Opinion: Bringing culture and life to Aberdeen and ensuring its future success

Wednesday 08 November 2023

Image shows Sally Reaper, Director of Look Again at Gray's School of Art
Writing in the Press and Journal, Director of Look Again at Gray’s School of Art, Sally Reaper, highlights how bringing culture and life to Aberdeen is essential for the city’s future success.

As a proud Aberdonian, I am honoured to work in the arts, serving as the Director of Look Again at Gray’s School of Art, where I trained.

My journey in the arts began during my time at Northfield Academy, where I was fortunate to have inspirational teachers who not only nurtured but also ignited my passion for pursuing a career in the arts. They went beyond the confines of the curriculum, introducing me to artists and designers who were pushing the boundaries of artistic expression. I owe them a debt of gratitude for encouraging me to pursue my passion and become the first member of my family to attend university.

My educational journey took a significant leap forward at Gray’s School of Art, where I had the privilege of learning from renowned artists such as Joyce W Cairns, a powerhouse in the field of painting. My time at Gray's provided me with the strong educational foundation needed to take the next steps in my artistic career, leading to my acceptance into the prestigious Slade School of Fine Art in London. This was a pivotal moment in my career, providing me with exposure to a wide range of cultural experiences from diverse backgrounds.

My experiences at the Slade School of Fine Art fuelled my curiosity to bring experimental culture back to my hometown. Since 2007, I have been working in collaboration with Claire Bruce at Look Again, introducing Aberdeen to a diverse array of alternative cultural experiences. One of our most significant achievements was the inaugural Look Again Visual Art & Design Festival, where we transformed civic statues across the city and invited the public to become ‘tourists in their own city’ and see it through fresh eyes.

The northeast has a rich cultural heritage that has significantly influenced Aberdeen's identity. In the post-pandemic world, and as our city undergoes significant transformational shift, with city masterplans, levelling up and other civic and other societal impacts, I believe Aberdeen is at a turning point. It is paramount that we rejuvenate the city centre, to ensure it becomes more diverse, inclusive, and accessible. 

Arts and culture are intrinsic to a city's essence, offering resilience and the ability to revitalise its spirit. We need to ask ourselves what role can culture play in our city's transformation and how can we embed it in every conversation; in its grit and its glint?

Culture is inclusive and takes on various forms.  For many, attending a football match at Pittodrie is a cherished part of their culture and community. Others find their cultural and communal connection through early Sunday morning swims at Fittie, alongside fellow wild swimmers who share their passion. Personally, I believe culture is inherently tied to community and involves participating in experiences that invigorate one's spirit.

Aberdeen has a thriving grassroots community, actively engaging audiences of diverse backgrounds in places like community centres and cafés.  Numerous local organisations also prioritise community engagement, ensuring that people from various social backgrounds have access to the arts.  

At Look Again, we continue to work hard to maintain our collaboration with the city's residents and visitors to craft the cultural experiences they desire and actively participate in. We are actively revitalising Aberdeen's city centre through various projects, including the ‘at this place’ initiative, to bring culture to unconventional venues like street corners and empty shops.

This approach is helping to break down the stereotype that the arts are exclusive to the elite by making culture more accessible and is fundamental to our mission of safeguarding and fostering creativity. It is also an integral part of Robert Gordon University’s goal to transform the lives of people and communities, and to contribute to the economic, social and cultural development of the region.

It is imperative that we support the sustainability of our creative sector. Key organisations locally and nationally are advocating for the arts, but funding is scarce. To secure the arts' future, we need collaborative efforts among various sectors in Aberdeen to create meaningful partnerships and sustainable models, ensuring creativity continues to thrive.

That’s why Look Again, in partnership with Culture Aberdeen members, is hosting an event called ‘State of Independence’, to engage freelancers across all art forms. As we rebuild our city's cultural landscape, we're keen to understand the evolving needs of the community. Before COVID, high living costs in Aberdeen deterred many new graduates and creatives from staying. Post-COVID, conditions have changed significantly, with new studio options like Deemouth Artist Studios, The Anatomy Rooms, and Outerspaces making affordable, temporary spaces accessible.


Aberdeen presents a unique opportunity as a canvas for experimentation. It's not oversaturated, offering room for innovative endeavours. Our local audiences are open to experimental culture, a quality local and visiting artists also appreciate.

In this evolving landscape, we want to empower the freelance community through 'State of Independence'. This event serves as a platform for collaboration with freelancers and partners, creating economically sustainable opportunities to enable more freelancers to stay, pursue their work, and build artistic careers here.

A second Culture Aberdeen event called ‘Convening Culture’, will bring together key parties in Aberdeen’s cultural ecology, including cultural stakeholders, policy makers and politicians. The event will explore how we can reinforce the value of culture to Aberdeen and embed it for the benefit of participants, audiences, residents, businesses and invested partners.

Through all these events, we hope to establish a diverse and inclusive self-led network for freelancers and amplify freelancers' voices, support access to funding and opportunities.  We will also help inform city organisations and government bodies about the significance of freelancers in the cultural ecology and the importance of culture to the northeast. 

Gallery images taken from the first Culture Aberdeen 'State of Independence' workshop (credit, Bart Grabski at Look Again) including an image with director of Look Again, Sally Reaper (left) and independent cultural consultant and guest speaker, Lara Ratnaraja. Gallery also show's 'Love at First Sight' by Morag Myerscough + Caro&Karo Taxi by Zloto at the Look Again Festival 2019 (credit, Grant Anderson.)


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