Fruitmarket Gallery Expansion

By Lila Pitcher

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Edinburgh’s music scene excluded from city’s cocoon of high culture



Despite the council’s efforts to make Electric Circus closure seem like a celebratory retirement, Fruitmarket Gallery’s expansion confirms Edinburgh’s resolution to favour art over an already crumbling music scene.  

In March 2017, much to the sadness of the Edinburgh music crowd, Electric Circus nightclub announced its closure stating on Facebook that ‘the decision to close was not an easy one’. The site had been a staple for the Edinburgh music scene, hosting karaoke nights and concerts for more than 7 years. However, it seems the nightclub’s success did not stand a chance in light of Fruitmarket Gallery’s multi-million-pound expansion plans. 

Since its original construction in 1971, Edinburgh’s Fruitmarket Gallery has been a hub for contemporary exhibition. From Emma Hart to Roman Signer, the old fruit and vegetable market has given way to a platform encouraging ‘everyone to engage with art, encouraging questions and supporting debate’. When touching upon the plans for expansion Fiona Gray, previous gallery director, spoke of taking over the Electric Circus as ‘the Holy Grail’. Accordingly, construction plans will double the size of the gallery, offering an extension for visitors despite a short walk across the street needed to access the new building. 

While one cannot disregard this additional promotion of art, it is hard to ignore the consequences this closure will continue to have on Edinburgh’s music scene. The opportunities for a sing and dance in Edinburgh are not currently a highlight for city-goers, most people admitting they will most often prefer to travel to Glasgow for a concert. Electric Circus’ closure, revealed only weeks after the Picture House on Lothian Road was turned into a Wetherspoon pub, not only highlights Edinburgh’s lack of facilities but a preference for the building’s cultural significance rather than the musical acts it features.

According to an Edinburgh Council spokeswoman, the city is aware that ‘the closure of an established venue is of concern to the live music community’. However, it did not stop them from giving the nightclub owners, who had expected to stay open another two years, barely any notice. Their adieu Facebook post, littered with various refund promises, turns our gaze to the council’s unapologetic stance on the matter based on Waverley Leisure, Electric Circus building owners’ statement ‘that now is a good time to retire’. 

What we can generously coin as ‘a gentle push in the right direction’ not only highlights Electric Circus’ powerlessness over the decision but also the council’s lack of effort in promoting musical culture outside the Fringe Festival. Craig Nelson, Electric Circus DJ acknowledges that the explosion of culture that occurs in August keep other artistic forms from being a priority during the 11 other silent months, stating that ‘it would be great to see Edinburgh marketed as somewhere to come for culture and entertainment all year round – and not just August’. Can Edinburgh maintain its status as cultural heart of Scotland if it forgets to nurture its long-term potential? What does this say about the council’s priorities if it ignores some of its creative components, or worse, forces them to compete? 

A spokeswoman for the Fruitmarket has defended the expansion, claiming that ‘extending into next door will secure the future of both historic market buildings as a landmark year-round centre for culture’. This suggestion that a nightclub cannot become a landmark for culture, in addition to the knowledge that more than half of this project’s £3.7 million budget has been funded by the National Lottery creates, without a doubt, the image of an Edinburgh that prefers to associate itself with an elegant gallery opening rather than an improvised tune. Nick Stewart, manager of Sneaky Pete’s in Cowgate, agrees: ‘it is a shame that music venues aren’t deemed to be as culturally prestigious and worth funding as other arts sectors seem to be’. 

In a city where the council would rather close down a music venue than sacrifice one of the many Holiday Inns, Starbucks or Santanders, it is not surprising to see rent prices stagger upwards and citizens flee to Glasgow for a Saturday concert. Through Electric Circus’ closure, the music scene is belittled into a futile form of entertainment that cannot participate in furthering Edinburgh’s polished cultural legacy. Music is pushed away by its artistic peer, swimming alone in a world where white walls trump a casual dance- where in order to thrive, contemporary art has to overthrow its sibling.  By extending this cultural hierarchy onto our cityscape, it is no surprise that students, families and workers who enjoy the occasional boogie are made to feel just like music: secluded and unappreciated within the limited walls of their own city. 

Words: Lila Pitcher