Philip Long opens up to Direction’s Rob Beswick on the tough task of long-time project management, keeping staff motivated and questions over budgets and over-runs as Dundee’s ground-breaking V&A Museum of Design nears completion.
Anyone tasked with managing a work project over a one or two-year timescale knows how challenging it can be. Staying focused over such a long period, driving your team on through the days when it appears no progress is being made, maintaining everyone’s enthusiasm and keeping the overall objective in sight … all while guarding against complacency on delivery dates and remaining vigilant over costs. A tough ask for anyone.
Now take those challenges but up the ante: make your delivery date six / seven years hence… put the whole project in the public domain and in the eye of the media… and oh, drop it in during a period of economic austerity, when someone is ready to comment on every public penny spent. Welcome to the world of Philip Long…
Six years ago he was enticed from his role as Senior Curator at the National Galleries of Scotland to head up Scotland’s most ambitious cultural capital project for decades: to open the world’s first V&A museum outside London, V&A Museum of Design Dundee.
To do so in the heart of traditional centres such as Edinburgh or Glasgow would be hard enough but as everyone knows, those iconic cities were not to be the home of this eye-catching project. Rather, Dundee was an economically depressed city that outsiders may have thought seemed ill-equipped for a capital project of this scale and complexity.
Yet for Philip it was the chance of a lifetime, to be a cornerstone in a city-wide economic regeneration plan that would transform its host city in a way rarely seen in the world, let alone in Scotland or the UK.
Dundee was to be our Bilbao: that proud Basque city that gained new life from the jaw-droppingly ambitious decision to site a new Guggenheim Museum in its heart.
It’s a comparison Philip has heard many times in the six years since he came to Dundee and he acknowledges the similarities. “When the deal was struck to bring the V&A Museum of Design to Dundee it was understood that this was a project planned for a city that in the past had experienced significant difficulties,” he told me. “Its traditional industries had been hit hard. But the city council wasn’t prepared to let that continue. They had a plan to rebuild the city, with its old waterfront at its heart. In the centre of the regeneration was to be V&A Dundee.”
It is fair to say that the project has had its fair share of criticism as well as plaudits since Philip took on his role in 2011, with dark mutterings of budgets being blown and project over-runs. They are criticisms Philip tackles head-on. “It is the nature of these ambitious projects that they have challenges. The ambitious winning design submitted for the museum in 2010 was over budget when tenders were received, so we went back to the drawing board, developed the designs and then looked for additional funding. We worked with the McClelland Report (which helpfully investigated the position) to make sure the project could continue with confidence, and raised the extra money we needed before committing ourselves to the project. We weren’t on site until we had commitments to the funding needed based on actual tenders.”
Since the final design decision was taken, budgets have been met – something that is unusual in any big capital project. “Excuses should not be made for cost over-runs, but it is an inherent risk in projects where something new is trying to be achieved”, Philip says, “particularly with ambitious projects”.
The time taken to bring the V&A Museum of Design to fruition – 11 years, from initial soundings to door openings – is typical of such a cultural project around the world, he points out – but that doesn’t make him any less eager for next year to come around, when he can welcome its first visitors. “We’re in the final stages; the main contract on the building will be completed early next year and we have our first exhibitions lined up – and they’re very exciting!”
For Philip, this is clearly so much more than a job – but has that long gestation period caused problems? “I’ve maintained my focus because I’m so passionate about the museum. I understand its importance to the city and believe we have been given a chance to develop something that’s very special indeed for its people and the wider public.”
But back to the start. 2011, and one imagines Philip walking into a near empty room at Dundee City Council as he began his role as Director of V&A Museum of Design Dundee. First, ‘museum’… is that the best way to describe what we all hope will be an exhilarating and modern collection of exhibits drawn from design geniuses from around the world, but with a particular focus on Scotland?
“Yes, we’re proud to call ourselves a museum. Museums are far more than displays of objects from the past; they are places where all people can go and celebrate their past and use the objects they see to help us understand who we are, where we’ve come from and help prepare us for the future. Museums have a vital ongoing part to play as a contributor to society; they are such a familiar part of our landscape that they are perhaps not always recognised for the role they can play within our community.
“We have thought very hard about the relevance our exhibits will have for our visitors. We want people to come and interpret the past through design to help make sense of the future. And we want to offer as many opportunities as possible for people to get involved in design.
“So, we’re proud to be using the name ‘museum’ – museums remain very relevant and at their best can inspire and change lives.”
As to motivation, “from the very start we’ve had a vision of what we wanted to realise through V&A Museum of Design Dundee. That’s not to say there haven’t been challenging moments along the way. What we’re doing, after all, is creating a new organisation from scratch. That is daunting, but that has also given us a clean sheet, with the potential to develop the project in so many ways.”
Daunting? “Yes, there are moments when it can be. It’s a very substantial task, which has needed excellent project management, which fortunately we have. My role especially has been to keep the team inspired, motivated and focused on the ultimate goal throughout the long haul.”
Philip’s excitement for what lies ahead has clearly been a mainstay of the overall concept, for he believes that when the wraps come off the final museum, “what we’ll have will be extraordinary.”
“We will be in a stunning building which is now nearing completion. That is motivating in itself, but the building is of course only part of the project. Beyond that, there is a compelling reason for V&A Dundee to exist, which has helped us through challenges, and which has helped us attract us support. That, combined with Kengo Kuma’s magnificent building makes it a very exciting project to be involved in.”
The eclectic nature of Philip’s role has brought him into contact with a host of experts from different disciplines, a process that he has thoroughly enjoyed. “At National Galleries I was involved in capital projects but not on this scale. My role has brought me into contact with such a wide cross-section of people – from the artists and designers who will be working in our exhibition spaces to architects, builders, philanthropists, funders and people from across government. It’s been wonderful to meet these people, all with essential contributions to make, with a responsibility to orchestrate all of this as best as possible to a common goal.”
This brings its own challenges for the project leader, though. “It’s been important to make sure all our partners have a voice that fits and is balanced within the overall project vision, and that each of our partners’ contribution is respected. It’s been fascinating developing that process, working with a team full of the most amazing skills vital to the realisation of V&A Dundee.”
“It is complex: multiple partners, multiple funding streams, but at the end of the day the importance of a single vision should pull all that together, one which is aspirational, inspirational and practicably deliverable, one which multiple partners feel happy to sign up to.”
As to the vision: “We have multiple objectives at V&A Dundee, but fundamentally our goal is to enrich lives through design. V&A Dundee will be put to work to help people understand why good design is important every day in people’s lives, in the past, today and in the future, and to make opportunities from this.
Vitally too, it is about making a significant contribution to this city and to its regeneration, and therefore to Scotland more widely. We want to help build ambition and build learning opportunities for people locally and further afield.”
Perhaps the biggest motivator isn’t the museum itself but its potential impact on Dundee. “When we open we want to attract people to the area to enjoy the museum but also to enjoy the region’s other great attractions.”
The masterplan sees V&A Dundee as a cornerstone of a wider economic regeneration programme – but is such a grand scheme best served by a cultural project which, it could be argued, serves a fairly narrow public interest group? Why not build economic regeneration around a new business park, for instance?
“There is often scepticism around major capital investment projects, especially cultural projects, which can be seen as the preserve of the few. I understand that and so we have worked very hard to build support and make sure there is an understanding that this project goes well beyond a narrow cultural experience, and instead has universal relevance.
“And I believe this has worked. If you look at how the museum is perceived by the people of Dundee, it’s overwhelmingly positive. Our newspapers describe it as ‘our pride and joy’ and our audience surveys show a genuine interest and increasing levels of awareness across the country.
“As well as fantastic support from within the city, we’ve also brought new funds in from many sources: Scottish Government, UK Government, heritage funds, regeneration funds, many private donations, money coming here especially because of the museum development.”
The project is also acting as a champion for Dundee: “The idea for the project was founded by local people. Its original champions were the local council and our two universities. There’s now a wide recognition that Dundee is a fantastic place to live and work, that it has moved on from its difficult years. This project helps provide a symbol of that new ambition, helping to contribute to the city’s self-confidence.
“We don’t want the museum to just be a great cultural experience, we want it to help people broaden their horizons and use it to develop their own careers.”
So what concerns him? “There is great anticipation for our opening, and a natural fear is meeting people’s expectations. I want this to be a great success, a success for everybody that has made such a commitment to it. The pressure on all of us therefore is considerable but we do take confidence in the way the museum is developing.”
With any project of this length, establishing a good communications strategy has been vital, and not just keeping people up-to-date with bricks-and-mortar progress. “We’ve been running educational outreach sessions for some time, going out on the road as a ‘museum without walls’.
“Our pre-opening strategy has seen the learning team develop programmes to get people directly involved with learning opportunities linked to design. From the beginning part of our planning has been to have a conversation with people about what they want, not just telling them what we might offer.”
Putting the museum at the centre of Dundonian life is a bold strategy and one that brings with it the inevitable comparisons with Bilbao in Spain, where the opening of the Guggenheim Museum prompted an economic regeneration that continues to this day. “Bilbao is an interesting example for Dundee but we have to be very careful comparing ourselves at this stage, as Bilbao has been an extraordinary success. Plenty of places have tried to emulate the Bilbao model and haven’t achieved that.
“What I would say about Dundee / Bilbao comparisons is, take two cities which had witnessed enormous industrial decline after the Second World War but had the guts and foresight to go out and develop a relationship with an extraordinary cultural institution known throughout the world. And from this develop ambitious cultural projects in cities that were perhaps not the most favoured ones in their country, cities where such ambition might not be expected. That is Bilbao. It is also Dundee.
“People who visit us are struck by our sense of ambition and energy. Dundee is bidding to be the European Capital of Culture in 2023: that’s Dundee, rubbing shoulders with Leeds, Nottingham, Belfast. If you had said, ten years ago, that Dundee was in the running to be the European Capital of Culture, people would have, shall we say, raised an eyebrow, but that’s where we are now.”
That ambition isn’t confined to the V&A Museum of Design, either. “The city is alive with new developments – hotels, new restaurants, a new railway station, a redeveloping docks winning new contracts. There’s a real sense of everyone putting their shoulder to the wheel and backing ‘project Dundee’.”
What has made Bilbao such an icon isn’t just its initial impact, it is its longevity, too, as the Guggenheim has retained its appeal for over 20 years. Can Dundee follow that lead? “Long-term sustainability has always been a main priority but it’s not something I’m afraid of as I know what we have planned in our programme.
“We will bring regularly changing exhibitions to Scotland from the V&A’s fabulous programme, and alongside this tell the extraordinary story of Scotland’s creative design. Our permanent galleries will champion Scottish designs and designers and talk about their global impact in areas as diverse as engineering, shipbuilding, car design, clothing and the digital world.
“We will also generate our own exhibitions with international partners, building new connections that the city can take advantage of.
“We’ll have an exciting programme featuring numerous ways people can get involved, workshops, talks, lectures and a whole host of other events, that will have people wanting to visit again and again.
“Our opening programme is set but we’re not announcing it until nearer the time of opening. I can tell you it’s very exciting and I am very proud of the job the team is doing in bringing this together, while at the same time bringing the building and our new organisation into being”.
“I don’t see V&A Dundee as just a visitor attraction. It is a major new centre which will passionately addresses our understanding of why design is important in people’s lives. We want to explain how design, whether it home-grown talent or from elsewhere around the world makes a difference to all of us every day.
“Design has a vital purpose. Good design makes a life-enhancing contribution – bad design can be damaging and even life-threatening. We want to tell the story of the benefits great design can bring.”
The economic case for creativity and design is well made and the museum will champion it, Philip says. “Design is an important part of economy as a whole. Creative industries – and by that I don’t mean the traditionally defined creative industries, but all businesses that are creative in the way they think – are more innovative, profitable, more sustainable and better employers.
“We are establishing Design for Business, a programme for businesses that encourages wider understanding of the design-thinking process, enabling them to use design creativity as a fundamental part of their business process.”
For Philip, managing this cultural juggernaut on its steady journey from the drawing board to opening night has been an inspirational ride, but one that has placed a great emphasis on his own leadership skills. To manage such a process, “ the direction I have taken is to be consultative, motivational and inspirational. There are so many strands to hold together, and with such a pressure to deliver across a long period, renewed motivation is vital if everyone is to continuously give their all.
“I’ve focused on bringing everyone together. Leadership of such a project has, of course, its challenges and I have learnt a great deal along the way, particularly the responsibility to balance a consultative, creative approach with clear responsibilities and decision making. Being quick to understand when there are difficulties, not be afraid to say so, identify solutions and act upon them is an essential quality in projects such as this!
“For V&A Dundee to be a creative institution that inspires all who will visit, our management approach has had to be as creative as the designs we want to exhibit. There should be room for everyone to have their own voice and be heard, and that was especially the case in our early days when we were a very small team. Our staff is larger now as we prepare for opening, and it is a daily pleasure seeing the difference it makes to the project as we bring in the expertise, experience and skills needed to run a new museum in the 21st century. But also, ultimately, responsibility ends with me.”
That leads to the inevitable ‘what keeps you up at night’ question: “Probably when the project looks like becoming disjointed and runs the risk of losing momentum, which is discouraging to all. It’s difficult when you have multiple strands that need to be developed and multiple dependencies stemming from them – all have to be joined together to fulfil our one vision. It’s challenging but we’re making it work, not just for the museum but for Dundee, too.”
“We have an amazing history of creativity in Scotland and the V&A will celebrate that and help people learn from it.
“If we understand how creative we have been as a nation, then that puts us in a much stronger position to be highly creative in the future, and more enterprising.
“That’s more vital now than ever, when we are asking what our future industries will look like and how we’ll handle the economic challenges ahead.”