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Down at the DCA;Arts

A contemporary arts centre has opened in Dundee, and there's not a formaldehyde cow in sight. Deedee Cuddihy goes to have a look

We knew we'd have to work hard to attract people who might not think there would be anything for them in a place like this," says Andrew Nairne, director of the new Dundee Contemporary Arts centre. "People who associate the words 'contemporary arts' with bits of cow floating in jars.

We wanted them in from the very beginning."

Andrew Nairne and his staff weren't sure how many visitors would turn up when the pound;9 million centre opened its doors to the public at the end of March. In the event, thousands came during the first weekend, far exceeding their expectations. People queued up to get into the galleries and cinemas, to have a go at printmaking, view videos and consult art books in the information room. They sipped cappuccinos in the cafe-bar and explored the ultra-modern but user-friendly premises.

The response from family groups, as well as the trendy young, was all they could have hoped for. A haunting photograph of Dundee's Tay railway bridge, which features in "Prime", the centre's inaugural exhibition of painting, sculpture, photography, video and installation (until May 9), and was used on publicity posters and guides weeks before the opening has proved so popular that postcards of it have almost sold out at the DCA shop.

Staff are particularly keen to get children, from pre-schoolers upwards, involved in the visual arts. Proof of their determination was evident in the programme of weekend and Easter holiday activities, including painting, printmaking and photographic workshops, tours of the building and its facilities and movie matinees featuring animation work from local primary schools.

The centre's success is due, in no small part, to careful planning and hard work. Outreach work in schools and community groups began months ago, as did the Artlinks project, organised by the centre's development team. Ten artists visited each of Dundee's 10 secondary schools and 12 of the 41 primary schools to talk about themselves, their work and contemporary visual art. Between now and the end of the summer term, classes that participated will visit the centre, where their particular artist will give them a tour of the building and the current exhibition, ending with a talk in the Atlantic Telecom Activity Room (named after the company that is sponsoring the community and education programme for its first two years).

Andrew Nairne expects to use some of that sponsorship to fund a visual arts education officer. "Ideally, contact with a contemporary artist should become part of the expressive arts curriculum for all schools in Dundee rather than the present situation, which is very much a case of 'You were lucky - you were in P3b the year they did that project'," he says.

"We want to motivate teachers to become more enthusiastic about contemporary arts - exhibitions are open until 7.30pm and there is a full programme of evening and weekend talks and workshops. We also want to support the work of those teachers who are already keen. Long before the centre opened, we began meeting the teachers responsible for visual arts and giving them tours of the building."

An education pack is in the pipeline, but won't be published until the DCA has had more feedback from schools about what they really want from their local arts centre.

Dundee Contemporary Arts Centre, 152 Nethergate, Dundee DD1 4DY.

Schools wishing to book a tour of the centre or discuss project ideas should contact the development team, tel: 01382 432000

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