Scotland’s capital is famed for its August Fringe Festival, a month-long extravaganza that celebrates creativity in all its forms. But Edinburgh’s arts community does not go to ground for the rest of the year. In fact, the city boasts a diverse and thriving artistic ecosystem. From grassroots art collectives to commercial art galleries with an eye on the avant-garde and world-class institutions befitting a capital city, here are ten of the best contemporary art galleries to visit.
The Scottish National Gallery of Modern Art is one of the three galleries that make up the National Galleries of Scotland, alongside the National Gallery and the Portrait Gallery. Set within beautiful landscaped parkland, the gallery is spread between two impressive neo-classical buildings: Modern One and Modern Two. On display in Modern One is a stunning permanent collection of art, covering every major art movement since the start of the 20th century, including paintings by Matisse, Picasso, and Lucian Freud, as well as a sculpture garden featuring work by artists such as Henry Moore and Richard Long. Opposite is Modern Two, previously known as the Dean Gallery, which holds a changing programme of exhibitions drawn from the gallery’s world-class collection. It also houses a wonderful recreation of Eduard Paolozzi’s studio, which displays a broad selection of works bequeathed to the gallery by the artist in 1994.
Set up as a progressive artist-run organisation in 1984, Collective has since evolved into an influential operation with an emphasis on collaboration and experimentation. Focusing on visual art, the gallery supports and provides a platform for emerging local talent, especially recent graduates, in its New Work Scotland Programme. It has recently moved premises to the City Observatory complex on Calton Hill, which presents exciting possibilities as the building is redeveloped and re-imagined as an arts space, opening up another exciting chapter in Collective’s history. Look out for Collective’s masterfully curated group shows, performance lectures, and experiments with traditional media.
Situated behind Edinburgh Waverley train station, The Fruitmarket Gallery is a small but perfectly formed arts space in the centre of the city. Originally used as a fruit and vegetable market, the building was saved from demolition in 1974 by the Scottish Arts Council and turned into an art gallery. It became independent in 1984, though with continued support from the Scottish Arts Council, and is now one of the leading galleries on the Edinburgh arts scene. The Fruitmarket Gallery is famed for creating intimate yet accessible exhibitions, featuring internationally renowned artists such as Martin Creed, Louise Bourgeois and Dali, often accompanied by talks and video interviews with the artists that help to educate and inform the public.
Established in 1826, and attaining a royal charter in 1838, the Royal Scottish Academy prides itself on promoting living Scottish artists through its programme of temporary exhibitions and events. A one of a kind institution, it is independently funded and led by eminent Scottish artists and architects. Situated in a magnificent building on the city’s main shopping thoroughfare, Princes Street, adjacent to the National Gallery of Scotland, the RSA has accumulated a wide range of art and artefacts from its members to form an impressive collection. At its core is the Diploma Collection, which is made up of individual pieces donated by each artist on their entrance into the academy. The institution’s strength is in conceiving engaging and diverse exhibitions and making the most of its illustrious reputation to promote the best of contemporary art in Scotland.
Arusha Gallery is a relative newcomer to Edinburgh’s art community, opening its doors at Palmerston Place in March 2013, but it has already made its mark. Within nine months, a secondary gallery was opened on Dundas Street, at the heart of the city’s art district. The work on display is diverse and vibrant, whilst remaining accessible and commercial. The gallery presents group and solo shows, from artists both established and emerging, but also actively exhibits at different venues across the city and at art fairs throughout the UK.
Located in an old industrial building overlooking Waverley train station, Ingleby Gallery was established in 1998 and continues to run an ambitious programme of commercial exhibitions and off-site projects. With commissions by acclaimed artists such as Tacita Dean and Antony Gormley, as well as emerging talent, Ingleby Gallery is unafraid of showcasing conceptual, bold and cutting-edge art. This is literally advertised in its public art project Billboard for Edinburgh, which presents special commissions from prominent artists on a billboard on the side of its building.
Founded in 2004, Embassy is a non-profit organisation run by an ever-changing committee of artists. New board members are elected every two years on a voluntary basis, and are responsible for all aspects of running the gallery, which means the gallery’s character and direction change too. However, the focus on grassroots creativity is a constant feature. Every June, Embassy organises the Annuale, a refreshing, alternative arts festival representing the city’s vibrant artistic activity, away from the mayhem of the August Fringe Festival. The gallery’s partnership with the Edinburgh College of Art, which aids the development of ECA students, also results in interesting exhibitions from up-and-coming artists.
Founded in 1977, Stills is Scotland’s Centre for Photography, a non-profit photography venue, and continues to be Edinburgh’s only dedicated photography gallery. Situated beside Waverley Station, on Cockburn Street, the centre’s year-round programme not only features photography exhibitions, but also film screenings, installations and performance. Its programme expertly reflects the increasing number of artists using documentary photography to explore social realities – the Social Documents strand of exhibitions uses this genre of images to look at issues such as globalisation, ethics, and representation. Stills also provides photography courses and facilities, available to the public and professionals alike, which involve work in darkrooms and digital labs, as well as equipment hire.
Set in the centre of the New Town area, Open Eye Gallery is another well-established, small private gallery, operating since 1982. It shows an eclectic mixture of paintings, sculpture, ceramics, and jewellery, ranging from the traditional to the avant-garde. The gallery also has a Print Room, which is dedicated to modern and contemporary printmaking, featuring the work of notable European and American artists such as Picasso, Joan Miró and David Hockney.
The Dovecot Studios is a hidden gem with a distinguished history. Founded in 1912 by the fourth Marquess of Bute, Dovecot Studios is a tapestry venture, with roots in the William Morris Craft Studio, and has collaborated with artists such as Henry Moore, Stanley Spencer, and David Hockney. In its present incarnation, housed in the impressively renovated Infirmary Street Baths in the heart of the city, it is also a modern arts space for a whole host of cross-discipline exhibitions and events. Each week, visitors get the opportunity to watch the intricate weaving process from the viewing balcony – an event where the studio presents tapestry as a contemporary and innovative art form. Aside from tapestry, the studio showcases a wide range of art. In 2016, a new ballet, Children of the Mantic Stain by British artist Linder with choreography by Kenneth Tindall, was commissioned and performed on the weaving floor and featured a carpet created by Dovecot in collaboration with Linder for British Art Show 8 and as the ‘eighth dancer’ in the performance.