Scottish artists have lost one of their fiercest and most humble advocates, with the death of Dr. David Colvin CBE, just before Christmas.
While many Scottish artists today will not know his name nor his unsung work, they have good cause to thank him.
He was the steadfast and relentless driving force behind the fight of the three national artist-led organisations in Scotland (the RSW, SSA and VAS) to retain a home for their Annual Open Exhibitions in The Royal Scottish Academy building on The Mound in Edinburgh.
For each of these Societies, the Annual Open Exhibition is more or less the sole focus of its calendar of activities. Every show distills the work of hundreds of Scottish artists and can only be mounted with the selfless work of dozens of volunteers. Preparation for submission starts weeks and sometimes months before the Exhibition opens. Every year, on submission days, queues of artists wait patiently with their work in hand, hoping that it will be selected for hanging or installation. The great and the good, the amateur and the professional. All submit for consideration and selection.
Even with the best mailing list, a private gallery can only receive a few hundred visitors during the course of one of its exhibitions. There is often little, if any, press comment and so their exhibits can be singular, almost private events.
Contrast that with a magnificent, purpose-built public space, such as the Royal Scottish Academy, where hundreds of works present an exciting and stimulating show and thousands will see the work which is hung.
Art lovers look forward to this yearly treat as a cross-section of work offered up by the very best Scottish artists, many of whom experiment with new themes or embark upon bold new experiments specifically for this show. Journalists and critics give press coverage to the exhibition, gallery owners prowl at the edges, looking for new talent and visitors will stumble upon work by artists they have never encountered before. Hundreds throng on the night of the private views and the authorities need to limit the numbers, to avoid a crush.
In short, a triumph of effort to present an annual snapshot of the very best in Scottish art.
During the early months of my term as President of Visual Arts Scotland, back in 1997, I learned of a major threat to our annual exhibitions and possibly to our Society’s very existence.
The Royal Scottish Academy Buildings are owned by the National Galleries of Scotland and rumour had had it, for some time, that the Director and his Trustees didn’t think favourably of our exhibitions, didn’t rate ‘living art’, let alone ‘applied art’, which our Society was showcasing and they would be only too pleased to find a way to let us slip from the schedule of shows in the RSA.
Although the Academicians, through their own organisation, The Royal Scottish Academy, had a permanent right to have offices and exhibitions in the RSA building (enshrined in an Order of Parliament in 1910), the other three artist-run bodies had no such rights.
Despite their histories of exhibiting in the Academy, dating back nearly 100 years, their ‘gentleman’s agreement’ to do so remained unrecognised officially and had no guarantee or protection in the form of a longer-term lease. The National Galleres had no legal obligation to us and, for for some time, there had been a sense of unease about this and a suspicion that mere goodwill could no longer be counted upon.
Changes were afoot. Soon after the millennium, a long-awaited £26 million project would begin, which would transform the gallery space, linking it to the adjacent National Gallery on the Mound via an inter-connecting underground link. As well as bringing the whole fabric of the building up to international ‘state-of-the-art’ standards, there would be a 200 seat theatre, seminar rooms, a large restaurant, shop and IT centre.
Without doubt the most distinguished and spectacular exhibition venue in the country, it had no light, humidity or temperature controls and a roof that leaked – it wasn’t up to scratch, when it came to being able to host high-profile international exhibitions. These refurbishments would change all that and make it one of the best gallery spaces in Europe. And – very likely mean the end of our access to the galleries, if only due to the inevitable, huge hike in our, until now, reasonable rent.
It was believed that the Trustees of the National Gallery planned to stage only big international touring exhibitions and of course, the RSA’s own shows after this facelift, but they were keeping a tight lid on their plans.
During the 1980’s, when the three exhibiting Societies had first got wind of this threat to their exhibitions, some of their members formed “The Mound Group”, (to reflect their location in the heart of Edinburgh) to fight to retain access to their shows in the Galleries. When the refurbishment didn’t materialise due to lack of funding, the threat subsided and the group was put on the back burner. In the late ’90’s, The National Galleries finally had their funding in place and it was all back on the agenda.
In late spring 1997, while chatting over drinks with a few other artists in the nearby Doric Bar, about what the future might hold for our shows in the RSA, it was decided that our three Societies should band together again and renew our plea to the Board of Trustees of the National Galleries for a meeting. As annual tenants, it was worrying that we hadn’t been consulted, or given any information about their plans. So, that July, a letter was sent by myself, Gwyneth Leach (then President of the SSA) and Ian McKenzie Smith (President of the RSW, as well as the RSA) to the Chairman of the Board, asking for a meeting. After no response, a second letter was sent a few months later, but still nothing happened and other approaches to officials came to nothing.
I was discussing my concerns about this with David Colvin, the husband of one of the members of our Council – the artist Elma Colvin – when he offered to help put us in touch with his former colleague, Rhona Brankin MSP, who had just been appointed the Depute Minister for Culture in the Scottish Executive. We hoped she might be able to support us in our efforts to get some answers and promote our cause. David’s introduction meant that things began to move swiftly – she offered to meet us right away and was very encouraging.
We decided it was time to set up an official ‘action group’ and asked David to chair it, as he had a wealth of contacts in Scottish politics and a lifetime’s experience in dealing with civil servants and public officials at The Scottish Office – and was hugely supportive of our cause. The “Exhibiting Societies” was born.
Our next letter to the Chairman just happened to mention our meeting with the Culture Minister and…before we knew it, we were sitting ‘round a table in a National Gallery boardroom with the Chairman of the Trustees and the Director himself, amongst other officials. Their tone was friendly and re-assuring, with the NGS insisting that we would still retain our slot in the RSA calendar…however, we would have to be flexible about other matters.
David had galvanised us and it seemed we had finally applied the right kind of pressure. We were now being taken seriously. We would always have the support of the public and the politicians to fall back on, especially the Labour Government, who would no doubt recognise and wish to support the daily struggle of most of our artists. There would be massive public support too, for the continued use of the RSA building for living artists.
Once we’d begun our negotiations with the National Galleries, they had made it clear to us that they would deal with only one body, as opposed to three individual Societies. So, we set up the “Exhibiting Societies of Scottish Artists”, or “ESSA”, as an official charity, with a legally binding Constitution, our formal objectives being to facilitate our future exhibitions and to ensure, as far as we could, that none of the Societies would face extinction under the burden of a rental they could not afford.
My term as the President of our Society had come to an end and, having worked well with David Colvin from the beginning of our campaign, he persuaded me to take on the role of Treasurer of ESSA, which I undertook between 2001 and 2007.
While the RSA was to remain open to living artists and their Societies, they still had to find the price of ‘admission’.
In the absence of any funding from the Arts Council or the Government, each of the Societies had always had limited funds to meet the rent and had always skated close to the edge. We were about to be told that our rent would be increased tenfold, from about £300 a week to £3000. In addition, our allocated time in the building was being drastically cut, to the extent that we would now have to share the space under one big ‘umbrella’ show for a shortened time-slot, thus threatening to sacrifice the distinctive character of each society.
We’d still need a damned good strategy if we were either going to get the NGS to reduce the rent, or, failing that, to raise the necessary funds each year, to continue holding these shows which were our lifeblood. Luckily, it turned out that we had many supporters in the media and journalists began to give our cause some coverage.
By now, it was the early days of the new millennium. The RSA had closed and the massive renovation project was underway. There was still a long way to go, before we were to feel confident about showing on the Mound again.
The first obvious step in raising money was to mount an auction of artists’ work. We knew we’d have the wholehearted support of all the artists who had signed an earlier letter, written and circulated by David, canvassing support for our campaign – even most of the Academicians threw their weight behind this (not surprising really, as most had become Academicians only after having been elected to the other societies).
140 artists generously agreed to donate work to a silent auction which David and I organised in 2002, at Bonhams Auctioneers in Edinburgh and we raised £60,000 for our Exhibition Fund. With a small team of volunteers, we took in the work, photographed it for the website, hung it and staffed the viewing for a week, taking in bids and then notifying the successful bidders. Our second auction in 2005 raised another £32,000 – that was an enormous total of £92,000! We were elated and well on our way to securing the future of the exhibitions.
If it hadn’t been for David Colvin’s selfless commitment to co-ordinating and galvanising our energies, tirelessly persuading politicians and journalists of our cause, we wouldn’t have had the negotiating strength, let alone the means to return to our exhibiting ‘home’ in the Royal Scottish Academy Galleries.
I’ve often thought of David as a cross between a bull-dog and a terrier, in his fearless, unflappable persistence at pinning down officials and institutions on our behalf.
His wry humour and affable style masked a quiet determination and a willingness for work. He understood the Realpolitik of institutions and systems and helped steer ESSA through many shoals. He didn’t seek acclaim or approbation and sought no plaudits for himself.
He enjoyed the fight, the pursuit of a good cause and a principled life. He was one of art’s champions and David, you will be sorely missed.