When people think about the Scottish art scene, their attention usually turns first to Glasgow, and for good reason. Scotland’s biggest city is home to the prestigious Glasgow School of Art — which has produced five Turner Prize winners and 25 percent of all nominees since 2005 — and the acclaimed contemporary art biennial Glasgow International.
But as the entire nation is experiencing a cultural blossoming, so is its capital, Edinburgh, where, as well as a thriving art scene spread across multiple smaller independent and artist-run spaces, visitors can also see the nation’s historic art treasures in its national galleries.
Here are some of Edinburgh’s best visual-art spots for getting a taste of the city’s scene.
The National Galleries of Scotland runs Scotland’s three national galleries, all in Edinburgh. The Scottish National Gallery and adjoining Royal Scottish Academy (RSA) are in the heart of Edinburgh, just off Princes Street. The Scottish National Gallery holds a permanent collection of fine art, from the Renaissance through the early 20th century, while the RSA hosts rotating contemporary art exhibitions.
Housed in a Gothic-style building in the New Town, the Scottish National Portrait Gallery is home to a remarkable processional frieze that wraps around its Great Hall and depicts 155 figures from Scottish history. While the bulk of its collection focuses on portraits of famous Scots from centuries past, it is continuously updated to include more recent notable faces, such as those of legendary football manager Sir Alex Ferguson and actress Tilda Swinton.
The Scottish National Gallery of Modern Art, which occupies two buildings in the West End, houses a permanent collection of works by major international artists — including a world-famous collection of surrealist art that includes works by Salvador Dalí and René Magritte — as well as rotating exhibitions of contemporary art.
Behind Waverley train station, the Fruitmarket Gallery presents exhibitions by a range of international artists. Recent shows have included drawings by French-American Louise Bourgeois and animated films by South African William Kentridge.
Just around the corner, Stills is Edinburgh’s photography center, while a 10-minute walk south, Dovecote, a century-old tapestry studio housed in a Victorian-era public pool, is home to a gallery showing exhibits of creative arts, crafts and textiles.
Another 15 minutes south, the 600-room multi-arts complex Summerhall produces cutting-edge programming that is particularly supportive of young and emerging artists.
In the district of Leith, in the north of Edinburgh, artist-run Rhubaba provides studio space for 21 artists alongside a program of exhibitions and art events.
Housed in the New Town’s historic Glasite Meeting House, former place of worship for a small Scottish religious sect, Ingleby Gallery hosts an ambitious program of individual and group exhibitions by both established and emerging artists. In the summer, Ingleby also runs a bus service to Little Sparta, a whimsical garden created by Scottish artist Ian Hamilton Finlay in the nearby Pentland Hills.
Eleven miles west of central Edinburgh, Jupiter Artland showcases outdoor works by sculptors and land artists, including Brits Phyllida Barlow and Anish Kapoor. It’s only open May through September, however.
Leith is home to an abundance of street art, viewable year-round, largely courtesy of the LeithLate visual-arts organization’s Mural Project and Shutter Project, which facilitate artworks on locals business’ walls and shutters. Two must-sees are Russell Ian Dempster’s portrait of influential Leith-born pop artist Eduardo Paolozzi and Blameless Collective’s “Leith Aquatic,” which nods to the area’s maritime history. LeithLate publishes a handy map for seeking them out — try to visit early in the morning, before businesses open, to see the shutter works.
Edinburgh is, of course, “Festival City,” and while the Fringe’s performing arts program grabs the majority of attention, visual arts get a look in, too. Many of the above venues provide exhibition settings during the annual Edinburgh Art Festival, which blossoms across the city from July through August with works by dozens of artists (including a dedicated showcase for early career artists), guided tours and talks.
Hosting art, film and music experiences in less-likely venues is the focus of May’s all-volunteer-run Hidden Door. The 10-day-long festival aims to breathe new life into forgotten or abandoned spaces in the city by refurbishing and transforming them into arts venues that can continue to be used even after the festival concludes.