Margaret Sweetnam

Words by Peter Mitchell

Lighting up life these days in Aberdeen, where there has been more talk of doom and gloom than boom, is the city’s born-again art gallery, an attraction in the city since 1885.

Spreading the joy of its resounding success since reopening last November is Margaret Sweetnam, its marketing and communications manager, who has survived the fraught build-up to the reopening.

Bear in mind her brief also includes promoting the city’s Maritime Museum, the Tolbooth Museum, the iconic Provost Skene’s House which itself is having a major makeover, and the Aberdeen Treasure Hub museum centre in Northfield.

We meet for coffee and a chat in the gallery’s ground-floor café before she whisks me up in the new lift to see further treasures on Level One. The exciting new top level, including the BP Galleries, awaits my next visit.

‘We have been bowled over by the response from the public,’ says Margaret, whose five-year course in fine art at Edinburgh University and the city’s college of art, earned her an MA with honours in 1991.

‘It’s hard to believe we have already had 80,000 visitors in such a short space of time and that many have to come back because there is so much to take in,’ she adds. ‘The sense of civic pride in the place is palpable.’

The £34.6million project has led to a significant increase in the amount of display space for the permanent collections, up to 18 now from 11 four years ago. In addition, the number of items on display has increased threefold in the same time frame to 1,080.

For most people, fine art was the principal feature of the art gallery but that has all changed now, says Margaret, who hails from Musselburgh and has settled very happily in Stonehaven with her Irish husband, Richard, and their three sons. Much more decorative art is now on display, including textiles, jewellery, ceramics and glass, she adds. The Italianate central court has reverted to its original intention of displaying sculpture in all its forms, notably three of the creations of the fabled Dame Barbara Hepworth.

However, joy is not totally unconfined in the portals of Aberdeen Art Gallery. There is the ongoing issue of finding £5million to pay off the last of the bill for this massive undertaking. Says Margaret, ‘This is where we are appealing to our most welcome visitors, for whom entry is free, to find ways of contributing, whether it is by becoming a founder patron, adopting an art work or buying a chair in the Cowdray Hall where concerts are now routinely packed out. Making a cash box donation is also most welcome.’

So there you have it, all good things come at a price. Perhaps the gallery should adopt the slogan: We have the Monet, let’s see your money!

For information on how to visit Aberdeen Art Gallery & Museums go to Open 7 days, admission free @AbdnArtMuseums

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