The domestic and the global: Emma Nicolson on how the arts will be at the heart of Royal Botanic Gardens Edinburgh
interview by Chris Fremantle
Originally posted on the eco/art/scot/land website August 8, 2020.
Emma Nicolson, Head of Creative Programmes, Royal Botanic Gardens Edinburgh (photo courtesy of RGBE)
Emma Nicolson, Head of Creative Programmes, Royal Botanic Garden Edinburgh (RBGE), kindly agreed to be interviewed for ecoartscotland. The interview happened by email during July 2020 and is focused by the reinvention of Inverleith House as ‘Climate House’, moving beyond the 20th century idea of the gallery as ‘white cube’ and reconnecting with the context of the Botanic Gardens. This new approach is happening alongside a collaboration with the Serpentine Galleries in London, developed as a result of match-making by Outset Partners.
Chris Fremantle (CF): Can you tell us a bit about what Inverleith House will be like once it is ‘Climate House’?
Emma Nicolson (EN): We are confronting a pivotal moment in the role of the arts within Royal Botanic Garden Edinburgh (RBGE). Climate House reimagines Inverleith House as a gallery for the 21st century, igniting a new arts strategy across the Garden, and establishing RBGE as a visionary institution within Climate Crisis.
This marks the beginning of a three-year vision for Climate House which will act as a pilot project to be reviewed after that time. It’s underpinned by ‘By Leaves We Survive’, a new arts strategy for Royal Botanic Garden Edinburgh. We are focusing on the ‘21st century explorer’, inspiring discoveries between artists, scientists, horticulturists, scholars, activists, entrepreneurs, policymakers and visitors and local communities.
Ellie Harrison, Early Warning Signs, 2011, installed outside Inverleith House 2020
The Climate Crisis (and the pandemic) isn’t the first crisis for RBGE. RBGE was established in 1670 during an era of famine, plague and witch trials, by two physicians Robert Sibbald and Andrew Balfour. Their vision was to create a garden that would supply the apothecaries and physicians of Edinburgh with medicinal plants to help improve the wellbeing of the people of Edinburgh.
Now, four centuries later, our vision is to transform Inverleith House into Climate House – an institute for ecology at the edge, reconnecting our gallery both to its roots as a centre for medical innovation and its future as a hub that will promote the synergy between art and science as we face one of the most significant challenges of the 21 century.
Climate House will be an intimate place for contemporary art that is embedded within the natural world. The physical manifestation of Climate House is not set in stone, conceptually it will be a place to explore the future of our planet through art.
CF: What will we experience?
EN: My vision for Climate House is that it will be a place you want to dwell in, as soon as you step into the building you get a sense of a warm welcome, a sense of home for art.
Inverleith House, Royal Botanic Gardens Edinburgh
For those not familiar with Inverleith House, it has a rich history of displaying modern and contemporary art. Originally built as a house for Sir James Rocheid, a prominent agriculturalist of the 19th Century. The house and a portion of his land was sold to the Royal Botanic Garden Edinburgh in 1877. The house then became the home to the Regis Keeper of the gardens. In 1960, the house was turned into the inaugural home of the Scottish National Gallery of Modern Art and in 1986 it became the official art gallery of the Botanic Garden developing a renowned exhibition programme of contemporary and botanical art.
Despite Inverleith House’s deep historic relationship to the gardens it has become untethered from the organisation’s wider activities in recent years. Isolated in part by the 20th Century approach to displaying contemporary art. We want to move on from the ‘white cube’ of yesteryear, taking a different tack that reconnects the house to its surroundings, but also to transform the house into a gallery fit for the pressures and urgent challenges of the 21st century. The most pressing of which is the Climate Crisis. Inverleith House’s proximity to the world of plants; the richness of scholarship, inquiry and praxis associated with RGBE means we have resources at our disposal to begin to think about the role of a gallery in the age of Climate Crisis. Art and culture have a valuable and important part to play in linking objects, images, processes, people, locations, histories and discourse in a physical space to open up dialogues and imaginaries that we see as critical to connecting audiences to this crisis.
Our plan is to work with artists like Christine Borland, Cooking Sections, and Keg de Souza to transform Inverleith House into a Climate House and create a new vision. Inverleith House is a house in a botanic garden; a garden made for explorers of the past. We want to transform Inverleith House into a home. A home for the 21st century explorer. This explorer listens to the voices less heard, refuses to conform to the boundary between culture and nature, and is willing to imagine ways of living for the future.
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Submitted by ecoartspace member Chris Fremantle, Scotland.