect she’s also a history maker. And on the sunlit uplands where the big beasts of Scotland’s cultural landscape graze, her appointment is another triumph for the distaff side after the arrivals of Nicola Benedetti to head up the Edinburgh International Festival, and Jenny Niven as new Edinburgh International Book Festival director. Not that it’s a competition or anyone is counting.


Two days after that announcement came the news that NGS’s long-awaited development project in north Edinburgh has finally received planning permission. Called The Art Works (snappier than its originally mooted title: the National Collections Facility) it will be sited in Granton and as well as offering community spaces it ims to house 120,000 items from the NGS collection plus the rich and culturally important Demarco Archive. It has long been without a permanent home, much to the chagrin of the man who amassed it, impresario extraordinaire Richard Demarco.

The Herald:

So it’s all change at NGS. Belfast-born Sir John Leighton, a 19th century specialist, leaves after 17 years in post. He’s to be replaced by a Glasgow University-educated Scot who is a photography specialist. There’s a major new storage and research facility planned with the potential to inject resources into an area of significant deprivation which is itself the subject of a £1.2 billion redevelopment project. Oh, and we also learned this week that London’s National Gallery is to loan to ours a rather special painting: Johannes Vermeer’s A Young Woman Standing At A Virginal. It was one of the centrepieces of Amsterdam’s blockbuster Vermeer exhibition earlier this year but it has never been exhibited in Scotland before. It goes on display in May. Quite a coup, no?


And let’s not forget that in September NGS unveiled the new-look galleries in the National itself, finally pulling back the curtain on the building’s £38 million expansion and revamp – 12 new spaces, a rehanging of works from the collection, and the opening up of new vistas (literally as well as metaphorically: there are windows now). That the extension went over time and over budget is a given, of course. If you want the numbers, the original estimate back in 2018 was for it to cost £22 million. But it’s there now and on the whole people seem to like it. “Fantastic” was the opinion of one visitor – a certain Angus Robertson MSP, currently Cabinet Secretary for the Constitution, External Affairs and Culture.


That’s not to say Ms Lyden and NGS don’t have their challenges. It’s all very well borrowing a Vermeer and having a whizz-bang new storage and research facility, but where there is a clear appetite for modern art and modern artists – see the success of the National’s current Grayson Perry exhibition – it’s obvious the national collection can’t remain in stasis. Nobody expects NGS to purchase the next Picasso which comes up at auction. But with a new gallery ‘wing’ devoted essentially to Scotland’s idea of itself, you can’t ignore the faces pressed up against the glass: the successful, mid-career Scottish artists whose work might one day grace those same walls. Will there be cash available to buy their works and secure them for the nation?


It’s hard to see it in the current financial climate. Post-Covid, the galleries were carrying a £200,000 deficit and it has taken a nail-chewing length of time for visitor numbers to recover to pre-pandemic levels. And though the Scottish Government’s so-called grant in aid funding to NGS (a little over £17 million in 2021-22) looks fairly safe, the executive’s recent U-turn on its U-turn – it axed £6.6 million in arts funding, re-instated it, then cut it again – means Ms Lyden takes over at a time when money is tight across the sector. Museums Galleries Scotland, the body representing the museum sector, has warned of “a hollowing out of museum services” in the teeth of such cuts, and if anyone is buying the government’s claim that it will more than double funding to the arts and culture sector in the next five years they’re outnumbered by the ones going: ‘Aye, right.’